By: Israel Umoh
Of the different classes of Nigerians, the hewers of wood in Nigerian society are seen as the least. They are endangered species of society. They are the most oppressed and deprived as well. They do menial jobs just to eke out a living; others are incapable to work due to illness. Access to high-quality medical facilities, accommodation and education is a luxury to them. They are voiceless, though they are in the majority. In fact, they are the poor among the poorest.
Living does not make sense to them. Sometimes, they feel that they are existing on this earth. They believe in what could be likened to “Point-and-kill” means of livelihood- hand-to-mouth. “What am I living for? What is the usefulness of my existence?” are some questions on their lips when they are confronted with stark realities and challenges of life.
Poverty has phases: extreme, deep, abject, absolute, destitution, and penury. According to estimates from the World Data Lab’s Poverty Clock, about 89.9 million people representing about 50 per cent of its 180 million live in extreme poverty. This inversely means that every poor person earns $1 daily. Nigeria may be home to a quarter of the world’s population of poor … population five times the size of Nigeria’s) in early 2018, predicted Brookings Institution.
Nigeria had one of the world’s highest economic growth rates, averaging 7.4%. According to a 2018 report by the World Bank, almost half the population is living below the international poverty … The Poverty Line in Nigeria, which is the amount of income in which anybody below is classified as in poverty. President Muhammadu Buhari’s administration had pledged to lift 100 million Nigerians from poverty in 2020, particularly providing unemployment to pull out many Nigerians from poverty.
Enter the COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic grew wings, decimating thousands. Nigeria that was already on the threshold of extreme poverty has been severed. The pandemic has become a coffin to the poor. Before this time, most Nigerian hospitals were mere consulting rooms and medical doctors, nurses and other medical professionals were leaving in droves to foreign countries to seek greener pastures.
To mitigate the virus, the US donated $2.6 billion and the European Union doled out €50 million to the Nigerian government. Chinese government shipped into the country medical equipment worth billions of naira. On its part, the Federal Government released N15 billion for the pandemic fight. The Federal Government under Social Investment Programme has paid N20,000 to each vulnerable. The All Progressives Congress in the state has directed the submission of 50 of its members per ward to the national body for palliatives.
From Akwa Ibom, United Bank for Africa gave N28.5 million and Niger Delta Development Commission N100 million to the state government for the pandemic fight. Akwa Ibom Professionals in Lagos donated some medical equipment worth millions. Rivers State doled out N2 billion to provide palliatives to the vulnerable during the coronavirus lockdown. Akwa Ibom set up and inaugurated a 10-member COVID-19 relief material disbursement committee for the 31 local government areas. The Peoples Democratic Party government says it has taken palliatives to 3,000 vulnerable. From its purse, the Akwa Ibom government has not announced how much it has spent on the palliative items.
True, no government made preparations for the novel coronavirus. True, the state government renovated some hospitals. Before the pandemic, did the state government properly equip the renovated hospitals and were other hospitals renovated? Was abandoned General Hospital, Ikot Akpa Nkuk completed? What happened to Maternal and Child Health Comprehensive Centres at local government headquarters, clinics and health sub-posts in a few clans and villages ever equipped?
The distribution of the palliative items- rice, beans, garri, flour, among others- is ongoing. Yet, some among the poorest are said not be benefiting from the palliatives. Callers in different radio stations complained about the shoddy manner the distribution is being handled by some politicians. According to them, the palliatives have turned to articles of political campaigns.
The real beneficiaries should be the poor among the poorest living in villages and slums, not the pot-bellied and urbane politicians. The vulnerable are the hewers of wood in society. They are the malnourished children, wretched elderly, poor retirees, socio-economically disadvantaged, underinsured or those with certain medical conditions, the helpless physically challenged, the least income earner and the jobless.
Despite the palliatives, the hewers of wood are coffined by COVID-19. The pandemic lockdown has hemmed in the hewers of wood. They are primed by inept leadership both at the Federal and state levels. Hunger, hardships, difficulties, limitations are their coffins- albatross. Like cocaine, the poor are in a relish for receiving the palliatives. After cooking and eating, they come to the realisation how more burdens, sufferings, and hardships are gawking them on their faces. What is expected to be an elixir has become a pain on the neck.
Poverty, a tenuous word, is deepening in several strata of the society. But then, the government can reduce, not eradicate poverty by provision of clean water and nutritious food, access to livelihoods or jobs, adequate housing accommodation or home, reduction of inter-village or tribal conflicts, equitable distribution of wealth, quality but free education, reduction of climate change, provision of infrastructure.
It is not enough for the state government to be totally concerned with the provision of palliatives to the poor, which provide temporary reliefs, not a permanent solution, to the beneficiaries. Seriously, the pandemic lockdown has affected many formal and informal businesses, though the informal bear much brunt. If the virus moves from mild to severe stage, then many businesses would go into extinction, thus compounding the already worsening unemployment market.
To bring out the hewers of wood from penury, the Federal Government has to set up a Price Stabilisation Commission made up of eminent persons to force down the astronomical prices of goods and services. Already, the inflation spike stands at 13.5 per cent due to panic buying during the lockdown and may soon move to 15 per cent.
The various state governments including Akwa Ibom must emulate Federal Government’s N-Power Scheme by paying monthly unemployment stipends to the jobless particularly to graduates of tertiary institutions. In addition, the states should provide ad hoc jobs for some people.
The pandemic should be seen as a blessing in disguise. It is a period for states to do self-introspection of their activities and re-adjust programmes and policies to reduce the poverty rate in their states.
Let the governors use the lockdown period to fix medical, economic, educational and policy problems in their states in case the pandemic becomes severe.
Let the various governments account for the various proceeds accrued to them during this period and how well they have used the proceeds to positively impact the lives of the poorest.
The COVID-19 has forced down the price of crude oil which, in return, has caused the Federal Government to slash its budget size and will indirectly affect the monthly allocations to states. Some formal jobs will be affected. And the crime rate will go up. Let the states show capacity in leadership and efficiency in the management of human and economic resources.
Moreover, the Federal Government has to step up anti-corruption fight to collect funds for other projects. Stop going for external or internal loans. Do not dip hands again in the Sovereign Wealth Funds to five states funds in the name of cushioning the effect of the pandemic, else the hewers of wood will pay for the blind profligacy. By so doing, the poorest will stand atop during and after the pandemic period.