By OBINNA EZUGWU
A large basket sculpture containing varieties of food items – from yam to pineapples and everything in-between – welcomes you to Makurdi, the capital city of Benue State, North Central Nigeria. Now called the Middle Belt Region, Nigeria’s North Central states have been known, for ages, as the country’s food belt.
And Benue, with its vast arable land, has prided itself as the Food Basket of the Nation. From yam to rice and tomatoes and varieties of vegetables and fruits, Benue’s fertile soil supports all, and millions of its people have thrived as farmers, contributing significant percentage of Nigeria’s food supply. Food had always been ‘cheap.’
Not anymore. Today, Benue’s story is radically different. Large swaths of its farmlands have become graveyards, hosting bones of thousands killed by gun-wielding herdsmen in violence many have described as genocide. Since the uptick of crisis in 2016, when an estimated 500 people were killed in Agatu area of the state, thousands have been killed, and many more displaced.
Within the last two weeks, not less than 150 have been killed according to media reports, and many more displaced. Thousands of Benue’s farmers now live in internally displaced persons (IDPs). Food supply is severely affected, and prices have gone up.
“Benue is no longer the same, everything has become expensive here,” said Eunice Ehi in Gboko. “This herdsmen issue is very serious. I don’t know where we are going in this country.”
On Saturday, the state’s governor, Samuel Ortom, vowed that the time for crying was over, and that his people must now stand up and defend themselves.
“A few weeks ago, Benue stakeholders met and gave this administration the mandate to activate and implement the Community Volunteer Guards Law enacted in 2000,” Ortom said at the Banquet Hall of the Government House during a media parley to mark his second year in office in his second tenure.
“We have already commenced the process of recruiting responsible people of 50 years and below into the Volunteer Guards. Their duty is to support the conventional security agencies in defending their communities. We have cried enough. We will cry no more. Now is time for action.”
Ortom’s tough talking may give the hapless populace some hope, but he can only do little in a country where the police, and every security apparatus, is controlled from the centre, and every call for reform has been rebuffed. His vigilante will be compelled to use Dane guns to confront marauders with AK-47 rifles, a near suicide mission.
The story of Benue is emblematic of the story of Nigeria, a country beset by unrelenting violence; where the bulk of farmers now live in displaced persons camps. The result is felt in Lagos, Abuja and elsewhere; from backwater villages to the mega cities. Cries about increasing food prices, have turned to wailing.
“Today, more and more farmers can’t go to their farms because of the killings in much of rural Nigeria,” said Prof. Jibrin Ibrahim, Director of the Centre for Democracy and Development (CDD). “And this has eroded the effect of the government in improving agriculture.”
Speaking on Friday at a stakeholders’ meeting in Ado Ekiti, the Ekiti State capital, to proffer solutions to insecurity in the state and by extension the country, Dr. Kayode Fayemi, governor of the state lamented that farmers are now afraid to go to their farms due to insecurity.
The Ekiti Council of Elders’ President, Prof Joseph Oluwasanmi, took the lamentations a notch further, and said what many politically exposed persons can only afford to say in their closets: the seeming unwillingness of the President Muhammadu Buhari led federal government to tackle the menace.
“We are appalled by the impudence accompanying the criminal acts of illegal intruders. Our people do not expect to be disdainfully treated by those who enjoy their hospitality and we repudiate the impunity of unprovoked aggression,” he said. “Why are all the genuine efforts of our governors in the South West being hampered by the agents of the Federal Government? Up till now, the Amotekun outfit has not been allowed to carry arms in spite of the glaring security breaches.”
Everywhere in the country, complaints about the menace of the herders, and the consequent rising commodity prices rent the air. Prices of staple food items have gone out of the reach of many households, even as unemployment and underemployment rates at all time high.
“Each time you go to buy something in the market, you will discover that the price has increased,” said Iya Oropo, a shop owner at Ojodu, Lagos. “Sometimes you don’t even see things to buy. We are really in trouble.”
Iya Oropo who sells everything from carbonated drinks to staple food items, lamented that business is no longer profitable, as according to her, rising costs erodes whatever gains made.
It’s a view shared by Kemi, a fruit seller at Berger Bus Stop. “We are still coming to sell because there is nothing else to do,” she says. “What happens now is that if you make N1000 today, by the time you go back to the market to buy, price would have increased so much that you have to use the gain you made to buy.”
It’s a country where everything seems to be falling apart. Unemployment is at over 33.3 percent. Youth unemployment rose to 40.5 percent in Q4, 2020, in a country where more than 60 percent of the population are in the youth bracket. Poverty rate is rising rapidly. In 2018, Nigeria, a country of roughly 200 million people, overtook India – with 1.3 billion people – to emerge poverty capital of the world, according to World Poverty Clock.
Nearly 90 million people, approximately half of the total population, are living in extreme poverty. Yet, the country faces a major population boom and is anticipated to become the third most populous country in the world by 2050, with little or no infrastructure to absorb this growth.
“The economy has unraveled as a result of the negative effects of these crises, it’s already happening and we are seeing it,” said Dr. Bongo Adi, economic consultant and senior lecturer at Lagos Business School.
