The year of hunger
If there were ever a time the famed resilience of the average citizen was lent full expression, it was in the outgoing year. It was a year the citizens were at the brink of despair over which they are still dangerously hovering on the cusp of another year. The year was rendered perilous not by insecurity that manifested through the officially trounced Boko Haram, increasing kidnapping and marauding herdsmen and their wanton killings. It was rather so by the failure to meet a basic need of human nature: food. From the east, west, south to the north, there was the heart-wrenching cry of the citizens for their hunger to be assuaged. But succour remained elusive.
It was not because the citizens were not diligent in the outgoing year. What rather provoked the hunger was an economic environment that was sired by an inept government. The stark upshot was that jobs were not created. Worse still, the available jobs were eroded as companies totally shut down or relocated to economically and politically sane environments for their operations.
Thus, in just one year, as the National Bureau of Statistics informed us, 1.7 million citizens lost their jobs. But this could only be a conservative figure since it could not have included the statistics of the job losses in the informal sector. Even those who still had their jobs were not better off since inflation rendered their wages meaningless. With a dollar exchanging for N500, whatever salary a worker earned could not buy much in an import-driven economy.
The danger of citizens eating from dustbins in an economically ruined state moved from a hyperbolic realm to reality. Indeed, with the increase of scavengers, the dustbins were not even enough. But even such scavenging conferred more dignity than begging. Stripped of the consciousness of their own dignity, many citizens took to begging. Emboldened by a combination of hunger and love, some who could not watch their children die took to stealing to feed them. Typical of this category of the hungry was the young woman in Lagos who stole rice to feed her baby. She was arrested, taken to the police station and detained. She only regained her freedom when the state police commissioner intervened and gave her N10,000. There were others who stole pots of soup while still being cooked.
Those who could not tolerate the indignity of scavenging from the dustbins and begging took their own lives. But there were others who would have committed suicide too. But they lost their minds before they could contemplate or do this. Thus, the high number of the mentally deranged in the outgoing year. Others deployed prostitution as part of their counter-immiseration measures, while some took to crime. Of course, if the basic need for food was not met, why talk about the luxury of education? Hence, the high number of school dropouts in the year.
Yes, amid the hunger, the efforts of Lagos and Kebbi state governments to sell a bag of rice for N13,000 are commendable. They well knew that a citizen whose minimum wage was and remains N18,000 could not buy a bag of rice for over N20,000. But was it a bag of rice that the citizens needed? In the first place, offering to sell rice to the citizens at N13,000 did not take into cognisance their poverty. How would a citizen who fed on less than a dollar daily get N13,000 to buy a bag of rice? So what the citizens needed was to be empowered economically so that they could conveniently buy their bags of rice at the appropriate market prices.
Instead of the Lagos and Kebbi governments feeling that the citizens are obliged to be grateful to them, it should be the other way around. For it was reflective of the infinitude of patience and broadmindedness of the citizens that they accepted the bags of rice from the state governments. For they could have thundered, “to hell with your rice. Give us jobs.” In other words, in a year that threw up its worst in the form of hunger, the citizens manifested their best: patience and courage. It was courage to live above their enervating circumstances. It was the kind of courage that summons the best of our energies to confront a tragic fate in a manner that reminds us of poet Dylan Thomas in “Do not go gentle into that good night” : “Do not go gentle into that good night, Old age should burn and rave at close of day; Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”
If the Lagos and Kebbi state governments and their counterparts in other states and the Federal Government are serious about the wellbeing of the citizens, now is the time for them to realise that what they need is not subsidised rice in December of next year. Let them create jobs. Or let them create the right environment that would make entrepreneurship to blossom. And then the citizens would be ready to buy the bags of rice at any prices they are sold.
But the tragedy before us today is that the creation of jobs or the environment that would nurture entrepreneurial creativity that would take the citizens out of poverty seems to be a remote possibility in the coming year. Think of the Federal Government’s budget, for instance, and the point becomes very clear. Does the President Muhammadu Buhari government really think about the suffering of the citizens? Does it even know that the citizens are hungry? Were the complaints of Anthony Cardinal Okogie just reminders of what the president already knew? Or did he snigger at a false alarm by the enemies of his good fortune to bring his government into disrepute? Going by some allocations in the 2017 budget, it is clear that the Buhari government does not know that the citizens are hungry.
For if it knew, it would not have voted N6.5 billion for cars, animals and kitchen equipment. Or N5.6 billion for the repair of Aso Rock. Or N432 million for vehicles for former presidents. Do kitchen equipment in the Aso Rock easily wear out because of constant use and thus the need for their yearly replacement? Or why is Aso Rock prone to leakages that require repair yearly? How many private homes undergo such an extravagant rehabilitation yearly? If our government at the federal and state levels is really serious about tackling the urgent and very important needs of the people, why would they not stop these frivolous budgets for the rehabilitation of state houses and kitchens? If the votes for such unnecessary items from the local, state and federal levels are pooled, they are enough to invest in one or two projects that could make a significant difference in the lives of the citizens. But since our government is not for the wellbeing of the people, they would not bother about this. Consequently, 2017 may be a year of grimmer hunger with the attendant uncharted tropes of survival by the citizens.