I SAW a video last week showing a group of women and children holding virtually blank placards shouting ,’Tinubu, yunwa!’. ‘Yunwa’ is the word for hunger in the Hausa language. There were also interviews with some of the women in the marching crowd, with most of them saying they have nothing to eat, no heads of families and income earners, and no means to earns money for food. The person who shot the video said he had run into the marching crowd in Rigasa, Kaduna City.
Rigasa is a sprawling part of Kaduna which houses between two to three million people, depending on who is counting. It is famous for its population which entirely empties it everyday for Kaduna city in search of livelihoods, and housing the rail station which links Kaduna to Abuja. Its residents are almost entirely Hausa, and its politics is intense.
The people in the video did not look like beggars. We know what beggars look like in the North. Majority were women garbed in the Muslim hijab. If they were a random assemblage of aggrieved fraction of the community going through the motion of splashing dirt on President Tinubu, it did not show it on a video that could have been shot in a thousand places in Nigeria, especially northern towns and cities. In terms of a predominant northern culture, that three-minute video was profound in its message. Marches, protests and demonstrations against authority are rare in most parts of the North. Ethnic clashes, yes.
Youth blocking highways to protest against brazen abuse and humiliation by bandits and kidnappers, sometimes. Lynching people who are suspected of blaspheming, rare, but happens. To have a large number of women and children march, apparently unaided, shouting out the name of Mr President and associating it with hunger is , as we say in Nigeria, something else altogether. If they said ‘Tinubu, yunwa’, and meant it as reminder that hunger has become an existential routine, that would be less of a problem. If, however, they said ‘, ‘Tinubu, yunwa’ to associate the president’s person and administration with hunger, that will be a terrible thing for President Tinubu indeed.
It is difficult to situate President Tinubu. People of the North went through quite possibly their worst living experience during President Buhari’s eight years. There are still elderly people who warned younger northerners against electing candidate Buhari as far back as 2014 with horror stories about Buhari’s first coming, from 1983 to 1985. There was famine in that period, quite possibly the result of poor rainfall. Folks just simply tagged that famine, ‘Buhariyya’ and attributed it to General Buhari, as it also coincided with the period of harsh and unyielding regime under Generals Buhari and late Idiagbon. Old folks remembered it as a period of great suffering, engineered shortages and elite-bashing.
As it looked very likely that candidate Buhari was about to win the 2015 elections, those same (now much older)people, reminded younger (but now wiser) northerners of that period and their experiences. Those warning against a repeat gave birth to the enigmatic expression,‘Buhari na yara’, meaning Buhari the one loved by those too young to remember. His second coming came with poverty, insecurity and, as we are very likely to find out, corruption of historic proportions. Eight years of all three, elevated and made endemic during his eight years, have left northerners wretched, insecure and in near-desperate need for a leadership that will make a difference.
Majority of those Northerners thought Tinubu will be that man, at least going by the INEC figures. In many ways Tinubu sat on the mat woven and spread by Buhari. That is bad enough, even if substantially unavoidable. Karl Marx said, ’Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past’. Honest historians will draw the line around Buhari’s record, and start Tinubu’s journey in the context set by Buhari and what was made of it by Tinubu. Tinubu’s first few weeks will go down in history as the most unapologetically transformative. His decisions raised the cost of living beyond any level in known history. They hinted at some degree of inevitability, but poor communication and damaging hesitancy created the impression of knowledge of the ailment, but not its cure or relief.
For the poor, Tinubu may have inherited most of the ills of mis-governance of Buhari, but cross is trailed by tears and agony of hunger and desperation. In one fell swoop, the cost of the most basic necessities of life became unaffordable. Feeding has become a luxury for millions of families. Households have stopped cooking because there is nothing to cook. Parents have nothing to tell teary and starving children. Women, including married ones, are rumoured to trade their bodies to feed families. Relatives hide from each other, as those who had to give are reduced to scraping bottoms of the barrel as well.
Perhaps, for the first time in the history of the North in particular, the entire social structure has been reduced to a single level of desperation and want. Millions now know how to sleep hungry. Children cry to sleep on empty stomachs. Bread winners of households hung heads in shame over failure to provide even one meal a day. The legendary ingenuity of women to improvise has dried up under intense want. The nation’s bread basket is starving, literally. There is some food to buy, but millions cannot afford even one meal a day. The circle of those who can buy is narrowing. Insecurity is shrinking production. Next year is very likely to be worse, because you cannot dramatically transform production to a level which creates affordable demand in one annual circle.
This is the story of millions of citizens. The chances are likely that no one paints this grim picture to President Tinubu, although it is difficult to believe that none of those close to him are inundated by requests for assistance to buy food, drugs, pay school fees or even relocate. Nor, in all honesty, is he in a position to relieve the millions who were bound to suffer, at least in the short term, from his policies. He had asked Nigerians for understanding and patience, and he had said things will get worse before they get better. How long can people tolerate widespread hunger?
Part of the answer may lie in the N5b per state relief just announced for each state, but this is unlikely to scratch the surface. If the government relies on the National Bureau of Statistics data on poverty levels and related statistics, a cynic will say it is throwing good money away when it gives the same amount to Sokoto, Lagos, Abia and Yobe. Even the best strategy and probity behind the utilization of these amounts will not answer the questions: how, when and what next? Governors, those most distrusted specie in Nigerian politics will, of course, say they know the way.
Federal Government will not however absolve itself of complicity when 22 million households get N1,800 each, or every citizen gets N900. Labour has already denounced this problematic handout that has no empirical basis for its design. Trailers of grains meant to subsidize hunger can be casually dismissed without being impolite. If governments purchase large quantities of say, grains, to distribute, it raises the prices of the commodities. Hoarders are already active. What should Nigerians call these reliefs other than poverty subsidy, subsidy being the dirty word that should not be uttered under the current leadership?
The truth is, we jumped into the deep end with President Tinubu, and swimming to the shallow end will demand astute management of anger and frustration. Pervasive and widespread hunger do not create the best environment for understanding complex economics that take years to yield fruits. Nor is it sound policy to keep feeding anger with palliatives, every time it marches with menace. Now that he has his cabinet, President Tinubu should design templates for each Ministry, most of them directly addressing the rapid reduction of poverty, and more specifically, hunger. Nigerians have lived with insecurity for ten years, at a huge price. If they have to live with insecurity and widespread hunger, it will be useful to remind President Tinubu of that old adage: beware of the person who has nothing to lose.