Extreme poverty in Nigeria: Are human rights part of the answer?

A new report by the Brookings Institution points out that Nigeria has become the country with the largest number of people living in extreme poverty. Extreme poverty is defined as living on less than $1.90 (£1.46) a day and according to the latest figures, around 44% of Nigerians (87 million people) are currently surviving on less than that amount. This is despite the country having vast reserves of oil and being Africa’s largest oil producer.

Sadly, Nigeria is simply symptomatic of the story across much of Africa. The Democratic Republic of Congo—another resource rich African country with vast reserves of diamonds, gold, copper oil and timber—is projected to soon become the country with second largest number of people still living in extreme poverty. This is an alarming picture given that two-thirds of the world’s poorest people live in Africa and 14 of the 18 countries with increasing levels of poverty are all in Africa. As if that wasn’t alarming enough, projections by the Brookings Institution suggest that by 2030, 90% of people living in extreme poverty will be in Africa.

The right to live a life free of poverty is a well-recognised one. Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that everyone has ‘the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services.’ Because of the recognition of this right, the UN in 2015 adopted Sustainable Development Goals and Goal No 1 was that ‘By 2030, eradicate extreme poverty for all people everywhere.’ This is clearly not going to happen if projections by Brookings Institution are anything to go by.

Extreme poverty is therefore emerging to be the defining challenge of our time. The UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights has concluded that ‘extreme poverty involves a lack of income, a lack of access to basic services and social exclusion’ and to that can be added a lack of dignity and respect. This is compounded by the fact that poverty can be both a cause of human rights violations and a consequence. This makes those living in extreme poverty especially vulnerable—often at the receiving end of other human rights violations and unable to enforce such rights as they may have. This leaves such people marginalised and isolated. Conversely, those whose rights are enforced would be more empowered, with access to more means to make a living and therefore able to make more contributions to the development of their communities.

Accordingly, any attempt to tackle extreme poverty, be it in Nigeria or across Africa must look at human rights and the rule of law as a development issue. With Europe and much of the Western world alarmed by increasing levels of economic migration from sub-Saharan Africa, one way of combating migration would be to use human rights and the rule of law to reduce extreme poverty.


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