Trucks stock as Northern food blockade comes into effect

As a little boy, one of the ways I showed displeasure with my parents was to throw myself on the ground and roll over and over. It was a way of saying to them, “well, because I’m angry with you, let me kill myself.” In my childish naivety, I thought I was punishing them.

Over the past few days, I have observed as many northerners in Nigeria’s social media space argue boastfully about how the ‘food blockade’ imposed by cattle and foodstuff dealers under the aegis of Amalgamated Union of Foodstuff and Cattle Dealers of Nigeria (AUFCDN), will teach the south some lessons. The more I come across such comments, the more I remember those my childhood days. The whole essence of the blockade comes across as, “well, because I’m angry with you, let me destroy myself.”

One thing I have come away with in the entire episode is that most Nigerians have incredibly poor knowledge about the country, and how interdependent the various components really are. There is no doubt that the bulk of the food consumed in Nigeria are grown in the north, but it’s ridiculous to assume that without “northern food” the south would starve, or go on the knees to beg to be spared that long painful path to mortality. Nothing, indeed, can be farther from the truth.

Let me clarify, however, that by this intervention, I don’t seek to pass judgement on whether the reason for the so-called food blockade is germane or not. The northern food sellers, I understand, are angry about being “attacked in the south at every slightest opportunity,” the events in Ibadan, Oyo State being the immediate trigger. I do not know to what extent these crisis have resulted in loss of lives and property, but I have a fair idea that on each occasion, the security agencies have always intervened, and some accounts suggest that such interventions do sometimes tip the tide in favour of the Northerners.

Regardless, the current episode eerily speak to the predictability of the country’s geopolitics. Whilst power was in the south, northerners became very intolerant of southerners in their region. From the Sharia crisis of year 2000 to the post election violence in 2011, southerners in the north paid heavily for the Olusegun Obasanjo and Goodluck Jonathan administrations. With Muhammadu Buhari, a northerner in power, southerners are also getting restive and ever eager to take out their frustrations with Buhari on northerners. These days, northerners love to argue that the reason they haven’t been keen on attacking southerners is because of restraint or some phantom maturity. It is simply because one of their own is in power. Notably, President Buhari has, more than any leader in history, inflamed ethnic passions with his nepotism. Worse still, his inability to rein in on bandits carrying out violent crimes in the south has enabled the suspicion of a certain hidden agenda to take root.

But back to the matter of food blockade. The simple way to describe the move is that it is a needless self-destructive over-reaction. The proponents of the blockade are simply cutting their noses to spite their faces. Simple economics teaches that in real market situations, the consumer is king. It is in keeping with this dictum that producers dedicate full departments to customer service, and in addition invest heavily on public relations and corporate social responsibility. It is absurd to imagine a producer refusing to sell to his buyers just because he is angry with them. In no time, of course, he would be out of business, while the buyers would seek available alternatives.

Perhaps the only way to make sense of the food blockade charade is that its promoters are mostly middlemen who do not know their way to the farms, and therefore don’t understand the cost implications of farm production. Thus, out of their own selfish ego trip, they are willing to allow the northern farmers’ sweat to go to waste in order to make a point that doesn’t simply exist. Of course, the real farmers are already counting their losses, which must have informed the decision to lift the blockade, as being reported.

Many of those who celebrate the blockade as some sort a lesson to the South do so as an expression of what they wish to see, rather than what is really on ground. Admittedly, tomatoes and other perishable food items got slightly more expensive in most of the south. But while this will have an insignificant impact on the finances of a consumer who cannot do without tomatoes for the period, the lack of supplies simply means that the products would perish, inflicting heavy economic losses on the producers. To be clear, even in the unlikely event that there are no longer any tomatoes coming from the north, it cannot be a reason for any southerner to go hungry. And let’s not also lose sight of the fact that the blockade would inflicted more economic harm on the northerner in the south whose sole business in the region is reselling items brought from the north.

Nigeria is an astonishingly diverse country, and apparently, most people don’t understand how truly diverse it is. Conceded, and the point is worth repeating, that the north supplies most of the food items in the south, it is also true that the south can be very much self-sufficient in food production. Again, what many people don’t realize is that the bulk of the food items for which the south depends on the north are vegetables like carrots, cucumber, cabbage, pepper (also grown seasonally in the south) and some variety of fruits. These are, in the circumstance, totally dispensable.

Someone will mention staple food items like yam and rice and I will only partly agree. Yes, most of the yams in Lagos markets come from the north, but it doesn’t take away the fact that yam is also widely grown in the south. Indeed, throughout my childhood years in Enugu, I rarely came in contact with yams from the north. This is because we grew yams that lasted all-year-round. Still, the country’s yam region is the middle belt. And increasingly, the people there are parting ways with the “north.” It is instructive that the region’s leaders had only strong words of condemnation for the blockade. Rice, on the other hand, is grown from Abakaliki to Ekiti. Yet, even with all of government’s efforts, most of the rice eaten in most states are imported.

Yam and cassava constitute key components in most of the foods eaten in southern Nigeria; be it ‘fufu’ ‘garri,’ ‘amala’ ‘starch’ and do on. Cassava is, of course, mostly grown in the south. Fruits such as pear (of different kinds), mangoes, bananas, plantains and cashews are widely grown in the south, too. Importantly, palm oil, a very important food condiment, with all the other derivatives from the palm such as vegetable oil, is a southern Nigeria thing. Indeed, even the wicker baskets used to store tomatoes and other items coming from the north, are produced in the south from palm frond.

Someone might mention beef, a key source of protein in the country, which comes from cows, known to be the stock in trade of the Fulani man. But nobody has ever starved because he didn’t eat beef. And suffice to say that beef, though popular in most Nigerian cities and suburbs, is only an alternative to pork, dog meat, chicken, bush meat, fish and so on. None of which has anything to do with the North. Indeed, the first two are popular delicacies in parts of Southern Nigeria, where they are also bred in great numbers.

In the final analysis, the north is dependent on the south as much as the south is dependent on the north in terms of food. Therefore, imposing food blockade in this case is a ridiculous self-affliction.

Obinna Ezugwu, [email protected]