Friday, May 29, 2009

In El Dorado yet?

Today marks the tenth anniversary of that historic event - the uninterrupted democratic rule in Africa's most populous country. A significant day indeed in Nigeria's political history. For the first time since its independence in 1960, Nigeria celebrates ten years of uninterrupted democratic existence.

In his farewell speech on May 28, 1999, the then Head of State, General Abdulsalami Abubakar declared that it was time for the military to return to its constitutional role of defending the country's territorial integrity and sovereignty. According to him,"We must subject ourselves completely to civil authority. This is a sacred duty to which we must bind ourselves. It is our best guarantee to earn and retain the respect of our people. It is also your best chance for earning the approbation of the rest of a fast, changing world, in which new political and social values are transcendent."

In his acceptance speech titled "Restoration of confidence in government" former President Olusegun Obasanjo, himself a former military administrator acknowledged, that he was well aware of the lack of confidence the people had in the government arising from the “bad faith and deceit of past administrations". He then promised to implement quickly and decisively, measures that would restore confidence in governance. He went ahead to list as his administration's priority, the issue of Food Supply, Restoration of Law and order, Education, Macro-economic policies, Supply and Distribution of Petroleum Products, and poverty alleviation amongst others. Obasanjo spent eight years before handing over to the incumbent President Umaru Musa Yar'Adua who came out with a Seven-Point Agenda listed as Power and Energy, Food Security and Agriculture, Wealth Creation and Employment, Mass Transportation, Land Reform and Security.

Clearly none of these major undertakings of the government so far as we see from the lists above has been explicitly targeted at families. There has rather been a broad focus on strengthening the nation’s economy, maintaining civil order amongst the various ethnic groups and the alleviation of poverty. However a closer and more conscious examination of the aforementioned government’s agenda reveals relationships between government’s policies in the last decade and families. For instance the Universal basic education scheme launched by Obasanjo in 1999 was programmed to cater for a child’s education for nine years, i.e. from primary school to the end of the junior secondary school (middle school). It is free as well as compulsory. It is government’s expectation that this educational reform would enable Nigeria cater for its future professional needs and ensure national integration and development. However this policy also goes further to address family needs implicitly, since every family can now afford to educate their child for free, for the first nine years. It is noteworthy that the economic and poverty alleviation policies in the last decade have also had similar implicit impacts on family life.

So unlike in the U.S. where state legislative leaders have called child and family issues a “sure-fire vote winner” and in which “political interests in children and families ebbs and flows…and may now be at its highest peak in the last twenty years” (Bogenschnider); in Nigeria we hope we get to that point soon, where we can have Family policies with explicitly oriented family goals. This seems inevitable indeed, since social policies are sadly not keeping up with the changing circumstances of the present day families. A most troubling question is that of poverty. Never have we experienced the prevailing level of financial difficulties for individual families and whole communities, in spite of the fact that earnings in the last decade have quadrupled.

But Senate Spokesman, Senator Ayogu Eze, says hey! all is not bad for the decade of democracy in Nigeria. "It has been good but that does not mean that there have been no challenges especially in the areas of infrastructure and poverty eradication. Of course, there is no country where poverty has been wiped out totally”.Yeah right... so well…we certainly are not in El Dorado yet. However there still are reasons to celebrate, there is the fact that for the first time since it became a country, Nigeria is spending its 10th uninterrupted year of civilian rule and within that stretch of time, has held three successful elections, the last being the first transition from one civilian administration to another, in the 49 - year-history of the country. Opinion leaders are also generally happy with the civilian rule on ground, acknowledging that it is the only form of governance that can guarantee an improved economy and the triumph of the will of the people through genuine representation at all tiers of government as enshrined in democratic tenets. And indeed many will conclude that the atmosphere of freedom alone, which had eluded the country for so long, is worth toasting to. So cheers!

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

The greatest challenge

Unlike families in the U.S. which face a number of significant challenges ( Bogenschnider chapters 1 & 2 ), poverty is the greatest challenge facing families in the developing world.

In 1960 when Nigeria gained her independence from the British and for the most part of the 60s, efforts towards eradicating poverty were centered on education, which was considered as the sure path towards the intellectual and economic advancement of the nation. The often quoted mantra by Nigeria’s first (and civilian) president at the time, Nnamdi Azikiwe was “show the light and the people will find the way”. Hence alongside agricultural extension services geared towards increased food production were, educational programs.

