Egungun, be careful… – Dr.Muiz Banire (@MBanire)

Ruling the airwaves of recent is the song of Fuji music maestro, Akande Abass Obesere, warning a terrorising masquerade to be careful of his movement as he was approaching the expressway where vehicular traffic is heavy and the masquerade might be involved in an accident. Shortly, the rhythm changes and a sense of righteous indignation pervades as a speeding car crushes the masquerade.

It seems the atmosphere in Nigeria right now is succinctly captured by the music referred to above as our political leaders in the country seem to be unwary of the warnings from the masses. Story of poverty in the country has placed us in an unenviable status of the poverty capital of the world, according to international rankings. The masses have for long been subjected to total deprivation, education collapse, dilapidated physical and social infrastructures, no potable water, darkness instead of light, and, glaringly now, non-existent heath care system and compounding hunger. This reminds one of Fela’s song, “joro jara joro, no food, no light, no water…suffer suffer for world, enjoy for heaven”, which was sung decades back.

Unemployment figures continue to soar. According to the World Bank, most Nigerians live below $2 a day. It is in recognition of this that the bank promoted the concept of poverty alleviation, which essentially is about job creation and empowerment. In the hands of politicians, it has multiple shapes and manifestations such as sharing pure water sachets, loaves of bread, distribution of grains, etc. It has become a tokenistic concept in the country. The government at different levels is not much different, only that one is federal, one is state and another, local. In 2016, the current administration of President Muhammadu Buhari, appreciating the magnitude of the rot in the system, decided to set up various social investment programmes, the success or otherwise of which is currently a subject of controversy among all the gladiators. The allegation is simply that it is not reaching the right people and not equitable in application. The government notwithstanding must still be commended for the initiative.

The current pandemic will now seem to have opened the Pandora box, particularly in areas subjected to total lockdown. Because most of the poor are daily earners, like transporters, artisans, etc., the complaints have been noisome and quite discomforting. Regrettably, also, a lot of big sector participants such as airlines, the entertainment industry, and self-employed executives have lost a lot of jobs, the effects of which trickle down to impact the hoi polloi. Now, the people at the lowest rungs of the ladder, whose margin of absorption of failure in the social system is slim or non-existent, have no sustenance and only await government’s intervention. It is clear that government is unable to adequately meet up, thereby leading to rejection of crumbs that eventually land on the table of these people in many areas of the country at the instance of some politicians who feel that political scores are more important than genuine care for the masses. I have seen video clips of the hungry masses showing utter resentment by throwing away the foodstuff distributed to them by politicians even while starving and bearing all the symbols of hunger. They are protesting loudly the mess being thrown at them in the name of relief packages or stimulus. One boy in tattered shorts and dirty appearance scooped hollow the internal portions of two loaves of bread, stuck his feet in them to represent his much-needed shoes. This, in my view, is the highest level of indignation as expressed by those expected to be grateful for the crumbs coming their way from their “considerate” representatives. From this, it is evident that discontent in the land is reaching the peak not due to only lack of food but a combination of factors alluded to earlier.

Some insensitive leaders have criticized these angry citizens on the ground of exhibition of a sense of entitlement, forgetting that it is government that has locked them down and not that they are awaiting intervention as a result of laziness. They are in between the ocean of coronavirus and the deep blue sea of hunger and starvation. Anyway, my reading of the theme and gauging of the temperature of the nation is that there is growing discontent against the establishment. Unfortunately, the leaders are not helping with some of them still being profligate and haughty. Their lifestyles, the manner of communicating with the masses and their nonchalant attitude are exacerbating the situation. Our unemployment figure continues to soar and idle hands for engagement in the devil’s workshop are pullulating. If only our political leaders can read in-between the lines, they will know they are sitting on a keg of gunpowder. Did I hear someone remind me of Arab Spring? Not an impossibility. It is not out of place for leaders to start demonstrating more concern, even in their delivery. For me, it is not out of place to be completely sober in our circumstance and show more sense of empathy. Threats and force certainly have their limits in curtailing an angry desperado whose definition of life is similar to death. Thousands of unemployed youths, including frustrated graduates, are now turning into gangsters and cultists who are now becoming role models in their immediate environments. Interesting appellations of different kinds define multiple groups of gangsters: 1 Million Boys, Awala Boys, Omo Kesari, Fesemule, etc., terrorising communities now and obtaining ransoms. Their election time engagements are no longer available and the devils they served now treat them as hogwash. It is certainly time to scale up interventions in a genuine manner. We need to descend from the high horse before things get out of hand.

There is no better way to conclude, beyond the “Egungun, be careful” exhortation of the Fuji maestro referred to above, as the masquerades of our leaders seem to be approaching the expressway of mass uprising or pockets of uncoordinated attacks on the elite. The ‘Egun’ people of Badagry have a slang of cautioning a reckless act by saying: “pere, pere.” Our political leaders, more than ever before, need to be watchful now.

Before conclusion, it is important to state that, to stave off evil predictions, we have short, medium and long-term solutions. While the entrenchment of social security system, properly so called, might be in the long term, infrastructural establishment in the medium, we need immediate palliatives for the masses. The good news is that the government itself appreciates this already and that is why the various social intervention schemes are being put in place. Again, I commend those genuine demonstration of care. The only challenge is that it is not well-thought-out and institutionalised enough to achieve the primary objective. For now, I will suggest, during this lockdown, that the government pays N20,000 each into the accounts of all those in the states under lockdown, having minimum balance of less than N5,000, using the BVN showing residential addresses and active accounts. For those without bank accounts, we need to go through the communal structures such as combination of the traditional institutions with the community development associations and the civil society organisations. Let us entrust them with the distribution to the vulnerable in their domain but with the supervision of a task force set up by government. Any act of diversion of such funds or indiscretion on the part of those saddled with the responsibility ought to be visited with sanctions. By this, I reckon that government would have succeeded in touching a minimum of 70 per cent of the targeted beneficiaries. It is not fool-proof, as we might find some people unlawfully benefiting from the two modes or we might still detect some amount of indiscretion on the part of those saddled with the responsibility of handling the process. A relative assurance is that the government would have been able to present a human face to the lockdown and the volatility of the atmosphere as currently prevalent would definitely reduce. In the absence of the above, Egungun surely may have to be careful indeed.

Finally, as I do not assert exclusive wisdom in this regard, I further suggest the convening through Zoom a two-day brainstorming session of experts on the effective and efficient modes of reaching the vulnerable. Once again, ‘pere, pere o’, softly, softly, as we ‘progress.’

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