Ever since President Bola Ahmed Tinubu spontaneously announced the total withdrawal of oil subsidy during his inaugural speech on May 29, 2023, life has never been the same again in most Nigerian homes. Every single day for many Nigerian families, since then, came with its own story that underpinned stark poverty, naked hunger, transparent malnutrition, endemic starvation, hopelessness, fear, deprivation, depression, distress, and general despair about everything in life. Indeed, the past 90 days have been extremely hard and tough for poor Nigerians.
Subsidy withdrawal translated, sooner than expected, into high cost of foodstuffs and transportation; going beyond the reach of the common man in Nigeria. Because food is man’s most important need in life, everyone seems to be feeling the heat from the exorbitant cost of raw food. Prices of staple food including rice, beans, maize, and garri have since reached rooftop; making life exceedingly difficult for most Nigerian families. Unit cost of foodstuff kept, and still keeps, rising almost on a weekly basis. Essential commodities such as sugar, spaghetti, flour, flakes, butter and bread have long been expunged from the breakfast menu of even the surviving last batch (if at all any does exist now) of Nigeria’s middle-class elites. Inflation rate reached a record rate of 24.08 percent in July 2023; the highest since September 2005. Inflation has reduced what used to be known as workers’ ‘take-home-pay’ to workers’ ‘take-nowhere-pay’.
As a consequence of the current inflation rate, businesses with a capital base of N10 million and below have either shrunk or collapsed completely. By extension, the present wave of hardship is further truncating the education of children from poor homes; worsening the health status of some critically-ill citizens; and seeking to dash the hopes of many who reserved their trust and confidence in the “Renewed Hope’ agenda. The situation in states such as Zamfara and Niger where bandits still hold sway is more than just hardship. It’s a tragedy in bandits-invaded communities where farmers cannot access their farms. Where they survived the risk of planting crops in the current wet season, harvesting their farm produce amidst looming attacks remains a huge challenge.
The fact of the report published in March 2023 by the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), which predicted that about 25 million Nigerians would be at the risk of hunger between June and August has actually come to pass. Today, an average Nigerian looks sick, emaciated, traumatized, and troubled; yet without presenting clinical symptoms of any disease. More obvious than ever before, Nigerians are now face-to-face with what hardship, suffering, anxiety, difficult days, and tough times actually mean. Hitherto, these words were merely understood in their abstract sense; not in the real terms they separately but painfully confront us now.
The expression “1-0-1”, which used to be a common slang among university students in the 1970s up to mid-1980s is now a new-normal in the eating pattern of many Nigerian families. Nowadays, three-square meal is news in many Nigerian homes. We truly have a national emergency at hand, which if not promptly managed, could degenerate in to a humanitarian crisis; Allah forbids!
Misfortunes of the country’s economic woes are already reflecting in some bizarre events that should have been read only in books of fiction, not as real stories in newspapers. Unusual times such as the one we are currently experiencing are ordinarily accompanied with uncommon incidents. About a week ago, a wheel barrow pusher reportedly disappeared with the foodstuffs of a middle-aged woman at Kwaita village market in Kwali Area Council of the FCT. Allah knows best what provoked or influenced the wheel barrow pusher into that act of theft. Hunger or sheer hardship are two plausible factors.
Recent reports from some communities in Taraba state revealed that incidences of theft of raw cassava, yam and maize have been on the increase. A story in the August 18, 2023 edition of the Daily Trust newspaper reported that a lady-farmer said one of the men she caught stealing her farm produce confessed that he stole cassava from her farm to get money to feed his family. But what else would hunger not make a hungry man to do? The woman said she allowed the man to go because of the reason, which the man said compelled him to steal the cassava.
This story reminds me of an episode that happened in the days of the Structural Adjustment Programme (SAP) when, in the native community of my birth, a woman went to a milling shop in the neighbourhood and carted away a big basin of milled maize pretending as if it was hers. On her way home, another woman who was the real owner of the basin accosted her and said the basin and the contents belonged to her. They both returned to the milling shop and the owner was identified. The woman who was on her way home with the basin before she was accosted admitted stealing it; saying her children who had not eaten since day break were starving and crying, which was why she went to ‘steal’ the basin of the milled maize.
How bad we feel about these heart-touching incidences can only be expressed to the extent they are reported. There could be dozens of others that have probably remained unreported, yet, worse than those we have read from the pages of newspapers or on the social media.
Our prayer now is that the N5 billion offered by the federal government as loan to each state of the federation and the FCT to cushion the impact of the removal of the petroleum subsidy (which governors said only N2 billon has been released) should not go the way COVID-19 funds went in 2020. Many state governments at that time instead utilized the money to settle debts owed contractors who were awarded road contracts. Some used the funds to buy Sports Utility Vehicles (SUVs) for select government officials and politicians. others sponsored foreign trips of their cronies and family members.
Except for few governors whose integrity and feats clearly speak for them, Nigerians are apprehensive of the N2 or N5 billion palliative loan passing through some governors. Making food and transportation available at affordable prices are the two major areas Nigerians need quick interventions. One quick way of crashing food prices is by flooding the markets with enough quantity of grains, not with the 30,000 bags of rice meant to accompany the N2 billion loan to the 36 states of the federation. This quantity of rice to state is not only ridiculous but also a flippant attempt at tackling the problem.
If the high cost of food is mainly due to the rise in the pump price of petrol from N194/litre to N615/litre; and if the sharp increase is because refined products are imported from outside of the country; it means Nigerians could still buy petrol at cheaper rate if the products were refined in the country because there wouldn’t be any need to pay for the cost of freight by sea, the insurance, and the exchange rate of the US dollar too wouldn’t have been issues. It also means that commercial transporters wouldn’t have increased transport fares if petroleum products were refined in Nigeria. Food prices too wouldn’t have been as exorbitant as they are now. Why then, if we may ask, has government not used money saved from subsidy withdrawal to bring at least one refinery back to life; if only to save Nigerians from paying heavily for the cost of importing refined petroleum products? May Allah inspire our leaders to save Nigerians from premature death in the face of current hard times, amin.