Sunday, September 6, 2020 8:00 am
By Festus Adedayo
Forget the glittering multi-billion Naira-worth plazas of Abuja, the shimmering skyscrapers on the streets of Lagos and the aesthetic blackness of Port-Harcourt highway asphalt, Nigerians are hungry, very hungry. If you measure their hunger by the infectious smiles that light their faces as they hop out of the ubiquitous tricycle nicknamed Marwa, the boisterous laughter erupting out of their banters on the streets of Owerri or the meandering of latest automobiles that glide past Kaduna highway like maggots wriggling out of decay, you are already misled. Hunger is wracking the belly of the land.
Indicator for measuring how hunger is king of Nigerian bellies isn’t even the implosion in the number of beggars on the streets or the increasing presence of miserable scavengers on debris heaps. The gauge is increment in the number of countrymen who, at the drop of a hat, willingly abandon their dignity and prostrate before the god of the belly. Or neighbours who, awhile ago, barely exchanged greetings with you, but sneak into your shack in the cover of darkness to beg for a cup of rice. Or the uncontrollable number of requests for bailout that intrude into your cell phones, as messages/account numbers, from friends and foes alike. Or the growing number of fellow workers you could vouch for their fidelity a few months ago who today are caught in disgraceful petty workplace larceny.
But, the world itself is hungry! Coronavirus has hit the underbelly of the globe. Economies are in fits and the world is gasping for breath. In the midst of this, governments are bailing out their hungry people and packaging relief plans for the poor, such as cash transfers or interventions for the vulnerable. In some others, aids walk in leisurely for the poor, especially those who work in the informal sector of the economy. Targets of these government efforts are mostly those whose jobs had been lost or ones affected by shutdowns of workplaces. Canada, for instance, provided $2,000 Canadian Dollars monthly for up to four months to people who lost their income to the Coronavirus pandemic while Costa Rica is providing monthly allowance of $220 (£177) for victims of the virus.
The Hindustan Times reported a couple with three children who went to a restaurant, excited that they could do this after months of confinement at home by the raging Corona virus. They ate to their fill, incurring £100 pounds bill. They were however pleasantly shocked when the waiter merely demanded £50 pounds off them. The rest was offset by the UK government. Under the ‘Eat out to help out’ scheme, restaurants numbering over 52,000, cafes and other outlets, just recuperating from the blows of the virus, are not only helped to stay afloat, UK residents are assisted to withstand these trying times. The scheme allows benefits of “a 50% discount, up to a maximum of £10 per person, on food and non-alcoholic drinks.”
African governments and their runners are also responding to the Coronavirus epidemic in their globally-known ways: Spiking endemic corruption figures and making life more miserable for their hapless people. While South Africa is battling one of the most shameful sub-Sahara African scandals of corruption arising from allegedly mismanaged Covid-19 aids worth more than 5 billion rand ($300 million), in Botswana, Zimbabwe and Uganda, several health officials are reported to have either been dismissed or arrested for cleverly profiting from the pains of the pandemic. In Kenya, President Uhuru Kenyatta was, two weeks ago, forced to act on reported allegation that the Kenya Medical Supplies Authority procured sub-standard, as well as overpriced Covid-19 equipment. Some other Kenyan officials were alleged to have deployed proxies to pick huge equipment and Coronavirus-fighting contracts from the health agency.
While Kenyatta is at least bothered about this malady and ordering publication of details of the spending of aids money, in Nigeria, Muhammadu Buhari’s Minister of Humanitarian Affairs, Disaster Management and Social Development, Sadiya Farouq, claimed she had spent the sum of N523.3 million on the nondescript homegrown school feeding programme at a time when school children were locked down at home. Allegations fly about that billions of Naira escape through the windows into private purses of top Nigerian officials involved in the fight against the pandemic, even as they suddenly acquire illicit flesh and wealth like Eddie Iroh Toads of War.
Rather than palliatives, wicked policies, like a carefully choreographed spate of calamities, ooze out of Nigeria’s Aso Rock Villa daily. In three months, prices of petroleum, Nigerians’ mainstay and their cup of existential survival, have been hiked, the latest being that of last Thursday. Electricity tariff also got the inhuman touch by increment of 200 per cent on Tuesday. Interest rate on savings received inhuman increment while multiple taxes and allied stringent economic measures were visited on the people.
