By Muyiwa Adetiba
I got a call last week from a lady banker. She is my Relationship Officer. This in a layman’s language means she looks after my financial interests, or she is supposed to. It did not take long before the conversation centred on the inflation in the country.
These are tough times for retirees and the elderly in general as they have to watch the constant erosion of their little savings due to inflation. One of the greatest fears of old age is not to be financially independent. That is why watching savings dwindle while bills grow is a constant worry for the aged.
Most elderly people have underlying medical conditions. It goes with the territory. And the ability to pick your medical bills in a country like Nigeria is in itself a form of life insurance. So if my conversation with my Relationship Officer veered towards inflation, it was because I am of the endangered species. But I got a surprise. Even the young, those who supposedly have good jobs and are expected to supplement the meagre retirement allowances of parents and the elderly, are also groaning. ‘Daddy’ – she calls me daddy – ‘I wanted to buy bread this morning and was told it was a thousand Naira. I couldn’t buy it’ she said.
Now, if she, an upwardly mobile banker, pulled back at a thousand Naira bread, what is the rest of the working class supposed to do? It wasn’t too long ago that bread, indomie and egg were the staple food for the working class. There was always a little kitchen at the corners of commercial streets and construction sites where egg with tomatoes and onions – to be sandwiched between two laps of bread – would be fried within minutes. Today, that simple meal would probably be a feast worthy of a king.
The minimum wage in Nigeria is 30,000 Naira. That is supposed to cover transportation, accommodation, incidentals including medicals and of course food. But what is there for those on the lower financial rungs to eat if a loaf of bread costs a thousand Naira, a bunch of plantain costs a thousand five and a tuber of yam costs two thousand Naira? Is it any wonder that Nigerians are dropping into poverty every second?
You can see the struggle, the desperation on the faces of people on the streets if you care to look. The clock is ticking towards social unrest where the lines between the bandits and the hungry will be blurred. Students of history remember all too well that the French Revolution was catalyzed by the price of bread. I pray the insensitivity of our leaders or their inability to gauge the true living conditions of the poor, and the restiveness hunger is causing, will not be the end of us.
The other day, Raji Fashola, a man I have a tremendous respect for, was asked about the rising prices of goods in the country. He retorted by asking the interviewer in turn to name any country that is currently immune to rising prices. I think the answer is pure sophistry. Nigeria, a poor country by any standard, sits among the countries with the highest inflation in the world.
He also used Covid 19 and the Ukraine war as reasons for the financial strain the country is going through. It may be true to some extent, but it is like hiding behind a finger. The Fashola I have come to respect will not be proud of the achievements of this administration, especially in its management of men and materials. As it is, his earlier quotes on what this administration is capable of achieving are coming back to haunt him. Covid19 and the war in Ukraine just exposed our incompetence and unpreparedness for external shocks. There is no reason Nigeria cannot be self-sufficient in food. But each time an effort is made, the elite, backed by some elements in government, would sabotage the effort. Some three decades ago, Nigeria made what looked like a determined effort to ban wheat importation. All users of wheat or its derivative, were asked to adapt their products to locally available materials or find wheat locally. Many adapted their machines at a great cost, to use wheat substitutes.
Bread tasted differently, beer tasted differently. But our palates started adjusting to corn bread for example. Private companies, including multi-nationals, went into agriculture. Wheat was being grown albeit in small quantities. Just as it seemed the country was going to survive the teething problems and ultimately say goodbye to wheat importation, the government of the day made a volte face. Powerful individuals started bringing wheat in again. The price we are paying today therefore has little to do with the war in Ukraine. It is the price countries pay when they have unpatriotic elites and complicit leadership who fail to plan for the future. We should be among the countries laughing to the bank today had we taken care of agriculture, crude oil production and refineries.
This government made a mantra of diversifying from oil. But it has all been lip service. The reality is that it has not only stunted or reversed whatever growth the previous administration made on agriculture, it has through incompetence and corruption, tampered with the steady flow of oil, the country’s life blood. The result is that we have over borrowed and under-performed. The gap between what a dollar sells on the street and in the banks is about three hundred Naira and rising. A friend told me of someone who had a domiciliary account but couldn’t access his own dollars because the bank had no foreign exchange. That should alarm all of us because it is an ominous sign. Meanwhile, speculators are making a killing from the discrepancy in foreign exchange.
A loaf of bread for a thousand Naira should trigger an alarm in our heads. It should tell us a disaster is looming. We can only hope it is not too late to avert it. The most important issue in the coming campaigns should be the economy. Whoever has the best economic policy and the ability to deliver on his policy should be given the job. We no longer have the luxury of religion or ethnicity unless we do not want to survive as a country or even as individuals. Meanwhile, all lovers of peace, all lovers of Nigeria should pray for a peaceful transition.