...No middle class in Nigeria. You’re either rich or poor, and the last group make up for over 85% of the population. Every Nigerian is only a terminal illness away from being broke. Now that we have a pandemic, it has become more apparent that we’ve lived our lives as a nation with the wrong priorities.
I have long wondered how much longer it would take for the pretense to modernity and infrastructural development that we claim as a nation to be unraveled, I believe we’re on the threshold of discovering just how inadequate and unprepared we are as a nation to deal with a threat as existential as the one posed by the coronavirus pandemic. In a sense, the virus is a bell sounding an alarm but it is also a harbinger of misery and death.
As the death toll rises, so does the aggregate of our national anxiety. There are little or no assurances to be taken in the advisory of the government as it is obvious that they are equally overwhelmed, not just by the health implications of the virus but the evolving socio-economic impact on the country. To be fair, advanced countries world over are as much out of their depths as we are but apparently are doing a better job in nurturing relative stability in their nation’s economic life. The difference is that while most of these countries saved for projected difficult times, we bled our national coffers servicing the avarice of our political class and did little in diversifying and strengthening our revenue sources.
A time such as this was always predicted to come, though not even our modern day prophets and pundits could have detailed the specifics of the conditions we now live in. Note however that this is why nations save, this is why good leaders improve the earning and spending powers of its people, such that in a time of great difficulty, the survival of the country would be buoyed by a resilient citizenry and a robust economy. The doomsday postulation of elder statesmen, religious and economic leaders, journalists, musicians and writers amongst so many other groups is now upon us. It is inarguable that since Nigeria’s independence in 1960, we’ve made little progress worthy of commendation.
The continuous Lock down seem inevitable, as the race to find a vaccine for the virus continues to be challenged by the novelty of this coronavirus strain and its queer mutation. For Nigeria and Nigerians, every extension of the lockdown further reveals the gaping hole in our social and economic system and as sustenance runs dry, people will get desperate and act without thought for consequence. There have already been multiple reports of armed robberies and intimidation, the numbers of such incidences will rise. There is simply no dignity in hunger, and even wholesomely law-abiding citizens may in the next few weeks, explore unsavory means to make ends meet for their families.
Vision 2020 was once touted as the culmination of the Nigerian aspiration to reach enviable heights of national development, ironically it has become the very year exposing our infrastructural backwardness and the lack of progress over time. Our health system is overwhelmed so much so that a nation of approximately 200 million people cannot boast of 500 ventilators. Not even the Aso Rock clinic had one, until one was installed after having been moved from the Gwagwalada Specialist Hospital. On the other hand, directives by the Minister of Education that tertiary institutions begin online lectures was sneered at by ASUU, and with good cause because it is 2020 and we simply do not have the digital sophistication to make this happen: smart phones are pricey, internet access costs are exploitative and the networks are terrible. Yet, one sector that has it worst is our economy.
The 2020 Annual Budget passed by the National Assembly set the crude oil benchmark at $57 per barrel (pb), an unrealistic projection which even at the passing of the budget made all ridiculous by the dip in the value of oil in the international market. As I write, Bonny Light (Nigeria’s trademark oil), sells for $11.1 pb, please note that it costs Nigeria $17-18 to produce a barrel of crude oil, and at this rate, if we sell or don’t, we make losses. Crude oil as a source of national revenue is indeed a Midas’ curse, as it filled the pockets of our political class with gold but imbued it with laziness.
The fall in oil price and a depletion in our national coffers with no new savings means that our government is now broke or will be very broke soon. Invariably, the average citizen who grinds for a living will eventually suffer the most. Private sector workers would be hit hard, jobs will be lost and profit will decline. Public sector workers can expect to be owed salaries for many months, or settle for half pay. Nevertheless, one miracle that may never happen is the application of austere measures in the very running of government itself. Our political class just do not understand the need to cut down on its excesses, but all of the above comes into full effect when we are over this pandemic.
In the interim, people’s stock of food and other supplies will be depleted and the need to source for more food will override common sense for safety. People will hit the streets in search of sustenance and will be confronted by increase in price of goods and services, the naira's purchasing power will likewise take a dip and the scale of armed robbery can be expected to rise. In all of this, the virus will continue its spread and our overwhelmed health system with a dearth of personnel and equipment (PPE & Ventilators in particular) needed to combat this virus will be unable to do much, hence, we can expect the death toll from Covid-19 to equally hit the roof.
The above isn’t a pessimistic insight, it is a wakeup call to all stakeholders and citizens, to brace up and begin to think of ways to face the incoming challenges. We are equally not testing enough people, and as such do not have a figure that best presents a picture of the spread of this virus. We’ve done just a little over 7,000 tests whilst nations like Ghana, Egypt and South Africa are hitting the 100, 000 mark in short order. For perspective, we are Africa's most populated nation, we should be testing even more.
The failure of the federal government to fashion out a way to get monetary palliatives across to Nigerians at this time is edgy. It is one of two things, they either don’t care enough or do not have the means to. The lack of transparency in the touted disbursement of N20,000 incentives to some household begs the belief that it ever happened, and that even if it did, only a few households benefited with a bulk of the funds spirited away as usual.
Nevertheless, things are not as usual. This is not the time for “business as usual”. I urge all Nigerians to be impatient with government fumbling during this time. This is a time to demand to be cared for after years of pampering the political class with our docility and siddon-look behaviour. 2020 is revealing to us the truth that we have made no appreciable progress as a nation. But we equally have a role to play during this time.
We must stay at home and minimize movements strictly for the acquisition of essentials. Protect ourselves at all times and stay updated anyway we can on the virus, its nature and spread. Telecom companies, some of which have made contributions to the national coffers for combatting this virus, could play another role at this time: cut down on data and call costs, satellite or dish TV providers can do same. This is also the time for the federal government to place a price ceiling for certain goods, especially food items, and mandate the federal grain reserves to distribute grains nationwide, either for free or at give-away prices. Of course, there is also the need to cut down on the cost of running the government itself, let’s save money and get it across to homes who need it badly during this period.
I want to conclude by noting that there is, in fact, no middle class in Nigeria. You’re either rich or poor, and the last group make up for over 85% of the population. Every Nigerian is only a terminal illness away from being broke. Now that we have a pandemic, it has become more apparent that we’ve lived our lives as a nation with the wrong priorities.
On a lighter note, I’m a bit disappointed in our clergy, especially the prophetic ones. So no one could warn us ahead of such a time? No miracle cures? I do not say this to make fun of them, by the way, it is simply a time of despair. It is commendable that a few notable churches and church leaders have made monetary contributions running into millions to the fight against this virus. Of course, that opens up another discussion as to how they can afford to do this considering churches are, technically, non-profit making organizations. Yet at the moment, we need all the help we can get and that is all that matters now.
Fellow Nigerians, let’s stay home and stay safe.
Pelumi Olajengbesi Esq., is a Public Interests Lawyer and the Principal Partner at Pelumi Olajengbesi & Co. Law Corridor.