Rehearsing the Anarchy


Nigeria’s litany of troubles has finally anchored on two basic existential matters. Insecurity and hunger. We are all very unsafe and now the vast majority of our people are very hungry and angry. Of the two urgencies, the rise of mass hunger is indeed a novel addition to our familiar tale of serial calamities. Mass hunger and the anger and protests it can breed is a clear and urgent threat to our national security.

The signs are already everywhere. Mass protests have held dress rehearsals in places as far flung as Minna, Kano, Suleja, Osogbo, Abeokuta and other isolated pockets around the country. The intensity of the protests has been somewhat tepid and mellow but the message is clear and unmistakable. The population of hungry Nigerians is building up into a critical mass that can make us all uncomfortable. The fear is now palpable that if the scourge of hunger is allowed to spread with the attendant protests, the business of governing Nigeria could turn into a nationwide crowd control and mob anger management operation.

The danger in these hunger protests is in the very nature of hunger itself. Hunger is indeed an unfamiliar addition to our familiar cocktail of Nigeria’s usual calamities. Hunger in the sense of absolute lack of food of any kind in addition to the lack of the money to buy what is available and necessary, has not quite been the Nigerian thing. The poor may not feast on delicacies every day but they have always managed to find the bowl of eba, fufu, tuwo and basic grains to fill the stomach and resume praying for tomorrow as a better day.  Never before has plain simple hunger been the lot of so many Nigerians at once. But we are in a new and different place. Democracy has yielded us the unexpected dividend of universal poverty and the reality of mass starvation.

In response to the unfolding signs of imminent mass hunger, the government has been stumbling from one gamble to another. Initially it was some palliative of sharing bags of rice to poor people in the states and the FCT. The budgeted N5 billion per state has largely been lost in a haystack of corruption allegations. Claims and counter claims over who got rice or noodles  have featured from across the country. There was a follow up pledge by some states to offer government employees cash incentives of anywhere between N10,000 and N100,000. From most states, the feedback is mostly one of serial default and unfulfilled promises.

While this parade of guesswork has gone on, the cost of living especially food inflation has continued to gallop. Food inflation has shot up from under 30% in May to over 40% now. General inflation has similarly skyrocketed from 33% to over 39% in the same period. More frightening, the exchange rate of the Naira to major world currencies has seen the national currency dip in value from less than N500 to the dollar in May to over N1,600 to the dollar at the time of this writing. Neither the government nor the general populace have any idea of what concrete informed economic actions are being taken to alleviate a worsening economic condition. Nearly every measure or statement of solution by the Central Bank has been greeted by a worsening exchange rate scenario the day after.

One interesting   aspect of the onset of the hunger protests is that they began while President Tinubu was away in Paris on a “private visit”. The message did get to him. He probably cared as a man with the mandate of the people to help them overcome mundane matters like hunger and cashless poverty. But he preferred dignified silence on the matter till he returned home. Since his return, the president has resumed the affairs of state as usual. He has, for instance, urged citizens to recite the national pledge after each rendition of the National Anthem. He has instructed  that limitless amounts of grains be released from the national reserves to assuage the raging hunger.

No one has said exactly where the grains reserves are located and how much the silos hold in total. Even worse, no one has told us how hungry people who are also abjectly poor will pay for the grains. It turns out, as an afterthought, that the grains will be distributed free of charge. But the modalities are yet in the works. The promise of grains has raised other troubling questions. Without reference to any concrete evidence of concrete food production effort to support his optimism, the president has insisted that Nigeria will soon become a net exporter of food as he can envision a period of plenty in the horizon.

As with most things in political Nigeria, the onset of mass hunger and the rising costs of living in the country have been the subject of either political football or predictable populist doublespeak among the elite. Predictably, the Nigerian elite has jumped on the hunger wagon to preach their familiar lines. The more politically minded have opted to play political football   with the hunger crisis.

Former Emir of Kano, Sanusi Lamido Sanusi has preferred shifting the blame for the current hardships from Tinubu to Mr. Buhari. This is political bad manners. Every new government is elected to solve the problems they find on the ground, not to blame the predecessor government indefinitely. That is the most elementary lesson of democratic succession. New governments that spend most of their time looking for aspects of mistakes in what they inherited end up badly as a general rule. When Barrack Obama took over from George Bush Jr., some Democrats wanted him to blame the Bush administration for the global economic meltdown of 2007-8. Obama preferred to face and solve the economic problem instead of surrendering the global economy to a litany of blames. He succeeded.

