BY ALEX OTTI (OUTSIDE THE BOX)
“There is a very serious virus that is killing people much higher than coronavirus. That virus is hunger; there is hunger virus and it’s very serious. You need to go round the country into the villages, into the towns and see how people are really struggling to survive.” Muhammadu Sa’ad Abubakar 111, Sultan of Sokoto, (March 12, 2020)
As I was ruminating over the title of this piece, I remembered an experience I had about three decades ago. I had just qualified for a car loan from my employers. I didn’t want to buy the popular car that my mates were buying at that time; Peugeot 504 and 505. My friend had bought a Peugeot 505 and we had all sorts of sad experience with it. It would break down every now and again. If it was not the bushing one day, it would be the alternator another day, or the gasket the following day. Sometimes, on our way to work, the car would just ‘die’ on the bridge and we would have to alight and push it before it started again. That wasn’t going to be my portion, I promised myself. So, I added some personal funds to my car loan and after some arduous search, I ended up buying a ‘Tokunbo’ Nissan Stanza (I don’t believe Nissan makes that model anymore).
My new car performed very well until I decided to install an air conditioner in it. That was the beginning of my trouble. In the first place, I realised that the air conditioner worked very well early in the morning and late in the evening. These were exactly the times one could do without the air conditioner. One day, in the face of a scorching sun and with many friends in the car, I decided to use the air conditioner in the afternoon. That was my greatest undoing. I watched the temperature go up on the dashboard. As the temperature was going up, my blood pressure was going up as well. Suddenly, I noticed some area boys giving me sign that the car engine was smoking. I quickly stopped the car to see what was happening. As one of the overzealous area boys opened the bonnet, he made straight for the radiator which at that time was already boiling. Before one could stop him, he had opened the cover only for very hot water to explode onto his entire face, giving him severe burns.
I wanted to send him to the hospital, but he refused, preferring to collect money from me and go and treat himself. He collected the money and disappeared. I could bet he was not going to any hospital. The heat had cracked what they referred to as the vehicle’s “half engine” and I had to change that in addition to some hoses that had also been damaged. On going back to the engineer who installed the air conditioner, he explained that the engine capacity was 1.6CC and to enjoy air conditioners, the engine capacity had to be at least 2.0CC. In fact, most new cars coming out about then had a minimum of 2.0 litres as they were then called. From then onwards, to use my air conditioner in the afternoon, I had to carry some water and radiator coolant along with me. I had to subsequently save up money to finally buy a Honda Accord 2.0 while I sold the problem, the Nissan, to someone else.
While I am sure that we all understand the Covid19, the Hunger 2.0 refers to the level of hunger of a higher degree than had ever been witnessed before that can make someone to disobey instructions even if such was meant to save his life. To stem the scourge of coronavirus, most countries have ordered a lockdown and restricted movement. This had been seen to yield results as even the city of Wuhan from where the Pandemic started was under lock down for months and has now been declared Covid-19-free. Countries that did not want to implement restrictions have had to pay dearly. Nigeria has not been any different as the Federal government ordered the lockdown of Abuja Federal Capital Territory, Lagos and Ogun States with effect from March 27, 2020. As the Federal government was issuing its orders, many state governments either shut their borders or restricted movements in their respective states. It would be safe to say that the entire country had been under some form of lockdown for close to two weeks now.
The consequences of the lockdown have been quite significant. Most companies shut down except for those in essential services and markets closed down completely, with very few exceptions. Religious worship centres were not left out and ceremonies including birthdays, weddings and burials were banned. Some security agencies and government officials who were assigned to implement the directives took to the streets. Some overzealous ones amongst them took the law into their hands and started applying the “Indian treatment” on offenders and manhandling those that they deemed to be in breach of the stay-at-home order. There were reports of citizens being shot and even killed in some parts of the country for contravening the lockdown order. One outlier was the Chairman of the Federal Capital Territory Administration, Mr. Ikharo Attah. Mr. Attah conducted his assignment in Abuja with uncommon discipline and competence. He shut down churches and mosques in a remarkably decent manner. In a church, he reportedly waited patiently for the service to end before proceeding to arrest the Pastor in charge. He didn’t do that without eloquently explaining to the “man of God” with biblical references why what he was doing was wrong. In mosques and other moslem worship centres he copiously quoted the Quran to the transgressors before shutting them down. The passion and dexterity that this gentleman brought to his job was very infectious. The position of this column is that these are the kind of people that should man our public sector and our political space. We salute and commend Mr. Ikharo Attah. We are indeed proud of him.
