By Chris Anyokwu
The pretence has ended; the veneer of respectability is off; the stark face of truth is there for everyone to see. It is no longer time or place for “packaging”. Yes, it is no longer news that Nigerians are hungry, very hungry. In fact, they are starving! Everywhere you go, you see marks of sorrow, marks of woe on people’s faces, as if something is tearing them up from the inside. Everyone is on a short fuse. Transferred aggression is the order of the day. Take a walk to a plaza, for instance, you will see well-stocked stalls, rolls and rolls of colourful fabric and drapes, both locally-manufactured and imported items, all on display. Some are selling household appliances, such as pressing-irons, fans, generating sets, cooking utensils, cosmetic products and furniture. And if you bother to venture downtown, maybe to market places and shops, you will see market men and women, looking glum and woe-begone and it is not hard to hazard a guess why. Sitting in front of their shops for hours on end amid their well-arranged commodities on display, they often wait endlessly in vain for customers to stop by to make purchases.
Sometimes, the buyers do not even as much as look in the direction of their shop, let alone stop briefly to haggle. Yet daily, every day they, the sellers, must set forth at dawn to come to the emporium to set up shop and await the arrival of customers, looking forward to a day of profit when Aje, the Yoruba god of fortune, would strike camp at their shop, dispensing good luck and abundant harvest. Oh, perish the thought! If wishes were horses, beggars might ride. Now all across the board, it is a universal cortege of sorts. There is a good deal of weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth all over the land. The stomach, an over-demanding god, is no less insistent now, craving more and more propitiation. Unsurprisingly, an hour can make much difference in terms of the prices of commodities, goods and services in shops. For instance, a bus ride that is N50 in the morning within a certain distance can cost up to N150 in the afternoon of the same day. The same goes for electricity tariff, water bills, as well as other sundry utilities. To be certain, most Nigerians are languishing under the lash of skyrocketing prices of commodities. Thus food items such as plantain, yam, garri, millet, elubo, rice and beans are completely out of reach for the average Nigerian citizen. Folk cannot afford fruit either. They cannot buy agbalumo (or “ụdara” in Igbo), oranges, pineapples, avocado pears, grapes, banana or water-melon because they are very expensive. What about vegetables such as ụgụ, waterleaf, scent-leaf, or bitterleaf? They are all unaffordable for the poor masses. A pack of bottled water is now only for the rich. Even a bag of “pure” water is consumed by the entire family in rations! The sizes of chunks of meat or fish in the pot of soup/stew are getting smaller and smaller by the day. At the local restaurant, the Mama Put will tell you that the Eleran (meat seller) has added more money to his beef. The Eleran in turn would complain that the abattoir operators have hiked the cost of butchering cattle, thereby leaving them with no other choice than to do the same. The tomato seller also would complain about the transportation fares to convey her wares from Mile 12 to her Lagos suburb shop. The pepper-seller would do the same. Every seller of food items or drinks would hike the prices of their wares at will!
Regarding intra-city commuting, commercial bus or taxi drivers are wont to continually increase the fares as the mood takes them. If you argue with them, they would tell you to go and buy yourself a car or a bus, or, better yet, take UBER or BOLT. Empathy has no place in the matter at all. It is strictly a dog-eat-dog social cauldron. You either eat up your neighbour or you are toast on your neighbour’s dining-table. It is as simple as that. A friend of mine once shared with me an experience he had on this score. For too long, he and his wife had fought over the rising costs of foodstuffs. One day, he decided to accompany his wife to the market to buy groceries and other stuff. He said that in the market, as he was being shoved hither and thither by the crowd, he had witnessed first-hand how heartbreakingly sellers increased the prices of their wares. “How much did you give me?”, the wife had fired. “N20k, abi:” she had added. “Now, see all we have been able to buy with all that money. These miserable-looking vegetables, carrot, eggs, pepper and tomatoes, onions and few chunks of beef and what else? There goes your thousands of naira!”, she had said in mingled tones of impotent fury and pained anger. My friend, the Doubting Thomas of a husband had only stopped short of tendering an apology to his longsuffering and stoic wife. What wives face between fastidious and captious husbands and heartless Shylock-like traders!
