Just weeks after she sent the Social Media on fire with her empowerment programme during which refurbished wheelbarrows were donated to 30 indigent people in her locality, Ms. Chinwe Ugwu, Transition Committee Chairperson, Nsukka Local Government Area of Enugu State, south east Nigeria once again grabbed the attention of Nigerians by gathering some 50 or so odd women and gave them headpans, shovels and hand-trowels in continuation of her ridiculously unraveling “empowerment” programmes for her people.
Weeks before she donated those 30 wheelbarrows, I remember I was in a WhatsApp forum where plans was being made towards this project and I vociferously opposed this move. Minions of career politiciana heaped insults on me when I informed the over 160 members of this Group that the sum the LG Chairperson was going to invest in that project should instead be channeled to a organize a Digital marketing training that could afford young people in the locality the “empowerment” to create employment for themselves and also enable them facilitate commerce.
About 10 days after I made this contribution, the LG Chairman rolled out the drums, set up an event fit for a presidential banquet to hand over the wheelbarrows to the “lucky beneficiaries.
Nsukka Local Government area is about the largest in Enugu State and has 20 ward constituencies. This means that each of the wards got an one wheelbarrow and a half at this ceremony.
I personally thought this project was very demeaning. In the small spaces where I could get my voice heard, I made it clear it was an insult to the collective intelligence of Nsukka people and to all future-forward civilized people on earth that in 2020, a local government administration, mouthed as the closest to the grassroots, was practically emblematizing regression in governance and making a very loud show of it. Many of us thought then that the lady, whose father was a member of the Nigerian House of Representatives back in 1979, had been ill-advised and had taken that route to boost her chances of becoming the substantive Chairmanship candidate in the election the State Governor had scheduled for February 29, 2020.
But for some strange reason, the former Local Government Chairman that was adjudged by a vast majority to have performed rather abysmally in the two years he managed the affairs of the LG, was given the flag, after a charade at the Government House where he was asked to apologize for badly managing the affairs of his people, preparatory to an executive-inspired unilateral clean bill that cemented his return to office.
So when news broke that the same lady that was roundly pilloried for her obnoxious wheelbarrow empowerment programme had taken her people-oriented programmes a lamentable notch higher by donating headpans and shovels to indigent women, I got very worried.
My conclusion, having analysed the two events (wheelbarrows and headpans donations) and with my experiences over the years, is that these projects are deliberately selected as signposts of a determined elite intent on demeaning and humiliating the people. In an age hand-held tools (phones and other gadgets) are being used to create wealth and change the world, it is shocking that enlightened people are digging up 1970s-style (primitive handheld tools) political tokenism for 21st century empowerment.
Just to understand what this “empowerment” means to the beneficiaries and the entire economic value chain, I will put before you the numbers. One headpan sells for N3,000 on Konga; a shovel sells for N2,500 while a trowel goes for N1,200. So, in all, each of these women went home with N6,700 in value. Taking the long look backwards to the very first empowerment programme, a brand-new wheelbarrow sells at between N9,500 to N17,000 on Jiji.com, depending on specifications. Such is the empowerment a leader is bestowing on her people. To think that when rentals and entertainment would have been factored, this event might have cost well over N10,000 per beneficiary drives home the sanctimonious and humiliating intent
I spent over 18 months as an aide to the Governor of Enugu State; and my soon-to-be-published book: 18 Months in Neverland captures this journey. But suffice here that I learnt quite a handful about the maneuvering and manipulative life and style of politicians. I have also been able to learn how the word, empowerment, has been so used, misused and abused towards the ignoble end of keeping the people in perpetual captivity.
So at every turn, you hear people taking about “empowerment” in such a way as to suggest that even when one buys a bottle or beer for a friend, this constitutes empowerment.
But even the simplest meaning of the word does not suggest something like this. Empowerment, the dictionary says, is “the process of becoming stronger and more confident, especially in controlling one’s life and claiming one’s rights.” In a 2006 paper, titled; Concept and Types of Women Empowerment, Indian professor, Keshab Chandra Mandal had this to say about empowerment:
“The term empowerment is a multidimensional social process and it helps people gain control over their own lives. Further, it can be called as a process that fosters power in people for use in their own lives, their communities and in their society, by acting on issues they think as important. “Empowerment refers to increasing the spiritual, political, social, or economic strength of individuals and communities….”
