Columns

February 21, 2024

It is still a question of structure, by Rotimi Fasan

Rotimi Fasan

OPENING the National Reserve, as the Bola Tinubu administration has decided to, may sound good on paper but it cannot address the on-going food crises in the country. This is not sounding pessimistic but our experience of how the government of President Muhammadu Buhari handled the distribution of palliatives during the COVID-19 pandemic, the dodgy manner in which the so-called school food programme was administered and the entire air of corruption running into billions of dollars that has shrouded the activities of the Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs and Disaster Management since its establishment, culminating with the Betta Edu scandal, leaves very little room for hope that Nigerians stand to benefit much from the opening of the National Reserve. 

Abuja is not even clear about the terms and modalities for the distribution of the grains from the National Reserves even if we were to accept that grains alone can take care of the hunger that now pervades the country. Are the grains to be distributed free or are Nigerians to pay for them? Either way, especially if free, what’s there to assure us that some people wouldn’t take it that the fact that the grains are free is enough justification to divert them to other purpose. What are the safeguards to ensure that the grains would get to those for whom they are intended? How can government ensure that the grains don’t end up warehoused by politicians or get sold for profit in the open market? These are legitimate questions to ask based on past experience. 

Rather than what would seem like a knee-jerk response to the crisis on our hand, as the decision to unlock the doors of the National Reserves would suggest, an immediate step that could go a long way would be to open the borders for food to come into the country. The emergency confronting us is beyond what a perfunctory opening of the reserves can fully address. The markets need to be flooded with food in a manner that can bring down the cost of living with the least hint of any delays. We are in desperate times that call for desperate measures, not sops that can but last for a while before the polity is again made rowdy with loud noises of hunger. 

Opening the borders to allow for the immediate importation of food and related items will not only be a short term step but it does contradict the attempt at shoring up the value of the naira and the support for local food production. 

Yes,  we know that. But it is a step that must be taken as a temporary measure while the harsh effects of the economic policies of the Tinubu administration in the wake of the removal of the subsidy on oil gradually wears off. Otherwise, the patient for whom the bitter pills of the President’s fiscal and monetary measures are intended to heal may, as I pointed out last week, die before their economic health is restored. This is very critical now that states like Niger have imposed a ban on the mass purchase of food. 

Yet, President Bola Tinubu is making it clear that he would not take the path of food importation. He is determined to stay the course of his present economic policies that have impoverished Nigerians and left them with hardly any hope that things could and would get better if they are allowed to go on as they have in the last nine months. Which is not saying that the president should totally jettison the manifestly liberal economic policies by which he has sworn to achieve a turnaround in the economic fortunes of Nigerians. 

All he is required to do is to briefly suspend them while Nigerians get some respite from their harsh effects. Following the closure of the boarders in 2018, Nigeria has not recovered from the food scarcity that was the outcome of that closure despite the re-opening of the borders some 18 months later.  Rather than aid local food production, especially the production of rice for which the Buhari administration created a pyramid, Nigerians have not returned to the place they were economically before the closure. 

Food inflation had continue to worsen to the extent that a 50kg bag of rice is now in the region of N80,000. There can’t be any justification for this and instead of just sitting down and sermonising about how things must get worse before they can get better, Tinubu will do well to cut the slide in the economy and open the borders for the immediate importation of food, particularly the staple food on which most Nigerians depend for their survival. President Tinubu couldn’t go on in the manner he has without risking some form of social unrest which the likes of Usman Yusuf is shamelessly inciting with his irresponsible call on South-Easterners to join the bandwagon of those shedding crocodiles; I believe in the North, about hunger and their inability to contain the restiveness of their people. 

Where were the Sultan of Sokoto, the Emir of Kano and others like them when Muhammadu Buhari for eight years sucked life out of Nigeria? How come they could then appeal to their people to be calm? Who do they think is afraid of the veiled threats beneath their complaints? In fact, do they know what’s the real interest of their people as opposed to the self-interest they are promoting in the name of the Northerners? 

What should be of immediate concern is what most of them have chosen to ignore, namely: the historic imbalance in the structure of this country that has continually allowed a few political and religious parasites to feed like a leech on the blood of others, especially their benefactors and betters, the very ones they have held in political thralldom since July 1966. 

But for these Northern leaders who have rejected a heartfelt acceptance of the fact that Nigeria needs to move away from its present unitary structure to a federation of states at liberty to take control of their economic, political, social and security affairs without interference from Abuja or anywhere else the political centre of Nigeria may be located in the future- but for them Nigeria could have been better. The fact that the Federal Executive Council could even discuss the idea of states having their own police departments is evidence that the Northerners know where the truth lies. The matter has to be addressed in all its unpleasantness.This is the inconvenient truth that our Northern compatriots must face as they dreg up reasons why they think running the country along the line of a federal system would not work. The fear that leads them to conclusions like this is one they must confront and defeat.