It is challenging to placate a man deprived of the necessities of life. That is the root of the famous saying that “a hungry man is an angry man”. We are already seeing that happening as more people who are experiencing hunger due to the lockdown of the socio-economic life are beginning to respond as social liabilities. Recently, an increasing number of non-disabled and seemingly refined persons have been unabashedly accosting me for alms and food. There are also viral videos showing that the public is beginning to react angrily to the continued lockdown without the government making adequate provisions for their feeding and overall welfare. In one of such videos, hoodlums blocked and robbed a wagon conveying food items. Those hoodlums equally took away tubers of yams and other food materials. In another viral video, a horde of angry boys was protesting and robbing houses of both money and food.
The scene in the second video is reminiscent of the Italian food riot of 2007 and the 1977 Egyptian bread riots. We cannot wish for such unpalatable experiences. In any case, there are also enough pieces of evidence that the government is responding to the situation. However, there are still concerns about the adequacy of such responses. The rising tide of protestations may point to that. For instance, only about 1,126,200 poor and vulnerable households are currently receiving help from the federal government’s conditional cash transfers. First, the number falls far below the total number of families captured in the national social register. Secondly, serious controversies are trailing the method used in finding and including households in a national social record. Thirdly, over 70% of Nigerians live below the poverty line and deserve social safety nets. Fourthly, more than 60% of the Nigerian workforce are casual workers or at least depend on the income earned daily for their sustenance. With deficient levels of savings, their continued lockdown financially and economically incapacitates them and raises the odds in favour of anger and protestation.
Is the continued lockdown of Lagos, Abuja and Ogun states still necessary? This rhetorical question gains momentum given the strategic economic importance of those States relating to the rest of the country. The relationship is like that of a suckling mother. As the country’s commercial nerve centre, contributing more than 50% of the non-oil GDP, the economic role of Lagos State is pivotal. When combined with that of the federal capital territory, the impact on the rest of the country is considerable. Without enough savings, locking down economic production and exchange for periods that are longer than necessary only gives room for the consumption of investable capital. Without adequate social safety-nets, to guard against the attrition of the capital resources for most Nigerians, particularly at those strategic economic nerve centres, a macroeconomic reboot after the lockdown may take longer time than expected. This dilemma demands hard choices. Therefore, we must determine the clear implications of the continued lockdown in terms of COVID-19-threatened lives that are salvageable and those that starvation and the attendant insecurity may bring about.
COVID-19 has presented itself as a credible test of the efficiency and effectiveness of governments of various countries and at all levels. Unlike regular times when public sector management runs simultaneously with myriads of private-sector economic activities, economic management appears to have shifted entirely to the public sector. Every government that is worth its onions is striving to prove it. Nigeria is not alone. The government has been implementing a series of continuously evolving packages of incentives to support various economic agents, particularly the vulnerable groups. The most prominent of them all is the conditional cash transfers which began on April 1. Others include the seventy-seven thousand metric tons of food slated for distribution to the three states under federal government lockdown as well as the continuation of the school feeding programme. Deliver the government also promised to supply food packages to about 200,000 households during the period of lockdown.
Similarly, the central bank of Nigeria announced a 50 billion Naira credit facility to support households and micro, small and medium enterprises affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. That complements another N100 billion intervention in healthcare loan to enable the pharmaceutical companies and healthcare practitioners to expand their capacities. Additionally, the bank is also to deliver one trillion Naira in loans to boost industrial and manufacturing production across critical sectors. There is equally the emergency economic stimulus bill passed the House of Representatives to provide a 50% tax relief for employers and business owners that did disengage staff during this period.
While we commend our governments for the efforts that they are putting in place and mobilizing, compared with other countries of the world, our level of preparation is quite appalling. It has opened our inadequacies and combined the things we know about how disorganized and uncoordinated we are. We also watch with some wishful envy how on the other side of the geographic divide, the robustness of their public health systems, as well as other public safety nets are helping them to win the battle without many starvation-induced casualties. Again, since 2016 the media has been awash with the stories of cash transfers made to vulnerable people. There were also many testimonials of needy persons who helped that were splashed in the national television to dramatize how the government is doing everything possible to cut poverty. However, this pandemic has shown the limits of the credibility of those previously advertised efforts.
It is increasingly clear that less than 1.3 million Nigerians benefited out of about 100 million people who are living below the poverty line. Even if we further restrict the poverty measurement indicators, at least 10 million Nigerians we belong to the vulnerable group. It shows that we are not doing enough. Secondly, there appears to be a severe lop-sidedness, even in the distribution of the so-called cash transfers. While we agree that the northern parts of the country have more incidences of poverty, the inexplicable dominance of the North in the beneficiary list raises strong eyebrows. I sincerely doubt if any of the vulnerable persons in my community or nearby communities have ever received help from this intervention. Whereas the North-West region has a total of 561,758 supported household, the south-east region has a paltry 27,977 assisted households. The number of households supported in the rest of the regions is 321,434 for the north-central region, 109,442 for the north-east region, 67,969 for the South-South region and37,904 for the south-west region. The program is merely an intervention for the poor in northern Nigeria.
What are the state governments doing about all of this? Apart from the Lagos state and about three other States, it is not apparent what the rest are doing to improve the socio-economic conditions of the poorest of the poor in their States. Even in Lagos state, the efforts are yet to be visibly appreciated. Much still exist as promises. Some State governments also appear to be asleep while their counterparts were riding on the back of the conditional cash transfers. It is difficult, for instance, to explain why Lagos and Delta states do not receive conditional cash transfers. Does it mean that they do not have vulnerable and needy people in those states? My understanding is that beneficiary states agree with the federal government to supply an office and staff to run the cash transfer program. Does it mean that Lagos and Delta state governments do not have spare offices and personnel to manage the programme? The same question goes to the local governments that are the closest to the people. Not much is being heard about how they are deploying part of their monthly allocations to address the current scourge. Most local governments in Nigeria receive fiscal allocations far above the costs that they manage. One would expect that this is a suitable time for most of the local government chief executives to prove their relevance.
The public sector is currently undergoing a test. A sizeable number of us can predict what the managers of these States can do. However, this is a proper time for this administration to prove Nigerians wrong. Every policy and programme become authentically good and acceptable when its benefits far outweigh the trade-off. How superior is the decision to lock down three economically strategic states of the country compared to allowing economic agents to open shops? While the former might, to some degree manage the threats of coronavirus plague, the latter presents dangerous signs of hunger, starvation and insecurity. Is there a policy line that can ensure that we achieve the best of the two worlds? Now, some of the worst-hit countries such as Italy, Spain and Austria previously in mass quarantine have allowed partial returns to work. Nursery and primary schools are also set to resume in Denmark. The loosening of lockdown restrictions is risky, but we can start early to understudy these countries taking an early lead in these respects. Such a step is wholesome because of the experiences they gained from this severe hit suffered. We must equally realize that economic life must be released to go on as it used to.