By Suyi Ayodele
As you drive on our roads, spare a moment to look at the people standing by the roadsides. Also check out the faces of those in your neighbourhoods. What do you see? You will see frustration written all over them. Husbands, wives, children; the old; the young, the able-bodied and the physically challenged, they are all united in frustration and despair. Things that we would have overlooked before are what people fight over these days. A sudden screeching of the brakes attracts hisses. A little splash of water from puddles on the road gets you the bitter “are you blind” question from bystanders, who are ready to leap on you.
This is the moment to be extra careful; to be extra vigilant. The streets are not smiling, as they say in our street lingo. The rumbling of an impending volcano is deafening enough. But our leaders appear to be deaf to it or pretend as if nothing is amiss. Yet, a lot is wrong with us; the tension in the cities, towns, villages, and settlements are palpable enough to get us worried. I am worried if you are not.
Hunger breeds violence. These are not exactly my words. They belong to Samuel R. Berger, former National Security Advisor to President Bill Clinton of the United States of America from 1997 to 2001. He penned those words on October 16, 2009, in a piece with the same title. We shall come to what Berger said in that article, presently. There is no deity like hunger (kò sí imolé bí Ebi) is a saying among my people. They complete the saying with its synthesis: hunger can kill a man (Ebi le pa ènìyàn kú). This saying has a sibling, to wit: when there is hunger in the stomach, nothing else enters the stomach (Ebi kiī wo’nú kí òrò mīi woo). These two axioms point to the effects of hunger on human beings. The Western world has something similar. They say: “A hungry man is an angry man”. How true is this?
On April 21, 2023, an article titled: “Dangerously Hungry: The Link between Food Insecurity and Conflict”, was published by Chase Sova, a Senior Director of Public Policy and Research, World Food Program USA (WFP USA), and Eilish Zembilci, former Programme Manager, Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). In the piece, the duo stated that “… it is true that hunger and food insecurity can lead to instability. There is a vicious feedback loop between conflict and hunger currently at play in dozens of countries around the world. WAR DRIVES HUNGER AND HUNGER DRIVES WAR” (Emphasis mine). American senator, Pat Roberts, in a 2015 speech quoted by the two authors under reference here once intoned: “Show me a nation that cannot feed itself, and I’ll show you a nation in chaos.” These scary submissions and the gnawing hunger in the land give me the creeps. Is it that our so-called leaders are ineducable, unfeeling or they have just elected to be grossly imperceptible?
I am not a pessimist. No! But I have strong feelings of looming danger. You don’t have to believe me; the government too does not have to believe either. Truth is constant. There is hunger in Nigeria. Nigerians are badly hungry. They are equally angry as a result. Danger looms in the corner. It can only be addressed by those in authority. Unfortunately, our new husbands are not addressing the issue. They appear not to know what to do. They are rather compounding the people’s woes. When a deaf man goes to consult the Oracle, the divination board is knocked continuously (Koko koro laa ró Ifá adití). Let me be the diviner for those in power today. I say to them once again: there is hunger in the land.
Nigerians have seen hell in the last two months of President Bola Ahmed Tinubu’s government. He might not necessarily be the one who created the problems in the first instance. But it is a known fact that in the eight years of the rudderless leadership of his predecessor, General Muhammadu Buhari, Tinubu is gravely guilty of being an accessory after the fact of the people’s suffering. He midwifed the Buhari administration; he defended the calamity that the immediate past government was.
Then he came onboard and took the suffering to the next level. The sudden and thoughtless removal of fuel subsidy by President Tinubu on May 29, 2023, has increased poverty rates in the country. Shops have closed, prices of commodities skyrocketed, while incomes remain stagnant. The take-home pay which could not take the earners home before had reduced drastically, such that it cannot take them out of their homes. Car owners now trek. The almost unaffordable fuel price has levelled the space. The seeming middle class of April 2023 are now at the bus stops struggling to board the near-unavailable buses with the commoners. Pockets of ‘war’ literally take place at bus stops.
If you are privileged to drive these days, as you pass by the bus stops where Nigerians are waiting impatiently for the next unavailable bus, the look they give to you is pregnant and direful. We don’t need a palmist to tell us the signs; they are as plain as a pikestaff. God, have mercy!
To compound the problems, prices of food items are becoming unbearable. A small tuber of yam goes for as much as N2,500. And that cannot even feed a family of five. How many tubers of yam can the minimum wage of N30,000 buy? Mothers don’t ask children if they are full now. They simply ask if the children have eaten. We are back to the 18th century era of the slaves of the legendary Efunsetan Aniwura, the notorious Iyalode of Ibadanland (c.1820s – June 30, 1874). The food given to a slave is not for him to be fed and full, but just to keep him alive. And we are no slaves, so, why are we being fed to keep afloat? Our leaders live in opulence but ask the hungry citizens to keep hope alive. They assure us of ‘renewed hope’ and better days ahead. In contrast, the leaders themselves are men of today. They enjoy living to the fullest. Hey! Those in authority have the feeling that Nigerians are too resilient to snap. How mistaken they are! They preach austerity measures to the people while they remain profligate with reckless abandon.
