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Will the poor in Nigeria eventually breathe?

BY Abimbola Adelakun

In at least 70 recorded cases of police brutality in the United States, the victim cried out three words: I. Can’t. Breathe.

From Eric Garner in 2014 to George Floyd in 2020, people hogtied or put in a chokehold cried out those words but were ignored by officers who thought they were lying or exaggerating their distress. If they could still talk, they were still breathing. Such presumption of how far the police could stretch the thread of life caused many of them to be needlessly snapped. Those words would eventually become the rallying cry of the 2020 global #BlackLivesMatter protests.

That appeal for the breath of life has become another rallying cry. This time, in Nigeria, and against the strangulating economic policies of a government that seems bent on carrying out harsh economic reforms without either mitigation or assurance of how and when the pain will end. For a country where 63 percent of its population is officially classified as “multidimensionally poor,” far too many people are not breathing. All the time they have protested the chokehold, our leaders (and their arrogant spokespersons) took the wails as nothing more than outright lies, exaggeration, or mere expression of partisanship. As long as people can still talk, they cannot possibly be dying.

The cries for breath finally gained enough traction lately. “Let the poor breathe!” has become the contemporary slogan of Nigerians confronting galloping inflation and dwindling purchasing power. Given how virtually everyone is buffeted on all sides by a tottering economy and the concomitant rising unemployment and poverty, government aides cannot pettily chalk down the ongoing angst to “wailers” doing their thing. There is a crisis at hand, that much is clear to even the willfully blind. What is not evident so far is if the government thought through its policies to create well-structured plans to mitigate the hardship. Will the poor eventually breathe or the shock therapy will kill them?

Ironically, “let the poor breathe” was mouthed by Bola Tinubu, the very person whose administration rained down one harsh policy after the other. In an undated video circulating online you see him in his characteristic populist manner, asking the state to “let the poor breathe, don’t strangulate them.” Well, now that he is president and the appeal has become self-directed, we see how far from his mouth his heart is. Populism is cheap until you have to do the actual work of governance. Just like he loudly criticised former president Goodluck Jonathan on the removal of fuel subsidies only to go forward with the policy without either a coherent plan or even an adequate preparation for what would come afterwards, we are left wondering why the man who wanted the poor to breathe is raising the price of oxygen. By now, he has probably learned that governing a small territory like Lagos where the head of every key social and political actors have been forced in-between his thighs is not the same as ruling over the murky and unwieldy terrain called Nigeria. For someone who won the election almost five months ago, he has not even appointed a cabinet.

Let me be clear that some of the policies that have contributed to the hardship under Tinubu are not bad in themselves. Fuel subsidies, for instance, were long overdue for removal. As I have previously noted, asking the government to leave the subsidies and fight corruption instead is merely postponing the inevitable. The problem was the execution: abrupt removal rapidly compounded with taxes, and no clear plan to manage what would follow.

So far, nothing suggests that Tinubu planned for the fallouts of his policies and has the wherewithal—the intellectual and administrative means—to tidy up what he started. First, they promised a cash transfer of N8,000 per household for six months to mitigate the hardship unleashed by fuel subsidy removal, then his aides came out to clarify what everyone got wrong about the proposed intervention, and then finally announced their reversal of their plans. That indecisiveness does not demonstrate a certainty and purposiveness on their part. Like his predecessor who ended up thoroughly confused by the complexity of the Nigerian troubles that he simply gave up, Tinubu too is on his way to demystification.

These days, when you hear “let the poor breathe!” from Nigerians, it could be a genuine appeal for their survival, a sneer at the duplicity of the government whose interest in the poor does not run farther than the next election, or jeers at the folly of ever investing hope of economic and moral renewal in an unempathetic government. Unlike the African American victims of police brutality that were not taken seriously because they could still talk, the Nigerian government actually wants you to shout yourself to death. There is enough about their conduct and attitude to the public that demonstrates that they take some perverse pleasure in hearing Nigerians cry for breath.

In this same country where we are faced with skyrocketing food and energy costs, strangulating national debts servicing, and depreciating infrastructure, our leaders still manage to expropriate the oxygen of the impoverished for themselves. Look around Nigeria. Despite the crisis blowing up and causing genuine anxiety, the politically powerful and privileged are breathing just fine.

The lawmakers, for instance, will get a whopping N110bn to buy themselves SUV and other perks that will make their offices lush enough to make them forget what took them to the FCT in the first place. No matter how loudly we complain that they are draining our blood to pay for these privileges, they are not going to listen. If the poor dies, the poor dies! They did not become lawmakers because they had either an interest in the poor or were enamoured by the rigour that goes into debating laws. There are there because the office pays handsomely well, simple. There is little else to the enterprise of lawmaking in Nigeria than local politicians acquiring political and economic capital. That is why nobody ever sees them debate from any ideological angle eruditely, convincingly, and morally.

They are not alone. Several outgoing leaders who departed their respective offices on May 29 too will not release their chokehold on the nation. In four to eight years when they were in power, they took and took and took and gave nothing back. Interestingly, it is those who the least to show for their mandates that are carting away the most. There is some correlation between being lazy, unimaginative, and brazenly greedy. From Mrs. Aisha Buhari who demanded first ladies should also be officially apportioned retirement benefits, to the likes of former Benue governor Samuel Ortom whose officials carted away public resources, to recently retired service chiefs who will get humongous benefits, Nigerian leaders are a gluttonous lot. When it comes to self-enrichment and self-perpetuation in spaces of power, they can be more efficient than a factory machine. Ask them to transfer those skills to improve the lives of the poor, and they become genuinely confused.

In Nigeria, everyone shouts “let the poor breathe!” because “the poor” is no longer a distinct (and distant) category. Poverty is encroaching into everyone’s reality; each one of us is only a few steps away from being “the poor.” At this rate, it is only a matter of time and to what degree one’s social support networks can hold up. The resonance of demanding for breath for a race across continents is uncanny. From institutional racism to unimaginative government, something must kill the black man. If we are not held in an economic chokehold, we are hogtied by spiritual and social forces, beaten down by the anarchy in our societies until we lie prostrate with the foot of our leaders placed around our necks.

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