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Ailing economy, other hassles take the shine off Christmas

By Tope Templer Olaiya, Metro Editor
21 December 2018   |   4:22 am
It’s three days to Christmas but it seems like four weeks away. Being the weekend heralding Christmas and end-of-year festivities, the frenzies of the season...

It’s three days to Christmas but it seems like four weeks away. Being the weekend heralding Christmas and end-of-year festivities, the frenzies of the season are far from being felt in the air, signaling a not too merry Christmas.

When we think about Christmas, we see so many pictures of laughing children, ear-piercing firelight, Santa Claus visits and gently falling snow. However, for many families, this romantic view of the season is very different from reality.

As millions of Christians across the world celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ on Tuesday, there are many more who do not have the resources to dine and wine, with members of their families and friends.

The holiday season, for many people, is the hardest time of the year, in part, because of the glaring contrast between their experience and the romanticised image of Christmas so often projected. For thousands of families, their struggles to put food on the table and pay their bills are mocked by commercials urging them to buy more expensive gifts at discounted rates.

In the past during this period, at every turn of the street, loud speakers blared Christmas tunes, ear-piercing firecrackers constantly rattled the eardrums, banners dotted major streets announcing dates of carnivals, and corporations and public buildings were adorned in the Christmas colours of red, white and green, with major markets abuzz with end-of-year shopping bazaar.

This Christmas scent is also absent from Lagos – the Centre of Excellence. Once upon a time, it was a beautiful sight to behold at night decoration lights adorning major streets and parks in Lagos. Oshodi, the heart of Lagos, was once transformed from its symphony of chaos into an aesthetic garden park, with the state government unveiling every year a giant Christmas tree, beautifully decorating the relaxation garden at Oshodi.

The festive decoration was not restricted to commercial business districts. Many residential areas and streets were usually lined with Christmas lights in the countdown to their carnival nights, where residents, neighbours and well-wishers gather to dine and wine in a convivial atmosphere to enjoy either a live band or deejay dishing out music till the early hours of the morning. That too has gone with the wind.

Street carnivals, which used to be the biggest socio-cultural events of the year on the calendar of many Lagos metropolis every Christmas, have become part of Lagos’ recent history. This, though, have been replaced by the five mega concerts introduced by Governor Akinwunmi Ambode and which are staged by the state in the five districts of Ikeja, Badagry, Ikorodu, Lagos Island and Epe. But the thrills and frills of the street carnivals usually marked by the voyage of music and dance are things hard to replicate with the concerts headlined by A-list artistes.

Also, part of the disappearing scents of Christmas is the deluge of end-of-year sales bonanza. Citizens were spoilt for choice with offers, such that even commercial sex workers declared bonanza for their regular and loyal customers, who had patronised them throughout the year.

The season is not complete without the traditional shopping. This is evident in the high traffic of movement seen in most markets during this time. The biggest of market sales is clothing as many, both young and old, look forward to celebrating Christmas and New Year with new wears.

But now, clothing traders at five major markets in Lagos are worried about the low sales they are experiencing days to Christmas celebration. The survey conducted at Balogun, Idumota, Docemo, Oluwole and Yaba markets, revealed that the traders complained that the low sales trend had been recurring for five years consecutively.

“Many of the customers just come to the market for sightseeing. We only come to the market because we do not want to stay at home idle,’’ said Mrs. Nkechi Okonkwo, a seller of used imported clothes at Yaba.

Okonkwo said: “The last time I made any reasonable sale was in November and the same is the case with many of my fellow traders. The gloomy looks on their faces and those gossiping over there tell the situation of things in the market. Most of us resort to sprinkling holy water, praying, fasting and anointing our goods, with the hope that the situation will change for better’’.

Another trader at Yaba market, Mr. Jeff Oha, blamed the situation on the harsh economic state of the country, coupled with a low purchasing power of consumers. “The economy is bad and workers are owed salary; that is the reason patronage is low.

