The Gut, Salutations And The Hunger Protests

The Gut, Salutations And The Hunger Protests


“Hunger is the cry of a god and two gods do the humans worship – the head and the stomach …We know the body will survive without head Sustenance, but the Stomach, the god that rumbles and thunders when sacrifice is late, this God cannot be slighted” – Wole Soyinka

Salutations to the Gut is the title of an 84-page essay published over 40 years ago by Nigeria’s Nobel Laureate in Literature, Wole Soyinka celebrating the splendour of Yoruba cuisine and gastronomic hedonism, how “the true hedonist has felt in every morsel the soul of the open kitchen”, a witty, whimsical essay about the importance and the culture of food, indeed life itself.  Soyinka wrote that “It is sad – daily the business of the world becomes more hurried, and the few who still possess leisure lack true poetry of food.” How so true, not just for the Yoruba race, but for the whole of humanity. It is not for nothing therefore that the Yoruba also have a popular saying that “the path to the stomach is the path to Heaven.” Where there is no true poetry of food and hunger persists, not only is paradise lost, hope is trampled upon, anger reigns, poverty stalks the landscape. This is summarized in a local saying that “ebi ki n wo inu, ki oro mi wo be”, which means literally that a hungry man is not ready for any kind of communication, because he is angry.

This explains perhaps why some of the major crises in human history have been woven around the search for food, and the expression of frustration around the lack of same, explained with different phrases: hunger, famine, poverty, scarcity or derivation.  Historically, the scarcity of food, or the non-availability or non-affordability, has often resulted in riots or revolutions. In 1648, there were riots on the streets of Moscow because government imposed a salt tax, which drove up the cost of salt. One of the reasons for the French Revolution was in part because the ordinary people could not afford to buy bread. In 1789, the market women of France marched on the Versailles, and the protest was quickly taken over by revolutionaries who no longer wanted the Monarchy. In 1846, in Ireland, there was the famous Great Famine which led to food riots. During the American Civil war, in 1863, Southern women looking for food organized protests in places like Boston and Richmond, taking over the streets and plundering warehouses where they could find them. The problem was hyper-inflation. During World War I, there were potato riots in Europe, and rice riots in Japan, as the people looked for food to eat. Hunger was also one of the causes of the February 1917 Revolution in Russia. In more recent times, we have had the Egyptian Bread riots of 1977 – food became so expensive, Egyptians rioted; in 1981 – there was the Bread riots in Casablanca, Morocco, and in 1984, the Moroccan Hunger Uprising. There have also been food riots in Venezuela, South Africa, Sri Lanka, the UK, Zambia, France, Haiti, Bangladesh and anywhere else in the world where the god of the stomach rumbles, after being slighted by scarcity, and ignited to rebellion by hunger. When the god of the stomach rumbles, there are casualties.

What is common in all the narratives is that people become desperate when they cannot feed themselves. Food prices trigger political instability as seen in the Russian and French Revolutions, the Great Depression and during the Arab Spring. The politics of hunger is oftentimes triggered by poor leadership, including corruption, or in other cases by failures in agricultural production such as crop failure or post-harvest losses, and a crisis in one place can translate into further crisis in other states, given the existence of an established global food supply chain. When food prices rise beyond the people’s purchasing power, social unrest is never too far away. This is the tough lesson Nigeria is confronting at the moment. It is sad that this is happening in a country that once advertised agriculture as the mainstay of its economy, and whose leaders still believe that deepening agricultural production could rescue the country from the mono-cultural, oil dependent ditch in which it has found itself. Today, the country faces a “food intifada”, the same country with an arable land area of about 36.9 million hectares, where there were once cocoa plantations in the West, rubber plantations in the Mid-West, rice pyramids in the North, as well as aquatic splendour and a fluorescent blue economy along its coastlines. In living memory, Nigerians talked about “Operation Feed The Nation” (1979) and the “Green Revolution (1980)”, and indeed it was in this same country that a certain Umaru Dikko, Minister of Transport, and Chair of the Committee on Rice Importation, under the Shehu Shagari administration once scandalized the public when he quipped that there was no hunger in Nigeria because no one was yet eating from the dustbin, and that Nigerians should be grateful because government was paying salaries without borrowing – a big favour! Dikko would later become famous for the botched attempt by the succeeding military regime to kidnap him from the UK in July 1984. He died in July 2014. If he were alive today, he would have lived to see that Nigerians now eat from dustbins, and that hungry and angry Nigerians are telling their government that they are “hungry”. And that the government goes a-borrowing and a-sorrowing.