Our concern today is not the churches and mosques and other worship centres that chose to flout the sit-at-home order. It is also not about those who chose to throw lavish birthday parties and burial ceremonies in contravention of the order. Our worry is the people who cannot afford to stay at home because of the counter instruction being issued by their stomachs. Depending on where you are and who you relate with, you may not know that these people constitute close to half of the population. According to the World Poverty Clock, we have 96m Nigerians living below poverty line of less than $1.90 or N720 per day. This means that of the total world’s 600m poorest people, over 6% are from Nigeria. Furthermore, 63% of the number or 56m people reside in the rural areas while 36% or 40m of such people dwell in the urban areas. In fact, about 40m of the people that fall under this category are unemployed. The rest are involved in menial jobs and therefore, live by the day. They are the artisans, the petty traders and labourers, the poor taxi drivers, the peasant farmers, the scavengers and all such people who survive mainly on what they earn daily. Many of them do not have bank accounts as they would argue that their money is not enough to feed them and their families and therefore cannot afford the luxury of a bank account.
The ruling class must answer for our compatriots in this category. We may have mouthed some platitudes in the past and made some pledges that we had no plans to fulfill. I believe that Covid 19 has provided us an opportunity to pay attention to these people and begin to plan for them. We are aware that the Federal Government has been implementing a cash transfer initiative in the last couple of years. The only concern is that we don’t believe that this scheme has been transparently handled so far. If it were, how come that five years into this administration and in 2020, someone is still paying cash to them? How can we tolerate that mode of payment in a system where the Central Bank is introducing the last phase of cashless policy countrywide? How come we couldn’t get the beneficiaries to open accounts without which, they would not receive their payments? Exactly how many people have we been paying this sum in the last few years? The issue of the cash transfer of N5,000.00 a month is not necessarily our concern today. The fact that four months advance payments were approved for the beneficiaries is also of little importance today. Our major concern is the arrangement that was made for these people as governments at all levels implement the lockdown policy. And this must be in addition to the conditional cash transfer. And until the government begins to think seriously about this, the lockdown policy may work for a while but not for too long. Questions like am I better off remaining indoors and dying of hunger or taking the risk of being infected as I go in search of food would be agitating the minds of many victims. The discerning ones may plot a mental graph and conclude that the chances of contacting the virus are limited, after all, some of them have openly said that Covid 19 is a big man’s disease. Someone had in fact argued that it was the disease of people who travel abroad and for him that had not thought of securing an international passport, not to talk of securing a visa and buying a ticket, the chances of infection are nonexistent. Of course, we all know that the argument is fallacious.
So, what should we use this opportunity to do right away? We believe that like we had argued a fortnight ago, we must learn some lessons from this outbreak. One lesson we highlighted was that this virus is a leveler. Having leveled us, beside paying attention to healthcare delivery, we should also pay serious attention to the most vulnerable amongst us. We must, therefore ensure that in the first place, we do not only know who they are and where they are, but we must also know how many they are. We must get them to open accounts with commercial or Microfinance banks. We may not be very certain, but we feel there is no local government in this country that does not have some form of banking presence. At least, we are privy to the CBN policy of establishing a NIRSAL Microfinance bank in each of the 774 LGAs. Even in the absence of physical branches, some banks, in partnership with Telcos had introduced the agency banking model, bringing services to the unbanked. We believe this would also be of interest to CBN as it would push the number of accounts with Bank Verification Number (BVN) from the current 40m to more than the 100m target it had set for 2025, immediately. Following this would be the monthly payment of at least N10,000.00 per month for food for the vulnerable. This will amount to about N96b every month and N960b for 10 months which is less than 10% of our budget.
Someone may ask where the money would come from. The answer is simple. We are in a war situation and the government should do what countries do when they are in a war situation. All expenses that can wait should wait. Cost of running government should be reduced to the barest minimum. Ways and means should be activated. Support should be given to local manufacture of medication and medical equipment and most importantly, food. The logistics of implementing all these should be worked out by the federal, state and local governments. We have seen some state governments give out food. While we agree that food is necessary, we do not think that governments should be sharing it. The first point is that elsewhere food is dispatched from the government’s Strategic Reserves. We are not aware of the existence of such here. Governments seem to be engendering artificial scarcity and price hikes by buying from the same markets where citizens are buying. In some places, government has bought up all the rice available given its deep pockets. We know that it is neither sustainable nor can it be transparent and efficient.
A few contractors and their collaborators in government will end up the winners . The distribution formula will remain flawed. Lucky beneficiaries end up with what they don’t need while they can’t get what they need. It is therefore, more efficient to support farmers and local industrialists and empower the people to buy from them. Palliatives and Stimulus packages must go directly to consumers and producers respectively for maximum impact. We must avoid anything that tempts us to hand out cash to anyone. It is also likely that when we start the compulsory account opening policy for the beneficiaries, we would realise that the number is much less than the figure we threw up above and therefore the outlay would reduce. We should not be afraid of disbursing funds to people in an economy that would experience another recession in the next few months anyway. This will have the capacity to stimulate the economy, encourage local production and employment, reduce the period of the recession and engender growth. Any other way we do it will lead to more suffering, longer crises and may result in avoidable social unrest. In an attempt at solving a problem, we need not create bigger ones.
Finally, permit me to wish our Christain readers a happy Easter celebration.