“The way things are, it is like the National Assembly has postponed Christmas because everybody is just going around with a gloomy face or how can you explain that even common Christmas greetings like ‘Compliments of the season’ or ‘Merry Christmas in advance’ is so scarce as if people were being charged for it?

“Before, people would troop into ‘Okrika market’ to purchase goods for themselves and their children. But now, used clothes, which are seen as a cheaper alternative by most people, are also affected by low patronage,’’ he said.

Mrs. Aisha Lawal, a trader of children’s clothing at Docemo market, attributed the lull in trading activities to the forthcoming election, saying that some people were hoarding fund.

“Normally, at this time of the year, we would have made some good sales unlike now where people just come to check the prices. The situation in the country is affecting everyone,’’ she said.

Speaking further, Mrs. Idayat Olaitan, a seller of fabrics at Idumota market, said it did not feel like a Christmas season. “Many people do not bother about new clothes but make do with wears they had before.

“In previous years, from October, markets become a beehive of activities with many people shopping for Christmas, but now the story is different. How can you expect someone that has not balanced his children’s school fees since September or someone that does not know where his next meal will come from to buy clothes?” she queried, adding that the way out was for governments to make policies that would impact favourably on citizen’s welfare.

Ahead of Christmas and New Year celebrations, hampers have flooded markets and shopping centres in Lagos, but dealers too complain of low patronage. Hampers are usually presented as gifts by individuals, groups and corporate organizations during the celebrations. It was observed that many shopping malls in Lagos metropolis had unsold harpers in decorated raffia baskets, plastic bowls and wooden boxes.

The prices of the hampers depend on their sizes, contents and descriptions. They range from N10,000 to N200,000. Dealers expressed disappointment at the low patronage, which they attributed to the poor economic situation in the country.

Mrs. Folasade Aribisala, a shop owner at Apongbon Market, said she regretted investing in hampers in the last two years, adding that hardship greatly reduced purchasing power. “I have had 50 hampers for sale since November; hardly have I been able to sell 10. It is so discouraging. Low patronage of hampers is becoming a recurring nightmare to us. Many of my counterparts did not invest in hampers this year; I wish I did not tie my money down in it,” she said.

However, Mrs. Monisola Adewale, attributed the low purchase of hampers to the attitude of some dealers, who put cardboards on the base of the baskets to make hampers appear fuller than they are.

“It is annoying that when you open some hampers, most of the items are almost expired. There is no value for the money paid for the hampers. Because of these unwholesome practices, many people buy the items needed in bulk and prepare the hampers by themselves. They are even cheaper than off-the-shelf hampers,” she said.

According to the Director General of the Lagos Chambers of Commerce and Industry (LCCI), Dr. Muda Yusuf, said this situation is so because the disposable income in possession of Nigerians is very little compared to their demands, which is why they resort to the purchase of basic necessities to stay afloat.

Earlier in the year, according to the World Poverty Clock, Nigeria overtook India as the country with the most extreme poor people in the world. Precisely, 86.9 million Nigerians are now living in extreme poverty, representing nearly 50 per cent of its estimated 180 million population. Clearly, millions of Nigerians in this bracket will not know it is Christmas.

An explanation for the absence of heightened Christmas festivities came last weekend when President Muhammadu Buhari told governors of the 36 states that the Nigerian economy is in bad shape. The Chairman of the Nigeria Governors Forum (NGF), Abdulaziz Yari of Zamfara State, who briefed State House correspondents after the meeting, said the president told them: “The economy is in a bad shape and we have to come together, think and rethink on the way forward.”

That official admission of the flagging state of the economy is at the crux of the ‘un-merry’ Christmas. This fact was reinforced on Wednesday with data released by the National Bureau of Statistics showing that the number of unemployed Nigerians has risen to 20.9 million from 17.6 million.

