The True Face of Hunger 

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A one-on-one encounter with citizens who shared their experience with their struggle to feed their families is heart-wrenching,

By Peace Obi reports
 
The burden of high cost of food stuff
From one market to the other, the stories are the same. Traders sitting idly waiting for customers. And when they eventually show up, the trader’s hope is soon dashed as buyers are turned off by the high cost of whatever they are buying. With their feet shod with bargaining power, the shoppers move from shop to shop, hoping to get a better deal. However, after going round and frustrated by their ill-fated price-sampling exercise, some resort to adjusting their lists and often times scaling down the quantities. Painfully, the situation presents two sides of the same coin. While the traders are faced with low patronage, poor income and the hardship that accompanies it, the buyers are enraged as high cost of things strip them of their purchasing power and hampers their ability to provide for their families. 
A stop over by this reporter at some markets in Lagos presents a clearer picture of how Nigerians are struggling to survive the recession, especially as they battle hunger on a daily basis. While interacting with one of the market women who deals on staples such as garri, rice, groundnut, and beans, at Agboju Market, a customer walked in. And this discussion ensued between the customer and trader who simply identified herself as Julie: how much is your custard bucket of rice and garri? I need three bucket of each, the customer said. Julie gave her prices as thus: garri, N750 while rice is N1,600. The customer in frustration burst out, “your prices are too high. When did rice go up again? In fact, let me give you N700 for garri and N1,500 for the rice, if that is not okay by you, I don’t know what else to do, maybe I will go to Mami market.” Julie who couldn’t convince her customer to buy from her since she insisted that she couldn’t afford her goods was pained for losing yet another customer for no fault of hers.
 
Buyers suffer reduced purchasing power
“This is what we see everyday here. People will come and parade the market without buying anything.” Asked why her goods are expensive, more especially as most goods are made here in Nigeria. “I do not produce any of these things you see here. I buy them from the market and I sell according to how I bought them. The prices are determined by the market forces. Things are expensive not because traders want to make too much gain, but it depends on the price we buy them from the market. So, you don’t know that the traders are affected? Many people find it difficult to replenish stock after they might have finished what they have in the shop because of the same hike in prices of things.”
Stressing that the traders are not immune to the hardship arising from the steady rise in prices of goods and services in the country, Julie noted that it affects them more than any member of the society. Enumerating some of the reasons for the increase, the trader said, “I may not be able to explain why prices of things are going up by the day, but I know the common explanation has been the exchange rate of the dollar against our Naira. Whatever may be responsible for what we are going through in this country today, I know that our government has the power to change this ugly situation in many ways.”
 
Nigerian customs accused of jacking prices of food stuff
Pointing an accusing finger on the men of the Nigerian Customs, the trader said that the activities of the uniform men stand as a major cause of the problem, especially on the prices of rice and other related food stuff. According to Julie, the extortion, bribery and even frustration meted to traders by these men are enough to send traders out of business. For this trader, it amounts to double tragedy for Nigeria to use the customs officials to seize foreign rice when it is obvious that Nigerian made rice cannot meet the local demand. “I said earlier that government has the power to change the condition we found ourselves into in this country today. Government has the power to change the cost of fuel and diesel which originally pushed transport fares and prices of goods up even before high dollar exchange rate. It is government alone that can stop customs from harassing traders. And government cannot feign ignorance of their activities on major roads in the country,” she said.
Recounting a recent ordeal in the hands of Nigerian Customs officials, the lady said, “Yesterday, my brother called me to say that customs seized his 15 bags of rice while returning from the market, and they were demanding N110,00. For me, I buy my goods here in Lagos, I don’t cross the border. So, why are they seizing our goods? They station themselves from one bus stop to another, especially along this Badagry expressway like Alakija, Abulado, Barracks even Mile 2 bus stops.  In fact, I had to clean up my savings to bail my goods. As it is now, I don’t have any savings to fall back to and sales are so low. We are just surviving by God’s grace,” Julie lamented.
And when confronting with the fact that rice is a contraband, Julie insisted that the indiscriminate seizure of foreign rice by the customs officials would continue to cause untold hardship on Nigerians as long as local made rice remains in short supply while local demand grows. The trader further hinted that the solution to the country’s economic woes lies with government’s sincere approach to its monetary policy and governance. And calling on government’s intervention, Julie said the officials are everywhere and that their demands vary. “In fact, there are different sets from one bus stop to the other and their demands differ. They even seize one bag of rice and some will demand airtime worth as much as N10,000, while some will insist on cash, yet, some an outright seizure.
“This is part of the problem. All these expenses – the money we spent on customs, transportation and others are what constitute the cost of a bag of rice and other items in the market. And this is one of the reasons a bag of rice that sold for N17,500 in December is now N20,000. Those people in uniform are the major cause of the hike in prices of food stuff. They are making life unbearable for us. You can’t imagine the poverty and hardship they have thrown many families into. The whole thing looks as if we are just working for them. Government should please save us from the hands of customs men. Our businesses are going down and we are finding it difficult to feed our families,” she appealed.  
 