Thousands have lost and still losing their jobs. Prices of foodstuffs soar, in alarmingly astronomical manner, like an eagle seeking to have a handshake with the firmament while Buhari and his government are absent from the lives of the people. Victims of this skyrocketing cost of living are however indeterminable because Nigeria is not statistics-savvy. The truth is, many Nigerians must have died from this excruciating absence of government in their lives. Rather than do the needful, the social media is awash with spineless recruits of this inhuman government, justifying, rationalizing and situating the Nigerian pain in scandalously senseless global comparatives.
Typical of Buhari and his characteristic medicine-after-death placebo, the President said he was baffled that food prices were hitting the sky. Blaming everybody else but himself, he put the hike at the feet of “middle men” and “globalization.” Pronto, he claimed he had ordered his usual Acheulian age remedy, probably deployed by Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi to same problem in 1966: Release strategic grains reserves!
“While providence has been kind to us with the rains and as such an expectation that a bumper harvest would lead to crashing of food prices and ease the burdens on the population, government’s concern is that the exploitative market behaviour by actors has significantly increased among traders in the past few years and may make any such relief a short lived one. This year has indeed tested us in ways that globalization has never been tested since the turn of the century. These challenges have disrupted lives and supply chains all over the world, and Nigeria has not been spared,” Buhari said.
Not minding the popular maxim which says that one man’s hero is another’s tyrant, on Nigerian streets today, the narrative is that Buhari and his government are very heartless and wicked. You must possess the heartlessness of the biblical Rehoboam who promised to whip his people with scorpions, to be able to sidestep mounting hunger and anger of the people over incessant hikes and go hand your daughter to her husband in a saturnalia that promises to be loud. But, is Buhari ruthless? Is his government a miniature of ruthless rulers’ in history? Does he possess the wickedness or ruthlessness of Josef Stalin and Mao Zedong?
There is yet no consensus on who was the most policy ruthless leader in recorded history between Stalin and Zedong. Stalin, who ruled Soviet Union from the mid-1920s until his death in 1953, was also faced by an economic crisis in 1928 as Buhari is with a Covid-19 economy. This made USSR to be short of 20 million grains with which to feed the people. Responding to this, Stalin designed an agricultural policy which he called collectivization.
However, under this policy, China recorded the greatest famine in human history. Peasants were forced out of their lands. Estimated ten million people died of starvation and there was famine in USSR from 1932 to 1933, more deaths in Kazakhstan and Ukraine which were the country’s richest agricultural regions. Mao, on his own, though credited with modernizing China, through his agrarian policy of Great Leap Forward Plan, which spanned 1958 to 1962, attempted to bring industry to the countryside. In this regime of forced labour, farmers starved to death, with 18 to 45 million deaths recorded in this decidedly economic disaster policy. Like Buhari did last week, Chairman Mao also blamed bad weather for the decline in food output.
The perception of Buhari as wicked, which juts out of policies attributed to him, fills the lips of so many Nigerians. However, rather than perceive the president as wicked, I am more at home with submitting that he deserves our pity. Buhari is not here, even though we see him periodically, decked in his traditional white babanriga, waving his hands sometimes and beaming in infectious smiles. The eccentric Donald Trump, upon sighting him at the White House in April, 2018, shortly before Trump’s second meeting with another African Head of State, Kenyatta, warned the world of what he saw.
Highly rated Financial Times, in its August 27 edition of that year, had reported that, after meeting Buhari, the American president confessed that he never wanted to meet someone that lifeless again. Financial Times was to garner further tissues of corroborative evidence when Buhari appeared on a Kadaria Ahmed-moderated Town Hall event, The Candidates, broadcast on the NTA, prior to the 2019 election, sounding acutely incoherent. Similar outings, like Buhari’s jumbled response at the United Nations Climate Action Summit on September 23, 2019 and his flight from the rest of us whenever he speaks extempore, confirm his state of mind.
Rather than a wicked Buhari in the mould of Zedong and Mao, he appears to me a prisoner, locked up in the gulag of those whose interest it is to keep him in office till 2023 to achieve their power and economic motives. Though we may have concluded on his ruthless disposition judging by his draconian antecedents in office in 1984 – the maniacal Decree 4 which jailed Nduka Irabor and Tunde Thompson and the extrajudicial execution of Lawal Ojuolape, Bernard Ogedegbe and Bartholomew Owoh – we will be unfair to attribute all the recent wicked policies to our amiable president. What I see is a Nigeria on auto pilot with multiple wicked men at the cockpit. The only blame you could apportion to Buhari is his inability to rise above the walls of his imprisonment.
