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Averting an implosion of hunger and anger

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[FILE] People run from a tear gas shot by Nigerian police officers during a mass looting of a warehouse that have COVID-19 food palliatives that were not given during lockdown to relieve people of hunger, in Abuja, Nigeria, on October 26, 2020. (Photo by Kola Sulaimon / AFP)

Endemic poverty, hunger and acute misery have struck the country deeper than the Federal Government seems aware of, to muster a pushback from the precipice. Feelers from the street are that Nigerians now either borrow or pinch from the pension wallet to feed. It is a dangerous signpost of doom and gloom. But handlers of state affairs need not wait for the ticking time-bomb of social chaos before ameliorating hardship.

Appropriate intervention should begin with pragmatic, far-reaching efforts to turn down the heat on beleaguered masses.

It is unfortunate that security has taken the prime position in the governance agenda in the last one decade and the better of Muhammadu Buhari’s administration. Year-on-year, one-trillion-plus budgetary provision for defence has steadily increased since 2016, though without corresponding results in a safe country. Latest Global Terrorism Index ranked Nigeria as the third-worst country exposed to terrorism with no improvement recorded since 2017. The local economy of warfare is entangled in a vicious cycle. The more money sank into it, the less secure the people and the more resources needed. In the mix, the deadly COVID-19 pandemic has also caught up with the unsettling realities. As the virus burns fiercely revolving in waves, the next prime attention is wrestling the devastating impacts of the pandemic. Attendant effect is the utter negligence of general welfare that is also the core responsibility of the government.

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Indeed, the strength of leadership, or lack of it, is most acute in such dire times that try souls of men.

But the tell-tale signs are there for all to see. Though official figures read 33 per cent unemployment rate, more people have been thrown out of jobs in the last one year suggesting two in every three persons.

In its COVID-19 National Longitudinal Phone Survey (NLPS) for January 2021, the NBS reported 38 per cent of the households reported income loss. Staple food prices have increased by at least 50 per cent, while minimum wage is rooted at N18, 000 in many states. The Federal Government, apparently trying to stay afloat, has tightened means of income with Value Added Tax raised to 7.5 per cent. As of 2020, the Nigerian Living Standards Survey (NLSS) report by the NBS estimated that 82.9 million or 40.1 per cent of Nigerians are poor by national standards. The NLSS also recorded a poverty line of N137,430 for each person per year, translating to an average of N376 per day. The situation is worse considering that more Nigerians now live on less than one dollar a day, which translates to about N500 per day.

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There is more to the bad news. Beg, borrow or steal, Nigerians are seeking all means to survive. Dependency syndrome has hit the roof top with the unemployed either counting on magnanimity of friends and families, or expressly accessing loans just to survive. Some lucky ones that have had steady work for years are now accessing the pension savings for survival. From Q1 of 2020 to 2021 Q1, about 48,873 Retirement Savings Account (RSA) holders have accessed N25.321 billion of the pension remittances. They are those that lost their jobs and could not secure another in four months, hence approached their pension administrators to access 25 per cent of their RSA balance.

While self-preservation is the first law of nature, the shortsightedness of feasting on the seed just to survive the moment is troubling. It is like mortgaging tomorrow for today’s comfort. It is not an escape route, but a disaster waiting to happen. Borrowing for consumption is a ticket to future misery. By taking pension balance, the old-age and its demands are already shortchanged. As much as hunger and deprivation are terrifying, the harsh realities should as well summon our ingenuity at survival and have streams of incomes.

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More importantly, the Buhari administration should have more than a passing interest in alleviating sufferings of the Nigerian masses. The Federal Government and its economic team should sit up and get real. Of priority is managing insecurity that has ruined farmlands and destroyed local economies in parts of the country. Activities of bandits in places like Birnin Gari, Chikun, Kajuru, Giwa and Igabi in Kaduna State have destroyed economies and worsened poverty. It is not out of place for the Federal Government to launch simultaneous security operations across all seven states of Northwest zone and Niger State to put an end to insurgency.

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The Economic Team should have a concise plan to rebuild the economy, steadily but surely. What has happened to the economic diversification policy of yesteryears? How come crude oil still accounts for 90 per cent of the total export despite abundance of cash crops and other commodities that are mega earners in other places? Critical function of the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) crisscrosses regulating interest rate, inflation and foreign exchange. But the apex bank is a miserable failure in all. Some six years ago, the exchange rate was N165/$1. Today, it is in the neighbourhood of N500 despite consistent denial of devaluation. Bank interest rates are fast catching up with high inflation rates. All of these have harrowing effects on cost of living.

The Federal Government needs not wait for hungry and angrily disenchanted masses to take to the street in protest before acting to douse their frustration. Such a protest is a feasible but ugly side of the current insecurity terrain. The government has consistently promised to lift 10 million Nigerians out of poverty.

It is now or never to demonstrate the zeal with real evidence on citizens’ lives. It is not the time to cut salaries of civil servants. Rather, the public officeholders displaying plenty amid want must buckle down to save the country from an impending crisis that will not spare anyone. It was once said that the masses may be so poor that they have nothing else to eat but the rich. Perhaps, Nigeria is ebbing at that tipping point and it should worry those at the helm of affairs more.

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