Then came the military regimes and the oil boom in the 70s, which changed this outlook. At the time the GNP per capita rose from $360 to over $1000, however by the time oil prices fell in the 80s GNP per capita fell to $370 (Federal Office of Statistics, 1990), at the same time the population of the poor grew from 15% to 28%. This figure has since been on the increase. Over the decades the persistence of poverty in the country has been traced to bad governance, low productivity and the lack of development of other sectors since the oil boom era, as well as unfocused government policies.

Unlike in the U.S., where the government debates on whether or not to get involved with families, successive governments in Nigeria have continuously tried their hands at the difficult task of reducing the level of poverty affecting individuals and families. The poverty alleviation measures implemented so far have focused more on growth, basic needs and rural development approaches. The first of such efforts was the Operation Feed the Nation (OFN), which was launched by General Olusegun Obasanjo in 1979. This program had as its goal an increase in food production, with the assumption that the availability of cheap food would lead to higher nutritional levels, which would translate into national growth and development.

However since 1983, a lack of continuity and shift in approach has trailed the poverty alleviation programs in the country. Each military administrator came with his own distinct idea of how to approach the problem. The impacts of each program were therefore minimal owing to their brief life spans and shortcomings in their implementation. While programs have collapsed one after another, one remains till date – The National Directorate of Employment (NDE), founded by the Babangida administration has been around for 23 years.

The NDE was launched at a time when the administration viewed unemployment as a major issue threatening the agenda of the government, since it posed as a danger to the economic and socio-political stability of the nation. The NDE was therefore designed to execute programs to curtail unemployment and articulate policies aimed at developing other work programs. Several poverty alleviation programs have come and gone with successive regimes over the years, most noticeable of these are the Better Life for Rural women and the Family Support Program (FSP). These programs incorporated a gender dimension into their strategies on the premise that women required special attention as a result of their immense contributions both as home makers and small scale entrepreneurs. These however suffered the same fate as past anti-poverty programs, i.e. coming to an end with the regime that had brought about their existence.

Taking cognizance of the tale of past programs and with the advent of the democratic rule in 1999, the administration set out a central coordination point for all its antipoverty efforts. This step was taken to avoid a duplication of agencies, which had also been blamed for past failures. The country has also subscribed to the United Nation’s millennium goals of halving global poverty by 2015, which has led to her outlining of a new poverty reduction strategy involving the Government and the poor as stakeholders working together to make progress. Many have voiced faith in this new collaboration which is believed if well managed will bear evident will fruit in the several poor families and the nation at large.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Transiting for better or worse?

As in most Western societies, families in the U.S. have undergone dra­matic changes as Zimmerman illustrates in chapters two and three. He gives an overview of family trends in the U.S. and some factors which have contributed to the present state of affairs. The readings place significant emphasis on the impact of political actions on family life, and the continuous debates on whether or not the government should be involved in family life.

The story line however differs in Nigeria, which like some other non-Western countries, experiences minimal government involvement in family life. This may be attributed to the long years of military rule characterized by a disconnect between the government and the governed, and the extended family system which serves as a form of social insurance or traditional safety net for orphans, widows ,the aged and other persons in need of support. Although this social phenomenon i.e. the extended family system has been largely successful in safeguarding family life, it is pertinent to note that it is gradually being eroded by forces of “modernization”.

As a result of urbanization, migration and associated economic factors, there has been an increase in the nuclear family type, commonly referred to as the “me, my wife and my children” structure. Although this functions slightly differently from the nuclear family in Western nations, as a result of traces of the extended family system of being “our brothers’ keepers”, nonetheless it has resulted in fundamental changes in the society. These include delayed marriages, lower rates of polygamy, growing acceptability of contraceptive use, lesser commitment to a large family size and declining incidences of co-residency between family relatives.

These transitions in the family structure, while causing a continuous disintegration of the extended family system and the communal sense of living, which is charaterized by altruism has subsequently contributed to an increase in the poverty levels. To improve the living condition of all persons and achieve the target of halving poverty by the year 2015 according to the United Nations Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), there has indeed arisen the need for an urgent redirection and refocus on the issues of families in Nigeria and the sub-Saharan region of Africa to address the increasing changes in family structures which has brought about new challenges for society. While religious institutions, which have great influence over the populace and several non-government organizations have actively taken up this hydra-headed challenge of safeguarding family life, it seems that the present democratic government may in some way have to intervene in salvaging the situation.

(Do look up the blog posts of January to get an overview of family life in Nigeria)