There have been protests in Minna, Niger State, Ota, Sagamu and Abeokuta in Ogun State, Oyo and Ibadan in Oyo State, Kano in Kano State, Port Harcourt in Rivers State, Sokoto in Sokoto State, Lokoja in Kogi State, and in Lagos, the country’s commercial capital. The reports of the various protests clearly underline the people’s desperation in the face of hunger. In Lagos, we saw reports of people practically falling over themselves, and being beaten as they struggled to buy loaves of bread at a discounted price. Also in Lagos, a Good Samaritan had provided a truck load of tubers of yam to be given out for free. The people didn’t wait for the tubers to be distributed. Chaos ensued as they seized the initiative and grabbed the tubers of yam in a classical, Darwinian, “survival of the fittest” scramble. The Nigeria Customs Service (NCS) also tried to intervene by offering to sell seized, contraband bags of rice at a discounted price to the public. It made good on its promise. But at its Yaba depot in Lagos, over 10, 000 people showed up, scrambling, struggling. To cut a long story short, seven persons reportedly died. The initiative has been suspended. In Katsina, villagers and hoodlums besieged an accidented truck bearing grains, and looted the commodities. In Rivers state, aggrieved women added another twist to the matter when they asked the government to address their suffering because they had become sex-starved as their husbands no longer attended to their conjugal duties due to excessive heat in the other room on account of epileptic power supply and confirmed loss of libido because of the psychological pressure induced by the high cost of living!

In Ibadan, the protesting youths and market women told President Tinubu: “This is no longer Emilokan. This is Shege!.”  In Osogbo, the people chanted: “We can’t cope again”.  In Sokoto, they said: “We are being pushed to the wall.” In Ogun, the people told the government, “We are in pains”. In Lagos, they said: “Baba Tinubu Nigerians are Hungry, Rescue Us”. On February 10, in the midst of all this, the Nigeria Union of Pensioners announced that its members will go naked on the streets in protest. As of January 2024, Nigeria’s headline inflation had risen to 29.90%. Food inflation was over 35.4%- much higher in some of the states. In practical terms, a measure of rice is now N2,000 and a bag of 50kg rice – N70, 000, a bag of maize is as high as N60, 000. People can no longer eat three square meals per day, certainly not those pensioners who receive as low as N450 per month. The country’s minimum wage in the face of hyper-inflation cannot feed one person not to talk of a family.

It would have been strange if the Nigerian government did not respond to these developments, with the god of the stomach and the gut wreaking havoc across the land having been so badly bruised, and the people so disconcerted. In July 2023, Nigeria’s President, Bola Ahmed Tinubu had in fact foreseen the food crisis that the country was likely to face. He declared food insecurity a national emergency, set up a Committee on Food Emergency and moved the assignment to his office and the office of the National Security Adviser. This was understandable. Food inflation was rising. Farmers could not access their farms. The country’s Food Belt had become a theatre of terror and insurgency. But as the harvest became real, and protests showed up in parts of the country, with the people of Lagos even directly confronting the President screaming: “Ebi n pa wa” (“We are Hungry”) as the President went for Friday worship in Central Lagos, and other Nigerians screaming for help, government just had to be seen to be doing something. The Emergency Committee on Food Insecurity met, and the people were told at the end of the deliberations, that the Federal Government would provide 102, 000 metric tonnes of grains – 42, 000 from the National Grains Reserve and another 60, 000 to be provided by big farmers. In the event that this would not be enough, the Federal Government would import grains.