If I were close to those in power, I would have told them that the waist beads would soon snap. It is a matter of time unless something is done to arrest the drift. Have you heard about the mother, who after suffering so much in the hands of the born-and-die foetus known as Abiku (Ogbanje), decided to name her last born Maku (Don’t Die). Her neighbours asked: Ìgbà wo ni Máku ò ní kú (When won’t Don’t Die, die)? This is our present situation, and it is not funny at all.
Those who asked us to adjust to the present economic realities are themselves luxuriating daily. That is crass insensitivity. The inertia of our leaders to the present calamitous situation of the common man baffles even the devil itself. I don’t know if you saw the last Tuesday video of the Senate President, Godswill Akpabio, where he turned the calamities of the suffering Nigerians to a huge joke. Presiding over the motion asking the ruling class to “allow the poor to breathe”, Akpabio put the motion to vote and hit the gavel, launching, and announced that the “Ayes have it; let the poor breathe.” The Akwa Ibom senator laughed. I shook my head! So, it is true that what makes the farmer shed tears is what the partridge laughs over (ohun tí ó únpa olóko lékún ni àparò fi únse èrín)? But for how long will Akpabio and his gang of unpitying leaders laugh at the people’s dolour?
I have grave fear for what will be the reactions of the people to the present privation in the country. Hunger is already creeping into the arena. That is dangerous! Adamawa State witnessed the opening glee on Sunday, July 30, 2023. Hungry residents of the state capital, Yola, broke into the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) food storage facilities in the city and looted them. I saw the video of the event. It was like the nationwide looting of the COVID-19 palliatives warehouses of October 2020. We learnt nothing from the 2020 experience. Nobody in the corridors of power is wiser to know that it serves no useful purpose to keep food away from hungry citizens. And how predictable the lethargic leadership in the country can be! The only response by the Adamawa State Government is the imposition of 24-hour curfew on the state. Governor Ahmadu Umaru Finitiri, who spoke through his Chief Press Secretary (CPS), Humwashi Wonosikou, said that he took the decision because of the “dangerous dimension the activities of hoodlums had assumed across the state capital as they attack people…”. His solution to the problem is to impose curfew on the state! When you lock out the people from the streets without a corresponding locking out of the hunger in their stomachs, what further invitation to anarchy can be more than that? I keck to note that these are the kind of ineptitude we have in positions of authority across the country. Even the legendary Monkeys of the Pampas of Argentina are much wiser now. Phew!
Now, a return to Berger and his “Hunger Breeds Violence” postulation. The former United States National Security Advisor has this to say in the October 16, 2009, piece: “Every day we wake up to headlines and images of devastating violence in hotspots around the globe. In Pakistan, for example, attacks over the last few weeks have killed scores and seriously injured many more. But beneath the headlines, there is another great challenge that is often the root cause of violence or its unintended consequences: increasing rates of hunger and an alarming lack of food”.
The former Clinton aide added that in 2018, protests over high cost of food were recorded globally, with Haiti having “violent riots, killing many and causing widespread LOOTING… These explosions are no surprise. Empty stomachs breed panic and desperation, while extremist groups — such as the one in Pakistan that carried out the recent attacks – use food to advance their violent missions while undercutting security.” Berger recommended that “A crucial element to fighting conflict in poor countries is to ensure adequate food, proper nutrition, and access to education. School meals program promote education and nutrition by giving hungry schoolchildren at least one meal a day. Once children start eating a healthy meal, schools report remarkable increases in enrollments, attendance, and academic performance, and they are less vulnerable to recruitment by rebel forces.”
We can only pretend to our own peril by saying that the godawful conditions in Nigeria today are not worse than the ones painted above. The time is ticking dangerously for us. I hope, and sincerely too, that nobody is thinking that the thickness of the bulletproof SUVs is enough security. That will be injudicious because the anger induced by hunger knows no boundaries. The looting that Berger mentioned above has started in Adamawa State. So it was in October 2020, when one state started the attack on the COVID-19 palliatives warehouses before other states followed and the nation had a conflagration on its hands. Nigerians are “dangerously hungry”. Our new husbands must address the situation, and very urgently too. They should not wait for the people to source for the oxygen to breathe. Should that happen, nobody will be able to laugh in the recesses of the chambers of the National Assembly.
Jonathan Gold, an American food critic, says, “Food is a pretty good prism through which to view humanity.” His fellow thinker, Paul Bocuse, a French chef adds: “Happiness is in the kitchen (Le bonheur est dans la cuisine).” Nigerians’ kitchens are dry at the moment; our new husbands must know this. The poor must breathe. The earlier the leaders recognise this, the better.