Although Keshab’s paper dwelt in the most on women empowerment, the conceptual framework, which borders on creating equal opportunities for all becomes quite instructive, especially when viewed against the backdrop of how politicians have worked hard to corrupt the meaning of the term.
If empowerment were to mean, in Keshab’s world, the creation of equal opportunities, how on earth does this Local Government Chairman think donating wheelbarrows to the indigent in her locality would ever lift them (and their generations to come) from the drudgery of eking out a living from such lowly jobs? If empowerment were to also refer to “increasing the spiritual, political, social, or economic strength of individuals and communities,” what political, social and economic strength does the LG Chairperson, a lady for that matter, expect the women she gave wheelbarrows to leverage to become socially, politically and economically competitive? That these headpans and shovels were donated to women might just be the tale-bearer of the disdain of madam LG Chairperson towards genuine emancipation of her fellow women.
Drawing lessons from Keshab’s paper, it must follow that any empowerment programme that does not lift the beneficiary from one rung of the ladder to the next in ascending process, amounts to nothing but self-sustaining poverty and cannot therefore be captured within the acceptable interpretations and manifestations of the term.
Empowerment must enhance social and economic/political status of the targets. It must infuse a new thinking of independence on the individual. It has to enhance and expand income opportunities and create the pipeline to deliver a measurable number of people into enduring safety nets. An empowerment programme infuses a new thinking in the beneficiary, bringing in new values and opportunities.
Empowerment programmes are not subsistent; it does not mean the same as the democratisation of egregious prebendalism that ensured a lot more people get hooked to the opium of entitled tokens from the vast state lucre. This is important because, of late, politicians have perfected the art of democratizing corruption by ensuring that everyone; almost everyone;’ participates in the sharing of the treasury: for those who get a huge chunk, their good fortune; for those who get tokens, their ill fortune. And the worst is once you have been made a part of the feast, you are gagged by conscience from complaining, even if your share was smaller than the crumbs dropped for old man Lazarus.
Empowerment must enhance social and economic/political status of the targets. It must infuse a new thing of independence on the individual. It has to enhance and expand income opportunities and create the pipeline to deliver a measurable number of people into enduring safety nets. An empowerment programme infuses a new thinking in the beneficiary, bringing in new values and opportunities.
When a person is a barrow pusher and you give him another wheelbarrow, you are merely keeping him at a place, limiting his vision and outlook on life; you are making him a better barrow pusher, entrenching the poverty mentality in such a person.
When a person is a bricklayer and you give her a headpan and shovel, you have inadvertently told her she cannot aspire to anything else except bricklaying. You have told her to continue to live in self-sustaining poverty.
For the barrow pusher, why not give him a small truck or train him on a new skill if you cannot afford a truck?
For the bricklayer, why not gather a community of them and give them a cement mixer; that small one that can make their jobs faster and easier?
It is my conclusion that “empowerment” as a term has never been this used, misused, disused and abused. For a town that hosts Nigeria’s premier university; for a peaceful settlement where Nigeria’s first president chose as his home; for a community that has produced a lot of the world’s bests, a lot more is expected from the leaders.
The truth is that the people’s expectations from their government have become so infinitesimal that humiliations such as the ones serially dished out by the LG Chairman in the name of empowerment would only elicit fleeting angst, which like hot water in harmattan morning, quickly runs cold. And as has become possible, social media “influencers” are a dozen a dime these days. Sadly, the young people blowing these virtual megaphones receive their own humiliating tokens of dehumanizing “empowerment” in exchange for the tarring of the reputation of any who dares speak against the powers that be.
I wish I could end this by praying: “May we not be gifted these types of empowerment ever again.”
My head moved left, right, up, down as I surveyed the horizon and what I see around me, stretching across the seven great hills of a future soon to come reminded me very quickly of what was written in the first book of Kings, Chapter 12 verse 11.
“My father chastised you with whips, but I will chastise you with scorpions.”
My people are not yet ready.