Friday, 31 May 2024 04:57

‘The cost of living wants to kill the living’: Nigerians struggle to afford the basics - The Guardian, UK

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For visitors to Lagos, the gentle plea begins with immigration officials at the airport and is echoed across the streets of Africa’s most populous city: “Show me love.”

It is a familiar request for tips in a city of omnipresent hustle, but residents say the requests have intensified in the last year as people struggle under the crushing weight of Nigeria’s underperforming economy.

Wednesday marked the completion of the first year in office of the president, Bola Tinubu, after the disputed election of February 2023. It was also the 25th anniversary of Nigeria’s return to democracy, a promising point in a region where six out of eight coup attempts since 2020 have been successful. Official ceremonies were restrained, and on the eve of the landmark date, the national mood in the capital, Abuja, was far from celebratory.

Overall economic progress since 1999 has been hard to measure due to the many periods of growth and decline, said Bongo Adi, a professor of economics and data analytics at Lagos Business School. “The economy has moved in different directions over this period,” he said. The best era of economic welfare and sustained employment, however, was in the early 2000s under the former president Olusegun Obasanjo, he added.

Last year, Nigeria lost bragging rights as Africa’s largest economy when it dropped behind South Africa. The International Monetary Fund has already projected a further slip to fourth place behind Egypt and Algeria.

Data from the Nigerian Bureau of Statistics put the economy as growing slightly by 2.98% in the first quarter of 2024. But unemployment remains high in a country where more than 2 million people join the workforce annually.

In 2019, the monthly minimum wage was increased from N19,000 (£10) to N30,000 (£16), but many say that amount is nowhere close to enough. Workers nationwide say their living expenses have rocketed as food inflation – already in double digits – continues to rise. Electricity tariffs have surged by at least a hundred percent in the last year.

In 18 months, the price of bottled water has gone from N50 (3p) to N100 to N200. In some markets outside the big cities, yams are now also sold in huge slices, for those who cannot afford the whole vegetable. The cost of making the staple dish jollof rice has tripled in the last three years.

As a coping mechanism, analysts say young people are increasingly turning to sex work and cybercrime in small towns, especially in the south.

“The cost of living wants to kill the living,” one Nigerian lamented during a call-in show on national television.

‘Everything is really hard’

On 29 May 1999, as Nigeria transitioned from military rule to civilian leadership, Tinubu, now the president, was taking the oath of office to be the third elected governor of Lagos.

His supporters say he went on to lay the groundwork for transformation of the city’s economy and infrastructure in two four-year tenures. Today, his aides say he remains passionate about fixing Nigeria’s economic challenges.

The number of poor Nigerians “is totally unacceptable to the president … that is why it is perhaps his No 1 priority to tackle poverty, and he has a programme to stabilise and grow the economy in general,” Wale Edun, the finance minister, said last October at the launch of a welfare programme to give N75,000 (£42) across three months to each of the country’s 15 million low-income households.

From his first day in office, Tinubu began announcing textbook reforms that economists and policymakers had suggested for years: currency devaluation and cutting off a fuel subsidy that had fanned corruption for decades.

However, the changes have squeezed the economy – the naira is still fluttering and the subsidy cut tripled petrol prices – and have not been rolled out without controversy.

“Economy does not obey orders, not even military orders,” said Obasanjo, the president from 1999 to 2007, in Abuja last week, adding that the reforms were necessary but had been wrongly implemented.

In January, Betta Edu, the humanitarian affairs minister, was suspended while an investigation was launched into the alleged diversion of N585m (£329,000) in funds related to the welfare scheme. Edu has denied any wrongdoing.

A group of oil dealers and a prominent ruling party member have also claimed that the subsidy cuts have been reversed, although the junior petroleum minister, Heineken Lokpobiri, has denied this.

Tinubu’s critics have also pointed out that he has yet to appoint ambassadors but has named advisers for mundane things like national values and a personal assistant for teleprompter usage. Sources in the presidency say a cabinet shuffle could be announced in the coming days in what is being interpreted as a sign of his discontent with the current cast’s performance.

On Monday, he visited Lagos to open a controversial coastal highway stretching to Calabar, a port city in the oil-rich Niger Delta, close to the border with Cameroon. A few miles away from where he stood promising that the project would boost 30m businesses, traders in the Oniru market went about their day unexcited about the present and their future.

Chidi Obi, a 40-year-old owner of an electrical shop within the market who remembers being thrilled as a teenager in 1999, said he was “not feeling the democracy of Nigeria today” and accused unions of not doing enough to challenge the government.

“Look at fuel prices today, nobody is talking … people are dying,” he said. “The money you make in a day, one plate of food collects it all and you’re still going home to your wife and children and family. Everything is really hard.”

A refinement process

Across West Africa, there have been raging debates about whether democracy has lifted living standards as support for coups surges in Nigeria’s neighbours such as Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso.

Oge Onubogu, director of the Africa Program at the Washington DC-based thinktank Wilson Center, said citizen frustrations with democracy can, in fact, help strengthen the democratic system as long as leaders respond to them by pushing for more inclusive governance.

“For the first time in a long time, we are seeing citizens question the status quo, the state-society relationship,” she said. “People are saying it can no longer be business as usual. Citizens are rising up and questioning the way things are being done,” she added. “Isn’t that democracy itself? So maybe this provides that opportunity for us to even begin to think about how we reset.”

For many years, Nigeria was seen as the police officer of West Africa, given its outsized financial and military contributions to enforcing rule of law and fostering democracy within the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas).

Tinubu, the current chair of Ecowas, has been pushing for a return to civilian administration in Niger where a 30 July 2023 coup ignited a split within the bloc. Yusuf Tuggar, Nigeria’s foreign affairs minister, argues that democracy offers better outcomes for everyday people.

“We’re not saying that everybody has to adopt our own style of democracy or another country’s style of democracy, but at least let’s have constitutional governance,” he said on Tuesday in Abuja.

“The reason why we’re emphasising constitutional governance is it’s easier to have policy predictability, property rights, effectiveness of contracts when your system is predicated on some sort of constitution … it’s easier to tackle some of the challenges that we’re facing like terrorism.”

Still, within Nigeria, people like Obi, the electrical shop owner, remain sceptical that democracy fulfils its promise. “Military should just take over and fix the economy. We are tired.”

 

The Guardian, UK

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