In furtherance of the Nigerian political football about hunger and high cost of living, political megaphones of the ruling APC have blamed the governors of the rival PDP as being responsible for the hardship in the land. They did not distribute the palliatives released to them  nor have they lived up to their obligations in paying the promised allowance of N30,000 to workers in the service of their states. No one has reminded them that the same thing applies to the APC governors.

The Nigerian Labour Congress President has questioned the efficacy of grains as an antidote to universal hunger, arguing that Nigerians are not birds that feed mostly on grains. Implicit in that cynical interrogation of governmental good intention is the common knowledge that food consists of more than grains: proteins, vegetables, fats and various other carbohydrates etc. Meanwhile even the little that is promised remains invisible.

The Sultan of Sokoto has been closer to his  trenchant self. He has said Nigerians are now deeply frustrated, extremely hungry and very resentful. He spoilt his courageous message by insisting that it was time for Nigerians to seek repentance as our present adversities were a repercussion for our past sins.

In similar vein, the incumbent Emir of Kano has sent the message of mass hunger and frustration more directly to the centre of power. Receiving First Lady, Oluremi Tinubu in Kano, the Emir topped up is lavish hospitality with a message through her to her husband. It was clear and direct: “please tell your husband that the people are hungry and angry”.

The clergy is not to be left out. Pastor Enoch Adeboye has shifted the blame for our intractable insecurity and hardship to the realm of the supernatural. In his view, the leaders are doing their best but the insecurity and current hardship require divine intervention. The answer is perhaps in more prayers and supplication while patiently awaiting God’s appointed time for relief of our economic burdens. Meanwhile the scourge of hunger rages and the fire of anger consumes the land as wealthy priests ready to jet out of hell in their private jets.

Having failed to wish away the hunger troubles through political and public opinion manipulation, the Presidency has at last managed to find the courage to confront the matter as a government. President Bola Tinubu held a very consequential meeting last Thursday with the Governors of a 36 states and Minister of the FCT. The meeting was the first tacit admission by their excellencies that the Nigerian state is now reduced to a machinery for confronting the original necessity of the nation state. The business of government is to guarantee the security of lives and property or limbs in the absence of property and to ensure the livelihood (food) of all citizens. In its classical sense, the necessity of government is the need to save humanity from the physical danger of hurt and death by his fellows while guaranteeing food and livelihood for those alive. In short, the essence of the state and government can be reduced to these two elements.

Quite wisely, the President and the governors winded up addressing the biting urgency of security and food security. The consensus on these two is not far fetched. Prior to the last one month, insecurity in the form of banditry, kidnappings, abductions sense killings and violence was the dominant concern of most Nigerians. The idea of state police is being debated to combat bandits and kidnappers.  Meanwhile, rhetorical poverty has graduated into mass abject penury and mass hunger. While sensible normal people can take measures to avoid being kidnapped or abducted, there is no armour against unavoidable hunger.

But when people are hungry, they become irritable and very angry. In every sense, hunger is  an instant unifier of mankind. A mass of hungry people is undifferentiated by the things that divide people in a polity. Hunger has no religion, ethnicity or region. All those whom poverty throws into the hellish pit of hunger find fellowship in the commonality of their condition.

When a critical mass of the citizenry is reduced to an angry mob in protests about basic necessities and hunger, we have the makings of anarchy. An anarchic mob can only produce a revolution for good if the mob is infused with guiding ideas and a populist political leadership. The French were lucky that the mobs that stormed the Bastille in 1789 were armed with a slogan of ‘Equality, Freedom and Egalitarianism’. They were helped along by the arrogance of a monarchy whose queen, on learning that the people were marching to protest scarcity of bread, urged them “to go and eat cakes”! There was of course an underlying political leadership that took over the revolution and converted it into a republic after an intervening period of anarchy.

On the contrary, a series of hunger protests over a wide area such as Nigeria can get out of hand. It could degenerate into mere anarchy if it overwhelms the state. I cannot see an informing idea nor a political leadership that can own or galvanize Nigeria’s hunger protests into a political movement. Therefore, what we may be seeing is a series of rehearsals in anarchy. The possible ensuing mayhem may fall into the hands of a cocktail of power adventurers: military despots, ethnic bigots, religious fundamentalists,  narcotics warlords and treasure- seeking gangster collectives. What began as hunger protests could lead straight into anarchy and total state meltdown.

Perhaps it is much easier to import, mass produce or borrow food to assuage these hunger protests and mobs than allow them to consume the fragile Nigerian state and plunge us all into a 100 years of anarchy.

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