As Bisola Elemide, popularly known as Asa, sang in the album she entitled Jailer, both Buhari and the rest of us are prisoners. Our jailers are those unseen but powerful architects of our miseries who criminally churn out those wicked policies in the midst of Nigerians’ lamentable travails. Buhari is not aware of us. He is not aware of our pains. He is not aware of Nigeria. The good man is not here at all.
The rent we seek and Gbajabiamila’s Accra junket
Two seemingly dissimilar issues which are however linked by their fundamentals engage me in this piece. They are both linked by the dislocations between what was and what is. A few weeks ago, popular and highly regarded Ibadan-based broadcaster, Rolake Bello, on her evening belt programme on equally respected radio station, Fresh FM, threw a hypothetical social issue for dissection at her listeners and demanded their views. I loaned you a certain amount of money, say N10,000, with an agreed repayment plan and you staked that same amount on a venture which fetched you a million Naira, or so. Not only didn’t you default in repayment, you met the scheduled time. Should I expect more than I loaned out from you?
Responses from her listeners sickened me on end and reflected the rent-seeking mindset that has colonized this generation. Virtually all the respondents said it was selfish for the borrower to repay just the amount lent them. A great chunk of the amount had to be paid to the lender as appreciation, they chorused.
The above has become a social dilemma which reflects in financial transactions in Nigeria today. Someone procures an artisan on your behalf to help fix a broken pipe and while billing you, the artisan enfolds the rent he would pay the middleman into your bill. Contractor is linked to a project and the returns to the linkman are engrafted into the total cost. Why are our minds fixated on collecting rents, such that no help is ever rendered without demanding kickbacks?
As simplistic as this may look, it is a social cancer that is eating into our interpersonal relations. It has fractured the quality of mercy, empathy and values in our society, such that no one ever intervenes on any issue without waiting to be repaid. Agreed that it is one of the derivatives of a capitalist economy that we run, the truth is that its major casualty is our inherited values of being our brother’s keeper. In a commercialized mercy that we now run, the people become machines, stone-hearted people who do not offer assistance except for returns.
The second issue of bother is the recent tiff between Ghanaians, their governments on one side and Nigerians residing in Ghana and the Nigerian government on another. Bothered by the influx of Nigerians in Ghana and their proclivity for “bad businesses,” the Ghanaian government slammed the sum of $1million levy on Nigerian traders in Kwame Nkrumah’s homestead. The hoopla took Speaker of the Nigerian parliament, Femi Gbajabiamila, to Accra last week on fence-mending mission.
Good that the Nigerian government responded to this diplomatic threat almost immediately. However, what is at issue is beyond diplomacy. It is social, political, economic and even perception-related. The truth is, nobody respects Nigeria any longer and Nigerians cannot but be receptors of this low esteem. A country’s regard in international system is borne of its economic strength, military prowess, human capital and the quality of her leadership. Virtually all the indices above, except perhaps the human capital, are at their lowest ebb in Nigeria. Gone are the days when Nigeria was respected in all the areas above. We had the moral, economic and social perceptive muscles to tell any country in Africa to shut their traps. We could install governments and send troops to play Big Brother elsewhere. All those have sunken now.
Militarily, we are the butt of jokes everywhere; economically, we are in the doldrums and worst of all, our leadership is perceived as an army of locusts which criminally sucks our national nectar and pollinates other people’s flowers abroad. The world being a global village, all the dislocations in our polity land on the world’s laps by the hour. Our nationals abroad thus carry this emblem and cannot but be treated with disdain.
Rather than Gbajabiamila’s junket, Nigerian leaders should begin to reassemble theirs and Nigeria’s fallen regards, national social worth in international perception. Once we do this, Ghana, which used to see us as the New York of Africa, won’t treat us with such ignominy. When other nationals realize that Muhammadu Buhari is our President, that the clowns, the cankerworms and effeminate lot who can’t look at the presidency in the face and dissent from it, make laws for us, and hear the news of the rapacious heists that daily take place in Nigeria, happen under our government’s noses, they laugh at and mock us. Or you think nations and their leaders too don’t gossip?
-Dr. Festus Adedayo, journalist, writer, lawyer and public affairs analyst, writes from Ibadan