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FRANK TALK: Between poverty and extreme poverty

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By Steve Nwosu

I had delayed the writing of this column until Wednesday, when I expected that ministers designate would be handed their portfolios. But I waited, glued to the TV, all morning until the end of the event. Yet, I did not see any portfolios exchanging hands, not even ordinary portmanteau. If I had known they did not have any portfolios at the Villa, I would have, at least, gone home to bring my old boarding house portmanteau. Mtcheew.

So, I guess there is nothing to write about the swearing-in, except to notice that the new ministers were being congratulated. One such message even described the appointment as a ‘just reward’ for the hard work and sacrifice. And there I was, thinking that the appointment was a call to service. I did not know it was just repayment for the work the appointees had already done. So, this is now time for them to enjoy – not suffer, work, or sacrifice. No wonder the late Chief Sunday Afolabi was angry that he and other PDP chieftains did the work and Bola Ige was invited (as a minister) to ‘come and chop’. Now, I won’t be disappointed if a minister does not perform. After all, he has done all the work before now, and is only expected to sit back and enjoy his/her ‘reward’.

For this week, therefore, I would rather focus on the poverty and hunger in the land. By poverty, I do not mean the kind of poverty that has seen some 80 of my kinsmen turning up on FBI’s most-wanted list of cybercrime infamy in far away United States. I’m not talking about the ‘poverty’ that has seen young men and women selling off their ancestral lands to finance boat trips to Europe, or young unskilled men abandoning school to run to South Africa and join drug cartels. That one is greed. But that’s topic for another day.

But there is indeed poverty in the land; no doubt about it.  In fact, the poverty is so serious that even our Next Level government has been forced to distinguish between ‘poverty’ and ‘extreme poverty’. Those of us, who are poor, have been abandoned to our fate. In fact, we can consider ourselves lucky, and privileged, as Vice President Yemi Osinbajo is busy tackling the problems of those in the extreme poverty category. Only recently, he boldly announced to the whole world that the Buhari administration had successfully pulled over five million Nigerians out of “extreme poverty”.

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Yes, they have moved from being extremely poor to just being poor. The government achieved this feat largely through several poverty elevation (sorry, alleviation) interventions, notably the N10,000 TraderMoni policy. Yes, N10,000 handout given to a few starving Nigerians, after four years of the ‘Change’ government, and on the eve of another general elections, automatically lifted the recipients out of poverty. Curiously, the same TraderMoni is just getting to Bayelsa State, where governorship election holds in November.

Hopefully, by the end of the tenure of the Buhari presidency, we would have moved from extreme poverty to ‘regular poverty’. Then, we can begin to look at what the United Nations describes as poverty. Then, we would calculate how many $2 per day we have in our N10,000 TraderMoni.

I was a poor student of arithmetic, but given an exchange rate of N360 to the dollar, N10,000 would come to about $28. In other words, while the UN considers $2/day as the poverty threshold, our TraderMoni puts the beneficiaries on $7/year – considering that it has only come once in four years. I laugh in vernacular!

In fact, I should even be proud that I am poor because we’re in a regime where it is becoming almost criminal to be rich. For in these times, everyone who has some money automatically becomes branded as corrupt. And could expect august visitors at anytime – the kind of visitors that our judges once hosted. The ones who recently visited former Lagos State governor, Akinwunmi Ambode, but soon began to deny that they did. Thank God Ambode’s kinsmen, who literally aborted the Epe misadventure, did not go beyond deflating the tyres of the visitors’ operational vehicles. We would have had a completely different narrative. But, I’m digressing from my poverty topic.

Yes, we now live in times where we proudly flaunt our poverty – which explains why VP Osinbajo felt that PMB deserves our plaudits for being poorer now than he was when he first became president. And here was I, thinking that it is the public till that runs the expenses of every president: his travels, his medical bills, his family, feeding, school fees, etc. I was erroneously thinking that we paid our presidents a salary and security vote. I did not know that all these were nowhere near what he earned from his 120 cows and the little pension we used to pay him, as retired General and former head of state. How so ignorant I was!

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It is because I feel we should all be happy and content in our widespread national poverty that I have refused to show any sympathy to those 77 Igbo people, who have gone to disgrace us before the FBI in far-away America. Very soon too, the people in Germany, who used New Yam to set bait for Senator Ike Ekweremadu, would also cite poverty for the IPOB action there.


The Motor Park Economics and the N614bn bailout

Of course, the credit for this headline belongs to the late celebrated columnist, Ashikiwe Adione-Egom   – the Motor Park Economist. But I cannot think of a better headline to capture my ignorance, and befuddlement, following the decision of the Presidency, last week, to deduct from source,  N614 billion (of the N1.1 trillion) it advanced to 35 states, as budget support facility. The monies came in the form of loans, bailouts, Paris Club refunds, etc. Each of the 35 states is liable to the tune of N17.5 billion.

Of course, it is only proper that whoever borrows money should repay. But my confusion arises from the fact that the Federal Government, which is now posturing as having lent money to the states, is actually not the owner of the money. The bulk of the money came from the Excess Crude Account (ECA), jointly owned by the federal, state and local governments. That ECA also includes the 13% derivation due to oil-producing states. Incidentally, this joint account, which the Federal Government/Presidency has illegally been dipping its hands into, without recourse to the other joint owners, is what it is now claiming to be its money. And that the ‘small change’ it gave to the other co-owners must now be repaid by them. How does withdrawing your money domiciled in a particular bank translate to borrowing it from that bank? How do you become a debtor by just taking a little from your own money to solve a pressing problem? Confusing! If there is an agreement that whoever takes money out of the joint account must repay, then it’s not only the states that should be making repayments.

So, when will the Presidency pay back the ones it had been withdrawing from the same account all this while. Recall that it was from that same account that the Presidency withdrew about $1 billion for its military expedition against insurgents. And that was a little before the last general elections – which made the opposition allege that the money was for election purposes and not for any war on terror.

What happens to the state that did not take the bailout, for instance? It’s all making me dizzy. I guess that’s why I still don’t know the difference between the balance sheet and P&L report. Once money gets beyond what my back pocket can contain, I’m lost. I guess that’s why there are such professionals, as accountants. I’ll happily remain pocket economist – or worst, a motor park economist, where all I get to hear is ‘owo chairman’, ‘owo load’, ‘owo union’, ‘owo weekend’, ‘owo boys’, etc. Don’t ask me to translate. Just know that ‘owo’ means ‘money. Owo da?