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Rural Poverty in Nigeria 

Rural Poverty Portal 


February 28, 2008

Despite its plentiful resources and oil wealth, poverty is widespread in Nigeria. The situation has worsened since the late 1990s, to the extent that the country is now considered one of the 20 poorest countries in the world. Over 70 per cent of the population is classified as poor, with 35 per cent living in absolute poverty.

Poverty is especially severe in rural areas, where social services and infrastructure are limited or non-existent. The great majority of those who live in rural areas are poor and depend on agriculture for food and income. About 90 per cent of the country’s food is produced by small-scale farmers cultivating tiny plots of land who depend on rainfall rather than irrigation systems. Surveys show that across the country 44 per cent of male farmers and 72 per cent of female farmers cultivate less than 1 ha per household. Women play a major role in the production, processing and marketing of food crops. The poorest groups eke out a subsistence living but often go short of food, particularly during the pre-harvest period. A high proportion of rural people suffer from malnutrition and other diseases related to poor nutrition. The HIV/AIDS pandemic has also taken a heavy toll among the rural population. 

Who are Nigeria’s rural poor people? 

Women and households headed by women are frequently the most chronically poor within rural communities. Women have lower social status than men and consequently less access to schooling and training, particularly in childcare and health practices. Yet women play significant roles in rural economic activities. While the number of men migrating from rural areas in search of employment has increased over the last decades, the number of households headed by women has risen substantially. Women struggle to cope as the burden of work, at home and in the fields, falls on their shoulders. Malnutrition is a frequent problem in these households. 

Other vulnerable groups among rural poor people are young couples with children, the disabled, and old people with no relatives to support them. 
Where are Nigeria’s rural poor people? 

Rural poverty tends to be evenly distributed across the country, rather than concentrated in specific geographic areas. However, in some zones the poverty situation threatens to worsen considerably, such as in the northern area bordering the Niger, which is arid, marginal to agriculture, environmentally damaged and densely populated. The fishing communities living in the mangrove swamps and along the Atlantic coast are among the poorest in Nigeria. 

Why are they poor? 

Rural infrastructure in Nigeria has long been neglected, while investments in health, education and water supply have largely been focused on the cities. As a result, the rural population has extremely limited access to services such as schools and health centres, and about half of the population lacks access to safe drinking water. Limited education opportunities and poor health perpetuate the poverty cycle. 

Neglect of rural infrastructure has also reduced the profitability of producing for the markets. Nigeria’s rural road network is one of the least developed in sub-Saharan Africa. The poor tend to live in isolated villages that can become virtually inaccessible during the rainy seasons. When there is a post-harvest marketable surplus, it is not always easy to reach the markets. Limited accessibility has also cut off small-scale farmers from sources of inputs, equipment and new technology. Crop yields are low because farmers lack these inputs. In particular, inadequate access to fertilizer is a real problem in many parts of the country where farmers have to cope with diminishing soil fertility. The situation is aggravated by the fact that many farmers have access only to small parcels of land for cultivation. 

As the population swells and puts pressure on diminishing resources, escalating environmental problems further threaten food production. Land degradation, as a result of extensive agriculture, deforestation and overgrazing, is already at an alarming level in many parts of the country. Drought has become common in the north, while in the south and south-east erosion provoked by heavy rains, floods and oil pollution is a major problem. Large parts of Nigeria’s primary forests, and the wildlife that they harbour, are disappearing.

Civil unrest aggravates poverty

Poverty and violence are often closely interconnected. Both religious and ethnic tensions continue to brew in different parts of Nigeria, erupting into outbreaks of violence and leading in turn to a situation of escalating poverty and malnutrition. The move towards political liberalization has allowed militants from religious and ethnic groups to express their frustrations more freely, and with increasing violence. Thousands have died over the past years in clashes between different ethnic and religious groups and separatist bids for independence. Since 1999, violence between Christians and Muslims has become increasingly common. 

In the Niger delta, where the oil industry is based, a vigorous trade in stolen oil has led to a serious breakdown of law and order in that area. A number of acts of sabotage have been carried out against the multinational oil companies by groups seeking a greater share of the oil resources for the Niger delta population. 

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