The big tragedy is that the government appears completely overwhelmed, confused even. Students of Policy Evaluation would readily agree that a government does not announce a state policy on an ad-hoc or impulsive basis. It must be thought through from beginning to the evaluation, in the interest of the people. It looks like the Tinubu team failed the test. About one month later, nobody has seen the promised 102, 000 metric tonnes. As recently as the last National Economic Council meeting held a few days ago, they were still talking about partnership with major fertilizer companies, and promises to make grains available. Nobody has seen any grains. Nobody is even sure that there is anything in the National Grains Reserve. At one point, we were told by the Vice President, that the government will introduce a Commodities Exchange Board. The President showed up later to say that there will be no Commodities Board and that his government will not control prices, nor will it import food. In that breath, the President openly contradicted his own Minister of information, his Vice President and dismissed a court judgment by the Federal High Court, sitting in Lagos, (re: Femi Falana SAN vs AG federation) which had ordered the Federal Government to fix the prices of goods and petroleum products in seven days in line with the Price Control Act, 2004 per Ambrose Lewis-Allagoa, J. 

Confusion galore… and nothing could be more confusing than the Presidency summoning a selected team of 16 stakeholders over the weekend and setting up what they called a “tripartite” Economic Advisory Committee to solve Nigeria’s tripartite problems: a national currency on a free fall and foreign exchange crisis, hyperinflation, and the high cost of living. I suspect that someone in government has suddenly discovered the word “tripartite” and so everything has become “tripartite” including the setting up of a “tripartite” 37-member committee to review the national minimum wage. The optics may look good to the extent that government appears as if it is trying to do something, whatever that is, at least to show the people that “we are trying.” The problem is that the same advisers that Tinubu has invited, with the exception of two or three, were the same people who have been advising government since 1999, as investors and stakeholders – what new thing do they have to offer, apart from the privilege of their access to the corridors of power?  What happens to the National Economic Council (NEC), a constitutional body chaired by the Vice President? And why has the President not appointed a Chief Economic Adviser whose task is to help the President link all possible loose ends between the monetary and fiscal sides of things? Nigeria needs one, and preferably a properly educated Economist.

The biggest response to the confusion referred to parenthetically above, has been the announcement of a two-day warning strike by Organized Labour, led by the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC), beginning from today. NLC has been abandoned by the Trade Union Congress (TUC), its partner-union with which it originally gave government a 14-day ultimatum to honour a 16-point Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) signed in October 2023, or face a strike. In a confusing twist to the tale, TUC now says NLC is acting unilaterally. A total of 64 other groups have reportedly pulled out of the planned protest. Even the National Association of Nigerian Students (NANS) told the leadership of the NLC to seek dialogue with the Nigerian Government and shelve its strike. NLC says it would go ahead. Femi Falana, NLC Counsel has written the AG Federation to affirm the constitutionality of the right to protest and the ineffectuality of the two interlocutory injunctions ordered against the NLC by the National Industrial Court in the light of an extant Court of Appeal decision on the right to protest. Again, so much confusion. It is nonetheless important to state that peaceful protest is legal, valid and constitutional and whether or not the NLC succeeds or fails with its two-day warning strike, the key point is that there is disquiet in the land about inflation, the rising cost of living and the hardship that the people face. The people want tangible results not talks, promises, preachments, or optics.

Many of the states, notably Lagos, Ogun and Borno have introduced palliative measures to help their people. These are welcome interventions. The Federal Government cannot do it alone. The people must see that their home governments care for them and have empathy for them as they experience what for many is the nightmare of a lifetime. The nightmare is so serious that the Federal Government in an attempt to show empathy, and to be seen “to be trying” has now announced that it will implement the Steve Oronsaye Report. I hope someone has read that report and tried to understand it properly. The Report recommends a lean, pruned down, more efficient government, shorn of waste, fat and duplication. President Tinubu does not need months or “a tripartite” committee to implement that. No further confusion, please.

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