Rationing of meals as survival tactics 
For Saidat Akinsaya, seeing is believing. Nobody needs to be told that Nigerians are going through hard times. From imported goods to the locally made ones, there is hardly any difference in their prices. Asked how has business been and why are they pushing up the prices of their goods. Akinsaya, though a tomato seller sounded quite enlightened. According to her, business and survival have been tough and that sometimes she finds it difficult to recoup her investment. “Now a gallon of kerosene sells for N1,450 and N1,500, half derica size of tomatoes we used to buy for N150 is now N300 or even more; one bottle of red oil now sells for N500. When we couldn’t get kerosene to buy coupled with the incessant increment in the price, many of us switched over to cooking gas, that one too has gone up, 12kg that was selling for N2,500 last year, is now N5,000.”
This trader told THISDAY that her business line is one of the businesses with quick turn over, but lamented that things have not been easy for sometime now, especially since the beginning of the year. According to her, the high cost of tomatoes and the attendant low sells have equally forced her to reduce the quantity of baskets of tomatoes she buys from Mile 12. “So far, in this week, a basket of tomatoes has been going for between N10,000 and N12,000. I really can’t say what it will sell over the weekend, the price is never steady. The amount we used in buying three to four baskets of tomatoes in the past is what we pay for just one basket today.”
Pointing to the tomatoes she has on her table Akinsanya said, “look at the quantity of tomatoes we sell N200 today, it was formerly N100. Everybody in business wants to make profit, so we sell to customers the same way we buy. That is the only way we can remain in business.
 
High cost of goods leading to less profit
Calling on the government to intervene and save Nigerians from hunger and starvation, Akinsaya said that government needs to keep touch with reality by taking a physical walk on the streets of Lagos, Ibadan or even Abuja to see things themselves. Asking rhetorically, “What better way can the pang of hunger be felt in a land than when women for lack of food prematurely wane their suckling? Or when poor nutrition, hunger and poverty have been identified as major causes of death arising from treatable diseases and sicknesses. And for many families, three square meals have not only lost the ‘square’ value, painfully it is also becoming difficult to come by as families increasingly find it difficult to provide food for their families.
“This is not a time to ask the children whether they want more food after they might have finished a plate of food. We ration their food because we are not sure of the next meal. Sincerely, it is painful ignoring their request for more food, but that is part of the survival tactics. It hasn’t been this bad, but I know God will help us. But government should do something urgent, Nigerians are not finding things easy now,” she appealed.  
The time was 12:30pm when I entered Oja Market in Kuje-Omuwo area of Lagos State, the butchers had their tables filled with all sizes of cow and goat meats along with the leather (Pomo), liver and the intestines on display. Standing with Mr. Fawaz Adeniji who according to him was yet to make significant sales for that day, he shared a similar tale of low patronage with his counterparts in other markets.  For him, while butchers try as much as possible to stay in business, Fawaz noted that the cost of doing business has remained a persistent source of threat. “Prices of things have gone up. Me, I don’t kill small Malu (cow). Before now we used to buy it for N150,000 to N170,000 and three or four of us will share it. But that same size of cow is now between N250,000 and N270,000. The problem is not only the price of the cow but everything generally. Things we need like kerosene, transport, support services from the abattoir, and many other things, their prices have gone up. And we the sellers, we try to add small thing just to get our money out, but customers will not understand. Their complaint is too much. This thing is affecting us seriously. Help us beg government to give us better change. What we are seeing now is not good, hungry will soon finish people in this country.
“Many of us can no longer afford our children’s school fees. And it is not also easy to change them to government schools because they too are not taking students like they used to,” he said.
 
