Page last updated at 11:17 GMT, Saturday, 21 July 2007 12:17 UK

Optimism on Nigeria's war on poverty

Nigeria has been the source of more bad news than good recently. But our correspondent Mark Doyle says meeting two very impressive Nigerians in the last week has put him in a much better mood.

Oil pipelines in Nigeria
Nigeria is one of the world's largest oil producers

Let's be honest, Nigeria has a poor image. Most outsiders think of it as an oil-rich, corrupt place where there are regular kidnappings and outbreaks of religious violence.

All of that's true, up to a point. But Nigeria is also a place that can surprise and delight.

I was asked recently to find out what progress Nigeria was making in meeting United Nations anti-poverty targets - targets like reducing the proportion of people living on less than $1 a day, and improving education for poor children.

I was ready, frankly, to be disappointed by what I was going to learn.

And I was all geared up to be sceptical when I made an appointment to talk on the subject with an official from the Nigerian Presidency, Mrs Amina Ibrahim. She recently stepped down from her job as poverty advisor to the president but, I was told, retains great influence behind the scenes.

Disarmingly honest

My first shock, when Mrs Ibrahim stepped out of her car and walked into the hotel lobby where we met, was her demeanour.

There was no protocol and none of the usual demands for questions in advance so she could prepare for the tricky ones. It was just a brisk "Good afternoon" from a poised woman in a smart African dress; "Nice to meet you, where do we do this?"

She then went on to be disarmingly honest, including about Nigeria's education system, which was, she said, in an "abysmal state" when she first started evaluating it.

She should know. Amina Ibrahim has spent the past three years spending the lion's share of $1bn worth of foreign debt relief that Nigeria negotiated with countries like Britain in exchange for promising to spend the proceeds on the poor.

So what had she been doing with the money?

I expected vague answers, but there was precision. "Spend, spend, spend," she answered with a smile.

Posters during the 2007 Nigerian election campaign
Nigeria's recent elections were flawed according to the opposition

"We've given in-service teacher training to 145,000 teachers, for example, and we've upgraded six major teacher training centres with new infrastructure and IT systems."

The big question I had was, does Mrs Ibrahim think Nigeria will meet the United Nations poverty-busting targets?

The answer? Another surprise that made me sit up: "Yes, she replied, if we keep at it and scale up the projects to a much higher level, yes, I do think we'll meet those targets".

It is difficult to emphasise how refreshing for me this conversation was.

Man-made poverty

I have got so used to speaking to Nigerian - and other government officials around the world - who are vague, clearly lying or just plain incompetent, that this frank and intelligent woman was like a breath of fresh air.

I do not know if everything she said was true, of course, but I am prepared to bet that most of it was.

So I was in a good mood when I went to meet my next interviewee, another expert on poverty in Nigeria, the country boss of the international charity, Action Aid.

I was not sure of the man's name when I went to meet him - just that he was the boss in Nigeria of the charity.

So when a tall Nigerian chap in traditional dress walked confidently into the waiting room where I was sitting, I greeted him politely but assumed he was another visitor.

Then he looked at me and I looked at him. And then I realised this Nigerian WAS the boss.

Of course, I'd been expecting a white man.

All international aid agency bosses - or 95% of them anyway - are white Westerners.

Otive Igbuzor is the exception, a Nigerian now working day after day at the tough coal face of poverty reduction.

When I asked him why, in an oil-rich country, over half of all Nigerians, or more than 60 million people, lived in abject poverty, he replied in a clear, powerful voice.

Poverty in Nigeria is man-made, he said, it was not due to any lack of resources.

Clear, confident analysis

The causes, not necessarily in order, were, one, colonialism, two, exploitative capitalism and, three, the failure of Nigerian politicians who were often the local collaborators of multinational corporations.

It sounded like textbook left-wing theory, and I said so, but he shot back that it was not about labels, left or right. It was about the reality of life for most poor Nigerians.

Government policies, Otive Igbuzor said firmly, would have to change.

Privatisation, for example, which only benefits the rich and the middle classes, had to end.

Otive Igbuzor
The pace of change might not be what we wish, but we are definitely moving forward.
Otive Igbuzor

He had all my attention by now - not because I agreed or disagreed with him, but because aid agency bosses just do not speak like this normally - not even comfortably-off white Western ones, who know they can probably get another nicely paid job if they upset the politicians above them.

This man's analysis was crystal clear, his confidence in it infectious.

But back to my central question. Did Otive Igbuzor think the fight against poverty in Nigeria could work?

And remember, this is NOT a politician answering, but a practical aid agency boss who sees poverty all the time.

"We are moving forward", he said. "There are some decent people working on it in government and some decent people in the private sector. The pace of change might not be what we wish, but we are definitely moving forward, I can assure you of that."

So there you have it. Two hugely impressive Nigerians.

You do not have to agree with them, of course. But I would defy you not to respect them.

Perhaps you'll remember them the next time you hear nothing but bad news coming from Nigeria.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday 21 July, 2007 at 1130 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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