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Food blockade: Voodoo economics

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When the National Chairman of the Amalgamated Union of Food and Cattle Dealers of Nigeria (AUFCON) Dr. Mohammed Tahir announced boastfully like a rainless thunder the closure of the food routes from Northern Nigeria to Southern Nigeria earlier this month he thought that the action was likely to throw southerners into the abyss of grief. But the blockade lasted only a few days and we had no opportunity of assessing the full impact of the action.

The Department of State Security and Armed Forces personnel cleared the food routes which had been blocked by some youths at Jebba, Niger State. Dr. Tahir, the engineer of the mischief told the public that during the EndSARS revolt and the violence at Shasha in Oyo State, his union had lost many members.

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As he put it his people were killed like mosquitoes. Because of that alleged loss his union demanded billions of naira compensation from the Federal Government. The government apparently feeling that the union was simply trying to sandbag it did not bother to look in the union’s direction. The union then got into paroxysms of outrage and decided that if it was able to hurt a significant segment of the population perhaps something will give. To me this was voodoo economics because if his action was likely to hurt food buyers in the south it was also likely to hurt food sellers in the north. Food sellers need the money that food buyers bring while food buyers need the food that food vendors provide. No one is doing the other a favour. There is no altruism in business. One person needs food; the other person needs money.

That is why money and food change hands. You give what you have to get what you don’t have but you need. Since the blockade had a very flimsy lifespan we are unable to determine who would have gained by how much and who would have lost and by how much. The truth is that both sides would have lost and infact did lose and no side would have won or did win. Business relationship is a symbolic relationship built on trust and constant relationship refurbishment for enduring results. Dr. Tahir’s action was not a post-card perfect decision because it was based on a faulty foundation of superior economics. It wasn’t based on the basic framework of demand and supply of commodities for which there are alternatives or alternative supply routes. He should have learnt a lesson from what happened in the Arab world in July 2017 when the neighbours of Qatar, a country that is landlocked but fabulously rich in oil and gas got angry and imposed a land and air blockade on Qatar. They blocked Qatar’s Air fleet from landing in or overflying their airspace because, as they claimed, Qatar was a sponsor of terrorism. Qatar found a way of flying in all its needs from various countries to the dismay and amazement of the blockade sponsors. The blockade simply melted away.

It is a historical fact that there has been a maelstrom of violence in the country caused by clashes between marauding herders from the north and farmers from the south. The most recent incidents have been the cases in Ondo and Oyo States which have led to rising levels of agitation and death and destruction of property. The Governor of Ondo State, Mr. Rotimi Akeredolu had asked criminal herders to vacate the forest reserves while those with legitimate business should register with the government for proper monitoring and security of residents. Open grazing is the meat of the matter, the cause of the crisis which has degenerated into a north-south imbroglio. Southerners accuse some of the herders of such criminal acts as kidnapping, armed robbery, rape and banditry and the destruction of their farmlands.

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The northerners accuse southerners of profiling Fulani herdsmen and not giving accommodation to them in the economic space of their states. This ding dong battle has been turned into a partisan blood sport that has come with a multilateral algebra of threats of violence, disunity and expulsion of one ethnic group or the other from either north or south.

Our reputation as one united country has taken a severe hit and the incubus of fear has been sown in the heads and hearts of most Nigerians. Dr. Tahir alleges that some of his people were massacred at Shasha, Oyo State and that their shops and other property were destroyed. A few weeks ago, the chiefs of our Armed Forces went to Ibadan to hold a meeting with the Government of Oyo State over the Shasha issue. Things seem to have calmed down now but the bitter memory haunts us like an inscrutable mystery and sends its shadow into the country’s future. Without a speck of doubt the food blockade is a blatant demonstration of how low we have sunk in the matter of building a united country and giving everyone a sense of belonging. I believe that if the food blockade had lasted longer Dr. Tahir and his gang would have found out that they were basing the expected success of their adventure on a number of false assumptions. One, they assumed that they were the only source of food supply to southern Nigeria.

Food could have come into southern Nigeria by road or air or sea from other countries. Two, they assumed that the food they supply to the south – cows, onions, tomatoes, beans, yams – are either not available in the south or have no substitutes or are not ignorable. Untrue. Many States in the South now grow such foods as onions, tomatoes and beans and if they don’t, they have substitutes or they are foods that they can conveniently do without. Anyone who has no cow meat can eat goat meat or chicken or fish which are in abundance in the South. Three, most local communities do not depend on food imported from elsewhere. They simply grow their foods in their backyards and buy what they don’t have from local farmers around them. Most people in the cities have the ability to buy foods of their choice from supermarkets, flea markets or anywhere of their choice depending on the depth of their pockets.

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When there is food scarcity or an increase in food prices these city people are those who feel the impact least. Four, there is a bigger market in the south than in the north for many of the food items produced in the north. That is why they are shipped to the south for sale. Many of these food items are perishable. If the blockade had lasted longer, their foodstuff would have become rotten and uneatable or unsellable.

Five, Dr. Tahir claimed that they were ready to ship their food items to neighbouring countries such as Niger, Chad, Ghana, Cameroons. The assumption here is that these countries have been starved of these food items and they are ready, willing and able to buy these food items from Nigeria as soon as they arrive. Not likely. If they have always had these food items from internal or other sources then the additional food from Nigeria will make food in those countries very cheap. Who will be the loser? The Nigerian exporter. Six, the assumption is that if the northerners withheld food from the south there would be no one to fill the gap. Wrong. Nature abhors a vacuum. Where there is a demand and a supply gap smart businessmen will fill that gap speedily. Seven, they assumed that their blockade would be iron-cast and food will not leak from the north to the south. How would they have stopped people from Kwara from sending food to Ibadan and environs? Who would have stopped the Benue people from sending their yams to Cross River and the rest of the South? The truth is that even the Armed Forces of Nigeria and the Customs and all the other security forces have not been able to stop smuggling. How would they have been able to do it considering the long coastline and several ports in the South?

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Eight, what makes Dr. Tahir and his gang to believe that there would have been no reciprocal action or reprisals from the South? If the south blocked petroleum products from getting to the north, the price would have gone up astronomically. The rich in the north would still afford it but the poor would suffer. So let it be known that the relationship between the different segments of the nation’s population is symbiotic.

There is connectivity between them which serves as a glue that binds them together. What hurts one section will inevitably hurt the other. If the South decided to retaliate by making its own blockade it would have struck the north like a bolt of lightning because no section is an island unto itself. Infact, the north would have lost more than it bargained for because the National Bureau of Statistics survey has shown that 58% of households in Nigeria reduced their food consumption between July and December 2020 in order to cope with shocks caused by COVID-19. In its Longitudinal Phone Survey 2020 Seventh and Eighth Round it discovered that 83% of households reported an increase in the price of major food items that they consumed, demonstrating a widespread deterioration in purchasing power. With the hefty increase in the price of petroleum products that purchasing power has diminished further. So the risk of the food blockade activists would have been higher. Mercifully, salvation has knocked at the door and everyone has been saved from what would have been an unmitigated nightmare.

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