MUHAMMAD ALI: EXIT OF THE GREATEST

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Charismatic heavyweight boxing champion, Muhammad Ali, dies at age 74

Shortly after his retirement from boxing that gave him unprecedented fame and fortunes and made him one of the most iconic figures on the planet, the late Muhammad Ali was asked whether he would miss the sport. He replied: “I won’t miss fighting. But fighting will miss me.” To another person, that sort of response would seem arrogant but definitely not the former undisputed heavyweight boxing champion who died last Friday in Phoenix in Arizona, United States, after battling Parkinson disease for more than three decades.

In or out of the ring, Ali was as poetic as he was electrifying and he dominated the sport the way nobody ever did before and perhaps may never do again. It is therefore no surprise that following his passage, encomiums have been pouring in from leaders across the world, including American President Barack Obama who described the late boxer as a man whose name was “as familiar to the downtrodden in the slums of Southeast Asia and the villages of Africa as it was to cheering crowds in Madison Square Garden.”

Born Cassius Marcellus Clay, Ali’s rise to fame started at the 1960 Rome Olympics where he won the light-heavyweight gold medal. That same year, he turned professional and became the world heavyweight champion at age 22 in 1964. He would later hold the title at three different epochs in the course of his colourful career during which he fought 61 professional bouts, winning 56 and losing five. And with his famous taunting of opponents that their hands couldn’t hit what their “eyes can’t see”, Ali delighted boxing crowds with his showboating and lightning reflexes.

However, what made Ali a breed apart was not just his dexterity in the boxing ring but his strong convictions which at the early stage of his career earned him opprobrium from a section of the American public, especially his refusal to fight in the Vietnam war. There was little doubt that the choices Ali made at that period, and perhaps throughout his career, were also shaped by his colour.

I ndeed, in refusing to be drafted for the war in Vietnam, Ali made a powerful statement in 1967 as to what informed his decision by alluding to the racism that defined the era in America. “Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go 10,000 miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights? If I thought the war was going to bring freedom and equality to 22 million of my people they wouldn’t have to draft me, I’d join tomorrow. I have nothing to lose by standing up for my beliefs. So I’ll go to jail, so what? We’ve been in jail for 400 years”, said Ali at the time.

In a moment of introspection in 1970 at a most radical period in his life and career, Ali also x-rayed the sport of boxing in a manner that suggested he could see beyond his peers, even if the tone sounded regretful: “Fighters are just brutes that come to entertain the rich white people. Beat up on each other and break each other’s noses, and bleed, and show off like two little monkeys for the crowd, killing each other for the crowd. And half the crowd is white. We’re just like two slaves in that ring. The masters get two of us big old black slaves and let us fight it out while they bet: ‘My slave can whip your slave.’ That’s what I see when I see two black people fighting.”

Even after being diagnosed with Parkinson’s, Ali did not allow his fighting spirit on social and civil rights issues to flag. His stature would have been ordinary if his career ended as just a brilliant boxer. He rose above the limitation of a specific career and the drawback of infirmity to live as citizen of the world and an embodiment of the noblest in our collective humanity.Ultimately, the lesson from his life is that a sportsman need not be all about sports. Ali’s humanity, when brought into play, uplifts us all and leaves more lasting legacy. That, at the end of the day, is what we are celebrating as we mourn his departure from this life.

May his gentle soul rest in perfect peace.

FOOD SECURITY AND THE TOMATO DILEMMA

The recent scarcity and subsequent exorbitant price of tomatoes in the market is a cause for serious thought. As the largest producer of tomatoes in sub-Saharan Africa and the 14th largest producer in the world, this is the first time in a long while that Nigerians are experiencing an unprecedented scarcity of the precious fruit. It is an essential element of most meals, which usage cuts across different people, tribes and culture. Some use it as garnish, fruits, salad, juice or soup. Therefore, the sudden transformation of tomatoes to a rich man’s staple is alarming with the astronomical increase in prices from N5, 000 and N10, 000 to N25, 000 and N35, 000 depending on the size of the basket. This increase has also influenced the prices of pepper considerably. Nigerians, especially women, are feeling the pain of this scarcity as they go to the market grumbling and lamenting. Also, men are not left out as they equally feel the pressure on their pockets.

The present tomato dilemma was actually compounded by the scarcity of fuel which affected the number of trucks that supplied tomatoes to the market. There have been speculations over the probable cause of the scarcity and a number of reasons have been proffered for the painful reduction of the produce in the market. One of such is that Dangote Farms Tomato Processing Factory has started the production of tomato paste on a large scale and needed to sustain production with fresh tomatoes from the market.

However, a recent announcement by the company that it has halted operations in its $20 million tomato paste facility due to scarcity of tomatoes barely two months into its operations come as a surprise to many who believed that Dangote Farms was responsible for the current scarcity of tomatoes. On a positive note, however, the arrival of this company will, no doubt, help to reduce and curb the prevailing wastage of the precious fruit, as it has been estimated that Nigeria loses over 900,000 tonnes of its 1.5million tonnes produced per year. This is a loss of over 75% with multiplier effects on labour, returns, supply and demand, which lays credence on the need for modern means of preservation and storage.

In addition, it will provide employment for more people and reduce the importation of tomato paste, thereby strengthening the local economy. According to statistics, Nigeria is the highest importer of tomato paste in the world. This is another drain pipe on the nation’s resources. Indeed, there is a need to re-channel these resources and develop the local economy.

The fact that Dangote‘s factory had to halt operations barely two months after commencement speaks volume on the need for government to sustain and support the local industries by providing enabling environment and resources for them to thrive. Therefore, government needs to support farmers to boost the production of tomatoes. Another reason being proffered for the scarcity of tomatoes, which is the real reason for the drop in the production of the fruit, is the incidence of devastating pest attacks which affect tomato farms in the North. The pest “tuta absoluta” is said to have the potential to destroy a whole tomato farm within 48hours; it is also very challenging to control due to its high mutation capacity and ability to develop a resistance to insecticides. Reports have it that around this time last year, farmers in some parts of the country recorded a huge loss of farm produce to this pest but the consequences were not immediately felt because demand was lower.

The increase in demand this year cannot be totally separated from the new factory which requires tomatoes as raw materials. The increasing growth in population is also not helping matters as it leads to a corresponding increase in demand. Also, the overdependence of the country on the Northern region for the bulk of our food supply is equally a factor in the on-going scarcity of tomato. Presently, over 50% of food and meat consumed in Nigeria are from the North.

It becomes imperative to note that if there is an upset in the food production chain from the North, such as natural disaster or pestilence, like the recent “tuta absoluta” pest (which actually affects six major states in the North), there will be grave consequences for some other parts of the country that largely depend on supplies from the affected areas. Consequently, it is important that government at all levels, corporate bodies and well-meaning individuals to get more involved in the business of food production. This is especially important for the Southern part of the country where agriculture has been grossly neglected.

Temilade Aruya, Ministry of Information & Strategy, Secretariat, Alausa, Lagos