The report contained the employment trends from the last quarter of 2017 to the third quarter of 2018. The economically active or working age population (15 – 64 years of age) increased from 111.1 million in Q3, 2017 to 115.5 million in Q3, 2018. The number of persons in the labour force (i.e. the number of new entrants into the job market looking for jobs) increased from 75.94 million in Q3 2015 to 80.66 million in Q3 2016 to 85.1 million in Q3, 2017 to 90.5million in Q3, 2018.

The total number of people in full-time employment increased from 51.1 million in Q3 2017 to 51.3 million in Q3, 2018 (a paltry addition of 200,000). The total number of people in part-time employment increased from 18.02 million in Q3 2017 and to 18.21 million in Q3, while the total number of people classified as unemployed, which means they did nothing at all or worked too few hours to be classified as employed increased from 17.6 million in Q4 2017 to 20.9 million in Q3 2018.

Clearly, these about 21 million unemployed Nigerians and their dependents may not have a merry Christmas, coupled with the millions of Nigerians in the informal sector not captured by the NBS data.

The Director General of the Manufacturers Association of Nigeria (MAN), Mr. Ajayi Kadiri, noted that the country had been witnessing consumption apathy. He said: “We have witnessed a drop in the patronage of goods manufactured by our members, and our warehouses are full of inventory for lack of patronage, which is an indication of a dwindling economy.

“The season of this Christmas is lackluster, so we are looking at the government to take necessary steps in returning the economy to normalcy. Basically, we are close to election where the economy ought to have started experiencing fresh injection from the patronage of electoral campaign materials and advertisement, but this is not so.”

But while markets are experiencing dwindling patronage, the roads are getting cramped. In the days leading to any major festivities, plying on Lagos roads could be a torture and it is no different this season.

In recent times, the city of Lagos has been a theatre of the absurd with gridlocks crisscrossing major roads across the state. The best way to test one’s resilience is to navigate Lagos during this period.

Owing to the constant gridlock, the state House of Assembly on Tuesday urged Governor Akinwunmi Ambode to direct officials of the Lagos State Traffic Management Authority (LASTMA) and Vehicle Inspection Service (VIS) to intensify traffic control.

According to the Speaker, Mudashiru Obasa, the traffic situation in the state has become worrisome, adding that it was the responsibility of the state government to ensure a free flow of traffic.

“We call Governor Ambode to order the leaders of LASTMA to ensure a free flow of traffic in the state. LASTMA officials should stop the actions of folding their arms, while motorists and okada riders do whatever they like on the roads. Any official that fails to perform his or her duty should be sanctioned. The LASTMA officials are being paid salaries. We know that this is Yuletide period, but we must ensure there is a free flow of traffic in the state. We also urge motorists to always obey traffic laws,” he said.

Thankfully though, Nigerians have been spared the agony of petrol scarcity, another feature of this season in times past. This year, that intractable problem didn’t rear its head though labour unions in the petroleum sector were at a time spoiling for war over unpaid subsidy claims.

The lamentation of low patronage is also being expressed by transporters. The parks are unusually not busy as expected because very few people are travelling. Some drivers at Ojota Motor Park said the patronage was low compared to what it used to be in previous years.

And with the season comes the familiar story of Christmas hassles. While one may feel strongly about the hassles of Christmas – costing too much in money, time and stress in the bid to get things done for a befitting yearend celebration, incidentally the very first Christmas posed many hassles for Joseph and Mary; the first being Mary’s pregnancy.

Joseph and Mary were engaged but not officially married when Mary learned she “was with child by the Holy Spirit”. Joseph was ready to call the whole thing off until an angel explained the situation. But the hassles are just beginning.

Not long after the wedding, the Emperor determined that every Jewish male should return to his birthplace and pay a new tax, a bill Joseph hadn’t planned to pay and a trip he hadn’t planned to make. They headed out for Bethlehem where they met another hassle; there was no room in the inn. With his wife about to give birth, Joseph settled for the only available accommodation – a stable.

And just when they thought everything was over with, an angel brought a message to Joseph, to take Mary and the baby to Egypt, because King Herod was going to kill the baby.

The nativity story sure makes the hassles of Christmas a familiar story.