Less than a year ago, we were told that Nigeria had achieved food security. According to reports at the time, the President, Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.) based his directive to the Central Bank of Nigeria to stop providing foreign exchange for the importation of food on that supposed milestone. For a country to be classified as one that has achieved food security, it must meet certain international criteria. It means that the inhabitants of that country must have physical, economic, and social access to a range of nutritious foods that are necessary to support a healthy life. That status also means that in the event of natural or man-made disasters that disrupt the food supply chain, a country must also display a measure of resilience. A country that considers itself to have achieved food security should not easily buckle when faced with emergencies such as COVID-19.
In Nigeria today, virtually everywhere you turn, people are complaining about hunger even though the parts of the country that have been shut off are not up to a third of the whole federation. The inflation rate is skyrocketing, and people’s purchasing power is dwindling rapidly. Prices of food products have shot up beyond the reach of millions, and at the rate we are going, more people may die from hunger than the COVID-19 disease. How did it happen that a country that claimed it had achieved food security and proceeded to make policies based on that claim could not survive even a few weeks of partial lockdown without hell breaking loose? Why are we that vulnerable? It is to our shame that Nigerians, featured in various local and international media, have no qualms reporting that they would rather die from the disease than from hunger. How did we get here? Our leaders have some explaining to do. How did we go from a country that said it had achieved food security to one where thousands of Nigerians are now unabashedly slamming their bank account number on social media and begging for alms from strangers? We have always been a poor country, that much is certain, but how did things get this bad for us?
Again, months before the 2019 elections, the government launched TraderMoni. The scheme was a Federal Government interest-free loan initiative through the Bank of Industry and Government Enterprise and Empowerment Programme, but Vice President Yemi Osinbajo would become the face of it. Around September 2018, and months before the elections, he began to traverse the markets to promote TraderMoni. In doing so, Osinbajo garnered praises from market people whose lives would supposedly be better because they were handed a N10,000 pittance. We were told that if they repaid the loan within six months, they would be qualified for N20,000. After another six months of consistent repayment, they would be qualified for more until they get to N100,000. Up till last year, the VP’s office maintained that the initial sum they gave to people was being returned, and the traders were doing well.
By that calculation, those that were given N10,000 loan in September 2018 should have had their lives significantly improved enough to be repaying a N30,000 loan by now. Their standard rate of living should have, statistically at least, gone up by 200 per cent and that should have had an appreciable multiplier effect on the rest of the country. Yet, here we are, people are too poor to adhere to a pandemic-mandated lockdown for even a few days. How come our system cannot withstand even a month of disruption?
With the COVID-19 measures taking their toll, Nigeria is pushing palliative measures of Conditional Cash Transfers of N5,000 to around 3.6 million households for four months. At some point, should there not be some accountability on how these cash transfers have fared since inception? For the government to say that those that have more than N5,000 in their bank accounts (a mere $10 or so) are not eligible for the ongoing CCT, the poverty rate must be staggering. So, are these supposedly poverty-alleviating measures even working, or are we just wasting scarce resources on welfarist policies that have no meaningful impact on people’s lives? For a country battling multi-dimensional poverty, and where key sectors are grossly underfunded, paying people with cash should not be a nostrum that the government gets to apply without serious accountability. Where are all those who were doing well from past efforts? If people are truly getting this money, then why are we still so poor?
Abba Kyari: Obituaries are not for the dead
If the late Chief of Staff to the President, Abba Kyari, were a citizen of a western country, his obituary would have been written at least 10 years ago in anticipation of his eventual death. Like most famous people and highly placed public officials, his obituary would have been extensively researched, written with as much objectivity as can be managed, and stored somewhere. Occasionally, an editor would update the article with some ongoing details of his life, such as when he was appointed CoS and how he would go on to earn the reputation of a strong man. However, Nigerians (even Africans, generally) do not have that culture of forewritten obituaries. We are a superstitious people, we treat life as interminable, and so, hiring people to write obituaries of those still living might draw the ire of the public. Consequently, each time a famous person dies in Nigeria, we have had to endure hastily written and mostly tawdry obituaries.
Since the death of Kyari, we have been treated with a surprising deluge of obituaries and tributes from friends, proteges, and colleagues. I am not sure even the President could have done better in collecting posthumous accolades. There are several interesting things I noted from all these articles falling over themselves to beatify Kyari. One of them is that these obituaries were written by men and mostly by southerners, especially Yoruba ones. Many things can be apprehended about Kyari from reading all those obituaries. However, I choose to focus on the ways these various articles have tried rather too hard to push forth the image of a cosmopolitan, urbane, generous, hardworking, intellectual, and an “absolutely incorruptible” man.
If there is something to note about the nature of obituaries, it is that they are not for the dead. They are written for the living. No dead person ever gets to care about the kind or unkind things that we say about them in their obituaries, only the living does. Dead men do not read; neither do they write rejoinders. Only the living is affected by obituaries. Sometimes, one comes across an obituary where the bereaved write directly to the deceased to tell them how much they love them. In such instances, you know they are not speaking to the dead. They are sending a message to the living. That is why we should be questioning the many hagiographic obituaries of Kyari and their strong push to shape public memory since his death was announced. We should view all of these effusive outpourings of tributes with a measure of scepticism, question what the underlying political agenda of these obituaries is, and who will ultimately benefit from a revised history of his life. Otherwise, we will end up being duped by sweet words.
While most of us did not know him personally to contest any of the things said about him, I think we should also reiterate that the criticisms of him while he held office as the CoS were never about his manners or personal qualities. The issue was about what he ultimately represented: the political class. No matter how much/little he cared enough for his closest allies to see “his other side,” and how much important it was to him to show select people that he was no “monster,” the fact remains that he worked in the upper echelons of one of the most regressive and most repressive governments in Nigerian history. Nothing Abba Kyari was to his family and friends can redeem what he ultimately embodied: lousy governance, blind leadership, and political power abused by self-serving individuals.