“And the bad thing is that there is so much parochialism in dealing with these issues. We have a situation where some people are to be crushed, while others who carry out heinous crimes are pampered because of where they come from.”
The problem has now been worsened by the Covid-19 pandemic. In January, a publication by a team of researchers on World Bank Blog, noted that the country’s macro-micro simulations show that more than 10 million Nigerians could be pushed into poverty by the economic effects of the COVID-19 crisis alone. Yet with the economic effects of the COVID-19 crisis, the national poverty rate is instead forecast to jump from 40.1% in 2019 to 45.2% in 2022, implying that 100.9 million Nigerians will be living in poverty by 2022, the research said.
“Taking the difference between these two scenarios shows that the COVID-19 crisis alone is forecast to drive an additional 10.9 million people into poverty by 2022. What is more, these simulations only cover monetary poverty: multidimensional poverty is even more widespread in Nigeria and is also set to rise as the crisis evolves,” the researchers said.
A populace facing disappearing jobs and rising poverty, are still having to contend with skyrocketing food prices, occasioned largely by insecurity and poor government policies, even as many are forced to sell off all possessions to pay ransom to free relatives from elusive bandits now on a kidnapping spree.
Food inflation closed at 22.72% in April 2021, from 22.95% recorded in the previous month, while inflation rate slightly dropped to 18.12% compared to 18.17% recorded in March, a welcome reprieve from months of nearly out of control inflation, but one whose impact is not felt in the streets.
Inflation had been on the rise for almost 20 consecutive months. While headline inflation rose from 15.75 percent in December 2020 to 16.47 percent, food inflation rose to 20.57 percent in January as against 19.56 percent it was in December 2020, amid worsening economic indices.
“More and more Nigerians are sinking into poverty,” Jibrin said. “We live in a country today where every family knows someone who has been kidnapped. We all know because we’ve all had to contribute to pay ransom to free someone. People sell their farmlands, their properties and all they have to pay ransom. As this continues, more and more people are sinking deeper and deeper into poverty.”
It never rains but it pours. Insecurity has led to more poverty and more poverty has led to more insecurity. More people were kidnapped in the first four months of 2021 than all of last year, according to Jose Luengo-Cabrera of the World Bank.
Herders incursions into the South, notably the South East and South West, and the seeming unwillingness to tackle the menace, has led to emergence of ‘nationalists’ whose activities threatens to further compound the country’s security challenges.
In the South West, Sunday Adeyemo, alias Sunday Igboho, who became prominent for confronting Fulani herdsmen accused of carrying out criminal activities in Ibarapa, Oyo State and other parts of the zone, has since transformed into a separatist leading a quest for Oduduwa Republic, one gaining increasing attention as more communities are attacked by the herders.
He has since vowed that there would be no election in the South West in 2023, a sign that the country may be heading closer towards anarchy.
In the South East, where Nnamdi Kanu, leader of the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB), has been pushing for an independent state of Biafra since he formed the group in 2012, the security situation is deteriorating fast. In December last year, Kanu launched Eastern Security Network (ESN), to, according to him, tackle “herdsmen terrorism.”
The offshoot has been increasing confrontation by certain “Unknown Gunmen” with security agencies. Security formations have been attacked and uniformed men killed. The police and army have also been accused of rounding up citizens and executing them. An atmosphere of fear has since pervaded the entire region, but particularly Imo State, the epicenter of the enveloping crisis, with economic activities severely disrupted.
“People are moving around with fear,” Gina Opara, an Owerri resident said. “There is shooting everywhere, and they shoot sporadically. The no movement has caused serious hunger for us. Though markets are open, but fear of getting killed makes many people to stay off the streets.”
In an interview with Arise TV last week, Prof. Maurice Iwu, chairman of Imo Economic Initiative, lamented that the state’s economy has practically been destroyed.
“People used to come to Imo State for their vacation, we had a thriving hospitality industry, but that’s no longer the case,” he said.
The Initiative’s spokesperson, Mr. Jerry Chukwueke, noted further that, “The numerous holiday resorts, the hotels and educational institutions that were major component of the state IGR, are being totally being destroyed.”
Yet, the situation is much worse in the North East and North West where Boko Haram jihadists and sundry bandits have rendered many communities desolate, and made accessing education a high risk undertaking.
On Thursday night, eight students and two staff of Nuhu Bamali Polytechnic, Zaria, Kaduna State state, were abducted by bandits who stormed the school late night. They killed two students in the process. The incident comes days after kidnap of 156 pupils of Salihu Tanko Islamiyya School in Tegina town of Rafi Local Government Area of Niger State.
The bandits have since settled for N150 million ransoms, according to the Headmaster of the school, Alhaji Abubakar Alhassan. This comes only days after parents of kidnapped students and staff of another school, Greenfield University Students, Kaduna were made to coughed up as much as N180 million to pay for their release. It’s a growing trend.
Kidnapping of students for ransom, has become new goldmine for bandits, even as they have been unrelenting in their attacks on farming communities.
