Sapping Nigeria's Poor

new internationalist
issue 208 - June 1990

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Sapping Nigeria's poor
Prayer, magic and economic austerity are all thought of as remedies for
the same ill in one busy Lagos house. Elizabeth Obadina reports.

The rhetoric was fine: the reality of SAP was a disaster. The day starts early at Number 11 Adekunle Street in Abule Village, Lagos. Muslim clerics herald in the dawn, with a call to prayer which is answered nowadays by Muslims and Christians alike. Religion has boomed in the four years since the Structural Adjustment Programme (SAP) was introduced to solve Nigeria's economic problems: most Nigerians trust GOD more than SAP to deliver them from poverty.

By the time dawn breaks over the unfinished concrete building which is Number 11, most residents have washed, worshipped and are battling with bus queues on the long trek to work. 'I can't stay in the house after five,' says Dominic Anyim, the 29-year-old driver who occupies the back room. 'I have to report for work at 730am. If I leave at six, I can spend an hour waiting for a bus.'

Someone else who suffers from the bus shortage is Mary Ogunbemi, the 15-year-old schoolgirl who lives downstairs with her family. She endures four hours walking to and from school. Either she spends her 50 kobo (12.5 cents) on breakfast -or on a bus fare.

Public-transport cuts, executed as part of the SAP strategy to reduce public spending, are acutely felt by Lagos' seven million inhabitants. Only government and military functionaries travel easily around the city as armed police and soldiers push ordinary road users aside to allow official convoys with flashing lights and blaring sirens to get through.

Last year's anti-SAP riots resulted in the highly publicized donation of new buses from the military government as 'SAP-relief'. President Ibrahim Babangida even called off a state visit to France because he was so alarmed by the speed with which the protests spread through Nigeria's southern cities.

'SAP is death', 'We say no to SAP' and 'We are hungry' were the rallying cries of the rioters. They burnt government buildings, and caused frightened men in uniform to undress and scurry back to their barracks and police stations in mufti. 'Everyone packed out of school that day,' says Mary, 'and we plucked green leaves to show that we supported the students'.

But it was hunger, not transport problems, that really spurred the protests. Mary never eats meat, and hardly any eggs, while Dominic says 'I only eat one meal a day now and chew kola nuts to keep me going.' Last July, Dominic sent his wife home to her parents in Ghana because feeding their baby was becoming too costly.

In the room across from Dominic live Baba Ali and his wife Grace with their one-year-old baby. 'I had to leave my job as .a security man with Yamaha motor bikes because they only paid me 125 naira ($15) a month, which couldn't keep my family,' says Baba Ali. 'Now I have to mend shoes for a living.'

Malnutrition is now a leading cause of death among patients at the Lagos University Teaching Hospital. A quarter of all Nigerian children suffer from it and a full 16 per cent need immediate medical attention as a result.

Education has been 'sapped' too. Free universal primary education has existed in Nigeria since the 1970s. But last year primary-school enrolment plummeted 20 per cent in Lagos as parents withdrew their children to send them to the villages or put them to work. Although the Government insists that SAP is Nigerian-designed and not imposed by the International Monetary Fund or World Bank, the country needs IMF and World Bank approval for its economic policies just to get debt relief from Western creditor nations.

Initially SAP was popular with ordinary people. It promised to restructure the economy away from total dependence on oil revenues. Self-reliance was the message propagated.

Baba Ali still thinks it would have worked but for corruption among Nigerian officials. And certainly corruption and an inadequate infrastructure have scared foreign investors away. But also under SAP, foreign exchange has not really benefited ordinary people. Fully 31 per cent of foreign-exchange earnings in 1990 will go to service the billion-dollar national debt, instead of to bolster the country's human resources.

Health care is another area that has suffered. Mary and 11-year-old Godwin are fostered by their auntie. She used to run a shop but now she has got stomach cancer and is too ill to run the business full-time. Under SAP most of Nigeria's 21 states have abolished free health care and slashed the already inadequate resources given to public hospitals.

'Auntie sees the railway doctor which is free, but travelling the 12 miles tires her. The doctor says she should rest. So when Godwin and I have finished selling fruit in the evening, we look after the shop until 9.30,' says Mary. The shop used to close earlier but there's no market now,' she adds.

'No market' is a refrain that haunts Number 11. Madam Olowoporku is the landlady of the house, and a trader. Originally she planned to build Number 11 as a new family home. But last year under SAP the price of cement rose from 50 cents a bag to $16.88. And the market for her goods dwindled to almost nothing. Today she barely earns enough to maintain her immediate family let alone provide the 2,500 naira ($312) her 24-year old son Tayo needs for the tools to set up as a mechanic. The market squeeze has also thwarted the ambitions of 16-year old Sunday Fadeyi, who is trying to earn enough to become a 'wirer' or motor electrician in his home town. Sunday lives off one dollar a day, which he earns carrying loads at the vegetable market. Recently he obtained a charmed iron 'juju' ring 'to make money stay in my pocket'.

For the residents of 11 Adekunle Street, the SAP years have brought hunger, dashed ambitions, insecurity and splintered families. 'Since SAP there is not enough money,' says Mary. 'Before we used to get new clothes and shoes at Christmas. This year I got clothes and no shoes. Godwin got shoes and no clothes. And auntie's daughter got nothing. They say things will be better in 1992. But will they?' The question hangs.

Elizabeth Obadina is a regular contributor to the NI based in Lagos.


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The problem
Frequently African countries have tried to reverse their economic decline by following World Bank and IMF advice and implementing Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAPs). Many have ended up worse off as a result. And the social cost has been enormous. Heatth and education schemes, subsidies, services and environmentally sustainable rural development have all been slashed. And as usual the poor have suffered most.


The facts

  • By 1988 nearly 30 African countries were implementing Structural Adjustment Programmes.
  • The economies of 19 African countries with 'strong' adjustment programmes contracted by an overall average 1.5% a year between 1980 and 1987, while 12 countries with 'weak' or no programmes expanded by an average 1.2% a year.


The way forward
African economies must become more self-reliant and depend less on the West for aid and fair commodity prices. They should diversify to satisfy home markets. Multinational investments should be discouraged and industries should be built on locally available materials to meet primary local needs like housing, shelter and clothing. African economies should become export- rather than import-based, turning to each other for markets, finance and technical help. That means strengthening co-operation between them, beginning by taking a united stand on the repayment (or non-repayment) of foreign debts.

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