The refrigerators and freezers are now getting emptier and emptier. Even the bags of “pure” water are no longer chilled, no thanks to power outages. The dining-table is bereft of the vase of fruit that used to decorate the centre-table acting both as visual and gustatory aid to gourmandship. The kitchen cabinet is now an echo-chamber, clogged as it is with cobwebs and home to vermin such as wall-geckoes, mosquitoes, roaches and the odd sneaky mouse. Not anymore the aromatic waft of sumptuous delicacies, drifting beyond borders from your next-door neighbour’s flat through the crevices to your own flat. Not anymore, the bags of rice and beans being tote up to your flat by the maiguard or handy-men in the neighbourhood. Not anymore, the monthly visit to the Eleran abattoir to buy a whole ogufe (billy-goat) or, at the very least, half the animal to last you and your family two or more weeks. Point-and-kill is a distant memory, so is the sharwama shop or the Isiewu/Nkwọbi spot. The watering-hole where the boys used to meet up to talk about politics, sports, women, cars and all whatnot is now a no-go area. There are calls you wouldn’t pick up now because they would remind you of how desperate and dire things have become of late. Indeed, no paddy for jungle!
Now, folk cannot change their age-long jalopies; they cannot move house for a change of scenery; they cannot go on annual vacation or take the kids out at weekends, or visit even a Domino Pizza spot after Sunday service any more. The children can whine and whimper all they want; you and madam will just exchange knowing glances and shake your heads ruefully. These kids will not understand. The average Nigerian on the street is on his own, always at the receiving end of exploitation and pauperisation both by government officials and self-employed hucksters. The fate of the Nigerian poor is analogous to the Biblical story in Second Kings chapter 6 verses 24 – 30. Briefly glossed, there was a great famine in the land and mothers had to resort to eating their children for survival. This is not different from the African folktale in which Mr Tortoise and other animals were forced to resort also to cannibalism, e.g., eating their children in order to stay alive during a famine. Mr Tortoise had managed to keep his children out of harm’s way while he himself had helped himself to repasts of others’ children [for Mr Tortoise, read: our political elite]. Not unlike these folkloric allegorising of the human condition under extreme stress and strain, the Nigerian poor have also resorted to eating their children for survival. They do this often or are doing this via a raft of ways. Take their eating schedules, for example.
Most now operate a system of 1-0-1 or 0-1-0 daily. Some prepare a meal, say, bean porridge and eat same thrice daily. Many parents force their kids to walk miles to school; to go and hawk wares in traffic; to go and beg alms, etc. Others have led their children to crime such as armed robbery, yahoo-yahoo scamming, money rituals, and prostitution. Who can forget the story of the woman who, together with her son, killed another child of hers for money ritual? (See YouTube for details). Some people have actually sold their children for food in recent times. These are hard, verifiable FACTS! Some have abandoned their families or quietly killed off their babies to save themselves of the millstone of responsibility. At this juncture, it is necessary for us to pause and ponder the role of our monetary policy in this whole fiasco. Under the present regime, our national currency, the Naira, has been devalued many times, almost to the point of worthlessness. Nowadays, well-dressed and able-bodied young men and women would approach you in the street or on the road, abjectly asking alms, either for food or for transport fare or for both. Those who still have the milk of human kindness flowing in their veins tend to hold back assisting the needy for fear of being turned into a tuber of yam or being used for some ritual.
As far as the Naira is concerned, it is a case of money, money everywhere, but no purchasing power. And why will there be purchasing power when we cannot transit from a mono-cultural economy (with a “resource curse” to boot!) to being a manufacturing hub? When we cannot turn our crude oil into petrol, bitumen, aviation fuel, diesel, kerosene, etc.? When we cannot cultivate our vast arable land and become the food-basket of the world? When we cannot process our iron ore into iron and steel? When we cannot process our limestone to produce aggregate, flooring materials, cement, etc.? When our youth – Nigeria’s greatest assets! – are sowing their wild oats, frittering away their best years, lost as they are in the salacious byways of social media, pursuing pleasure as an end in itself? When… when… Oh, Jesus wept!
Who will castrate and emasculate this monster called rising commodity prices? Didn’t we use to have a price regulatory board in the old days? Where is it now? We need it now more than ever. As it is done in civilised societies, prices of goods and services are fixed and can only be hiked if the regulatory agencies approve of it. But government must do its own bit: provide social amenities; put in place some safety nets; take care of the elderly, retirees, the infirm among other vulnerable members of society. Government must be hands-on and be seen to be concerned. As it is, that is not the case. At a reading recently, Niyi Osundare wondered if there was a government in Nigeria. That’s food for thought for everyone. It is not enough to be infatuated with and fixated on 2023 presidential election. Let the power-holders take care of the citizenry NOW before jockeying for power-for-power sake. And whatever they do, let them, the political elite, know that the people will always outlive the palace.
Chris Anyokwu writes from University of Lagos.