Not less than 200 individuals were killed between Kebbi and Zamfara State last week by the bandits. A member of the House of Representatives from Kebbi, Kabir Ibrahim Tukura, told his colleagues Wednesday that over 500 persons had been killed, 201 abducted and 15,000 displaced in attacks by bandits and terrorists on farming communities in Sakaba and Danko/Wasagu Local government areas of the state.
The farming communities in the local governments have lost over 500 persons to banditry and terrorist attacks. Furthermore, more than 201 individuals were kidnapped with millions of naira paid as ransom,” he said.
Over 15,000 have been rendered homeless, the number of widows is on a steady rise, children cannot go to school, farmers do not have access to their farmlands, and local markets are closed. They are now becoming poorer and poorer, and above all, the local primary schools cannot accommodate the internally displaced persons in the affected communities.”
Amid the onslaught in Zamfara, the state governor, Bello Matawalle, charged the populace to defend themselves, albeit with bare hands. The governor also cancelled the June 12 Democracy Day celebrations in the state due to the insecurity situation.
The democracy day ended up being marred by sporadic protests in Abuja, Lagos, Oyo, Jos, Rivers and various other states of the federation, as thousands of young people defied threats and risk of getting killed by security agencies to register their frustrations.
The last wave of protests that took place last year, the #EndSARS protest, which metamorphosed from a demand to an end to Special Anti Robbery Squad (SARS), a notorious police unit that became what it was set up to fight, ended when tens of protesters where shot at the Lekki Tollgate, Lagos, an incident that was denied by the government. Many who stepped out to protest on Saturday, knew that death was a possibility, but many persisted even after being harassed by security agents. Desperation for change, conquering fear of death in the event.
“It’s better to die in peace than to live in pains,” argued a young protester, Offiong Etim, @OffiongEtimUmo1 “I have been jobless for a year now. This week alone, I have starve many days. A graduate with no livelihood, no hope and no means of survival. Am tired, since yesterday haven’t eaten.”
Etim’s story is the story of many young Nigerians, one acknowledged by the president himself, in between his outlandish claims of lifting 10.5 million people out poverty during his interviews last week.
“The level of poverty is unimaginable. There are too many young people who are poor, who looking basically for what to eat,” Buhari said in an interview with Arise TV.
The good news is that oil price has rallied past $70 per barrel. Oil makes up about 10 percent of GDP, and accounts for over 80 percent of export earnings and about half of government revenues. The rise means that there will be more money available to the government to find solutions. But even so, for a country that still imports refined products for domestic consumption, rise in global crude prices is both good and bad news. Subsidy payments take a chunk of the crude oil earnings.
Last month, the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC), gave a notice to the Federation Account and Allocation Committee (FAAC) that it will deduct about N126 billion from its remittance to the Federation Account at the next meeting scheduled for June, and that it will begin subsequently, to subtract the balance of an additional N50 billion, being Joint Venture (JV) cost recovery to sustain crude oil production level. Analysts say it will take about $130 per barrel of crude for the country to break even.
Still precariously an oil dependent economy, Nigeria needs investors. But the government of Buhari, appears to take delight in looking for solutions in the wrong places, and adopting approaches that sink the country deeper into economic troubles.
One is the sudden decision to ban social media platform, Twitter, fortnight ago, in response to the platform’s decision to delete his tweet, in which he vowed to deal with agitators in the southeast in the language they understand, while evoking the ghost the devastating Biafra war.
The Twitter ban, which has since been strongly condemned by the global community, including the United States, European Union, United Kingdom, Canada, Sweden and so on, as well as civil society groups and prominent individuals in the country, has since been justified by Minister of Information, Alhaji Lai Mohammed on the basis of national security, but observers warn its a dangerous decision that sends out very negative message.
“The implication of such ban is that it sends a message to potential investors and the international community in general, that there is no rule of law; that the word of the leader is the law,” Adi argued.
“It says that it’s not about the courts; it’s not about the justice system, it’s not about the constitution, but the president’s words. It tells investors that policies are actions are arbitrary, that actions are taken based on the whims and caprices of the leader.”
The insecurity challenges coupled with attitude of the government has caused investors to look elsewhere. Indeed, earlier in the year, Twitter snubbed Nigeria to cite office in Ghana.
In 2020, Nigeria, Africa’s largest economy, and by far the continent’s most populous country, attracted a total FDI of $2.6 billion, same as neighbouring but much smaller Ghana, down from the $3.3 billion it attracted in 2019.
Same year, Egypt recorded the highest influx of FDI among African countries with a total inflow of $5.5 billion, even though the figure represented a whopping 38% drop.
The Buhari government has also, in its effort to support local production and prop up the naira, restricted imports and eventually closed land borders in 2019 to check smuggling. But local production has remained elusive with a large percentage of farmers now out of the farms. The import restrictions and reduced farming activities have combined to spike food prices.
Still, the naira has, instead, continued on a downward spiral. From 2019 till date, the currency has fallen from just over N300/$1 to N411/$1 in the official market, while it exchanged at N502/$1 in the parallel market on Friday. Also the nations debt has blooned under this government from N11 trillion in 2015 to N33 trillion in April according to the Debt Management Office, DMO.