January and February, no more season of abundance
For Mrs. Romoke Gafarru, an onion seller in the same market, the months of January and February are usually a time to enjoy food in the country. According to this woman whose calculations seem reasonable, the prices of food stuff usually drop, especially after Christmas rush. And for food stuff like tomatoes, onions, yam, potatoes, beans among others, their prices are usually cheaper. According to her, food stuff markets usually experience excess supply over demand during these months leading to price drop. But Gafarru said that it has been a different ballgame since the year began. Adding that there has been erratic change on the prices of goods and that there is nothing they can do. 
According to her, “The high cost of food stuff is not from us, it is from the Mallams we buy from. We don’t produce them, majority come from the North. The main problem now is that customers are not even coming to patronise us like before. We now beg our customers to buy from us so that we too can buy food to eat. And the ones that will even buy will buy very small quantity compared to what they used to buy.” Asked what she thinks is responsible for the low patronage from her customers she said, “So many things; some said there is no money. Many told me that they have not received salaries for many months. Some said that they no longer have a job because they were sacked or because their company has closed down.” 
Confronted with the idea that government has set up a fact finding committee on how reduce the high cost foods, Gafarru said, “If government wants to know the true cost of food stuff in the country, let them go to Mile 12 and find out from the Mallams. The traders are not the ones causing the price hike. It is not even in our favour. For example, last year, a bag of onion was sold at between N7,000 and N8,000 for white and red, respectively. But that same quantity is selling at N20,000 and N22,000 from Mile 12. 
Charting the way forward, Gafarru urged government to pump money into the economy, reduce the cost of petrol and diesel, pay salaries, impress it on power distribution companies to provide power, among others. 
 
Hunger, poverty and poor governance protests across the country 
It will be recalled that Nigerians recently stormed major cities in the country, protesting against hunger, hardship and poor governance in the country. In Ibadan, Oyo State, the leader of the rally, Mr. Tobi Ogunbanjo who spoke on behalf of the Oyo State Voice Initiative said, “we are here for this nationwide peaceful protest because we say no to tyranny. This hardship is too much for our people and it is like we have moved from frying pan to fire. During the administration of former President Goodluck Jonathan, we said we were in frying pan. That was why we opted for change and this change has not done us any good.
“People can no longer have three meals on a daily basis as the economic situation in Nigeria does not permit them to do so. Many Nigerians have committed suicide under this administration simply because they couldn’t cope with the current situation,” Ogunbanjo said.
Presenting a 12-point demand which was thus: reversal of prices of food items, kerosene, cooking gas, electricity and petrol back to pre-2016 level, among others.
Also speaking on behalf of the protesters in Abuja, the former chairman of the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), Professor Chidi Odinkalu, said the protest was aimed at demanding good governance from the Buhari-led government and for it to realise that the administration’s policies have not addressed the current economic challenges in the country.
According to Odinkalu, “We are trying to make sure that Nigeria works for everybody. We came here as poor ordinary Nigerians armed with our national plan. They (police) have been sent here to do what they don’t want to do, we know they are part of us.”
Speaking further, Odinkalu said, “we are here to say enough is enough. Poverty is getting worse, we cannot buy bread, we cannot buy food and we can’t find jobs. We are asking government to fix energy, give us transparency and be accountable. And protect every Nigerian irrespective of where they come from and where they live. These are our demands.
“We also want to reiterate that we are gathered here to protest that our political leaders have failed us, the elected leaders have failed us. They are not keeping to their election promises, they are not following their manifesto. We are here to demand for proper leadership,” Odinkalu said.
Reacting to the demands of the protesters in Abuja, the Acting President, Prof. Yemi Osinbajo said that the federal government was aware of the situation in the country and that the FG has not relented in its efforts in changing the country for the better. He however noted that the damage of the years gone cannot be reversed overnight.
Government promised to turn around the economy 
He said: “We hear you loud and clear.”‎ Quoting a statement made by President Buhari a few weeks back, Osinbajo said. “I know how difficult things are. All my adult life I have always earned a salary.‎ I know what it is like when that salary is not enough.”
Speaking further, the Acting President said,‎ “We are in a serious economic situation and the president is particularly concerned about the lot of the common man. And I quote him, ‘For some, the recession today means not being able to pay school fees, for others not being able to afford the high cost of rice and millet, and for most of our young people the recession means joblessness.’

“I for one, have been across the states and even today some people are out on the streets protesting that things are difficult. What we are saying to every Nigerian is that we hear you loud and clear, and we are determined to turn around the economy,” Osinbajo promised.