Political Weaponisation of Poverty in Africa


Ehinon Perez E. ARIKHAN

Africa, for the most part, is bedevilled by the malignant viral spread of poverty. Ogundokun identifies material/structural poverty as one of the two salient killer diseases on the continent; the second being corrupt leaders.1 In contradiction to the expectations of many Africans, the rise of democratic systems has not helped much. Supposed “poverty alleviation” schemes have not adequately translated to sustainable wealth outcomes for Africa, because of the weaponisation of poverty, perpetuated by a continued erosion of a formidable epistemic structure.

Encyclopaedia Britannica defines poverty as “the state of one who lacks a usual or socially acceptable amount of money or material possessions. Poverty is said to exist when people lack the means to satisfy their basic needs.”² This definition portrays the economic aspect of poverty.  But the concept of poverty is more complex and Daedalian in reality than just being seen in only economic terms. One thing many thinkers are beginning to identify is that it is not just an economic state of deprivation anymore but is now a nefarious weapon in the manipulative hands of a few oppressors – the political class and their collaborators – who have weaponised poverty for their selfish gains and continuous grip at the reins of power in society.

Going further, the World Bank defined poverty as ‘living on less than $1.90 a day.’³ Unfortunately, “almost half of (the) poor people in Sub-Saharan Africa live in just five countries: Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Tanzania, Ethiopia, and Madagascar.”⁴ Studies show that, “of the world’s 28 poorest countries, 27 are in Sub- Saharan Africa, all with poverty rates above 30 percent.”⁵ Poverty in Africa is often caused and promoted by the wanton greed, blatant incapability, stark cluelessness and disgraceful clannishness of many of the political elites. Thus, it is not far-fetched why the “poverty alleviation” schemes have not produced tangible results.

Poverty is a very pervasive weapon that sadly disfigures and distorts the entire life and worldview of the person. Sadly, it has been institutionalised for selfish reasons. Many African ruling elites deliberately use poverty as a fulcrum to distort the behaviour of the people, enslave them and their generations such that they have no social mobility, and alter their psychosocial behaviour. These leaders promise quality healthcare, education, basic infrastructure, as well as a competitive economy; but many Africans continue to miss out on these opportunities. ⁶ According to Catlin Johnstone,

Poverty itself is a weapon of the powerful. Keep people too poor to fund political campaigns and you keep them powerless. Keep them too busy to research and they can’t see through your propaganda. Keep them desperate and you can get them hating each other instead of hating you. They’re not just robbing ordinary people so they can have more for themselves; the poverty itself actually benefits them. ⁷

The political class in most African countries meticulously follow this thought pattern highlighted by Johnstone, engendering lackadaisical attitudes, fostering impunity and creating policies that take selfish advantage of the low-income power and low-economic status of the poor in society. Sadly, the most efficient way of actualizing this weaponisation is via the strangulation of education and the potential for critical thought. The consequences are rife, with evidence of so many people being easily swayed despite seeing the facts of a politician’s incompetence and history of impunity. Being victims, many citizens exhibit the lack of independent critical thought and inability to objectively question or analyse the socio-political affairs around them; many others seek to kowtow towards the system of “stomach infrastructure” and grovel before the ruling elites. The fear of hunger afflicts the masses, and this fear facilitates a feeling of helplessness and misguided loyalty towards the political elites, who see the masses’ predicament as a weapon to be used and manipulated at will to suit their selfish political ambitions.

This weaponisation of poverty fosters more poverty, degradation of human dignity, illiteracy, availability of purveyors of violence against political dissidents and lack of national productivity. Weaponised Poverty turns many people into brutes, makes them make poor rational choices and remoulds them into willing tools in the hands of desperate politicians, with devastating effects on the society. This validates the words of Jesse Jackson: “Poverty is a weapon of mass destruction. Keeping people unproductive is more expensive than keeping them productive.”⁸ Many African political elites, in order to consolidate their grip on power and quell dissidents, destroy educational institutions and the free press. They deny the masses their rights of education and information. This derives from the fact that they are afraid of mentally liberated and wealthy citizens; the type that education, enlightenment, innovation and industry breed and foster. These factors can create better opportunities for social mobility and wealth distribution, which are threats to the political elite’s continuous choking grip on power.

Education, Innovation and Industrialisation can blunt weaponised poverty. Education has to go beyond memorization, including rote  indoctrination, to the formation of critical minds with the capacity to analyse things and events, without prioritizing gratification. Such education upholds the dignity of the human person and is anchored on the betterment of community, superseding selfish exaltations or religious utopianism. On innovation, it is increasingly glaring that iNGOs, international development agencies or government agencies cannot ‘alleviate’ poverty. The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals cannot even be achieved at a time when donor countries are reducing their grants and aids. Consequently, Social innovation is very vital; creativity should be promoted in areas like agriculture, mobile banking, education, advocacy and technology to serve as alternatives to dated practices. Venture philanthropy and impact investing should be the focus and not donation of grants or aids. Such efforts can lead to targeted industrialisation in communities where human and material resources are galvanized for sustainable productivity and wealth creation. It is time the value of hard work and excellence were brought back to the centre stage in all ramifications. Putting this triad in place will surely have a lasting effect in the transformation of Africa.


  1. Ogundokun, Sikiru Adeyemi, “Trans-Border Poverty: A Reading of Seven African Literary Works” Research on Humanities and Social Science, V5 (11) 2015, pp.84-88. https://www.iiste.org.
  2. Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. “poverty”. Encyclopedia Britannica, 31 Dec. 2020, https://www.britannica.com/topic/poverty. Accessed 13 January 2022.
  3. “Poverty Forecasts”, World Bank, https://www.worldbank.org/en/publication/global-monitoring-report/poverty-forecasts-2015
  4. “Poverty.” World Bank, https://www.worldbank.org/en/topic/poverty/overview#1
  5. Donnenfeld, Zachary, “What is the Future of Poverty in Africa” Institute for Security Studies, March 2, 2020. https://issafrica.org>iss-today
  6. Johnstone, Catlin, “Poverty Is A Weapon Of The Powerful: Notes From The Edge Of The Narrative Matrix”, Scoop Independent News: 11 Jun 2021 04:16 PM https://m.scoop.co.nz/stories/HL2106/S00041/poverty-is-a-weapon-of-the-powerful-notes-from-the-edge-of-the-narrative-matrix.htm
  7. Ghosh, Rudroneel. “Poverty is a Weapon of Mass Destruction — We Need War on It: Jesse Jackson” An Interview.Times of India: 7 March 2014, 00:00 IST, http://m.timesofindia.com/articleshow/31552516.cms?utm_source=contentofinterest&utm_medium=text&utm_campaign=cppst


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