By Afolabi Aribigbola
The Nigerian President, Bola Tinubu sometimes in August 2023 was caught on a viral video saying, “Let the poor breathe, Don’t suffocate them”. This statement succinctly captures the reality of Nigerians precarious situation have not only gone viral but have been received with mixed feelings among Nigerians. While some strand of opinion viewed it as commendable coming with a genuine concern for the plight of Nigerians, others condemned it, seeing it as show of empathy without the require efforts and actions to remedy the debilitating situation. However, whatever side of the divide that people belong, one thing is certain, the statement was an acknowledgement of the harsh economic conditions prevalent in the country in recent times and to which all Nigerians must be united to find solution to, if we are to have a country called Nigeria.
Also, the import of the statement reechoed later at the Red Chamber of the National Assembly during a debate on the proposed increase in electricity tariff in the country. Of course it was ultimately used to stop the proposed hike in the cost of accessing electricity in the country then. Indeed, since the coinage of the dictum, I have been musing over the statement vis a vis the pitiable unenviable living condition of Nigerians, especially the downtrodden citizens that have been thrown into hardship by recent government policies of petrol subsidy removal and merging of the existing two foreign exchange markets.
No doubt, the statement is a very strong one reflecting the reality of the harsh living condition of Nigerians in recent times. The germane issue is that did the President make the statement out of empathy with the suffering Nigerians or just another political statement as usual from politicians to pacify the hungry people of the country? If the President really meant what he said, how has he been addressing the problem and or what interventions has his government been making to ensure the poor can breathe and not suffocated as stressed by him. Indeed the reality in today’s Nigeria is that the times are hard for ordinary Nigerians, especially for those on fixed incomes and those who are dependants.
Of course almost all public workers in Nigeria belong to the low income earners because most earn below N200,000 that is less than 200 dollars a month. Yet, our leaders are found of comparing prices of commodities with what obtains in the international markets and those in organized societies. The reality on ground in Nigeria is that there is nothing to indicate that the government is making efforts to reverse the dangerous escalation in the cost of living that has turned Nigerians to paupers and beggars in their father’s land. The required economic policies and programmes that should provide succor and ultimate solution to the crisis occasioning fuel subsidy removal and unfettered open foreign exchange market without the required control has continue the devaluation of the naira and its consequences is the skyrocketing prices of essential household commodities.
The truth is that nothing has changed in the last three months since the President made that statement to indicate that he really meant the import of the words; let the poor breathe. In the economic realm, as earlier indicated the prices of basic consumer products have risen beyond the reach of ordinary Nigerians and will continue to rise. Insecurity that has inflicted pain and suffering in the country has also continued unabated that the National Assembly had to invite the heads of security agencies in the country to appear before them recently to reveal their plans on how they intend to handle the increasing menace of insecurity in the country. Also educational institutions at all levels have continue to hike fees making it very difficult for parents to cope. Available information indicate that owners of schools have increased fees for between 200% to 300% in the midst of the economic crisis bedeviling the people of the country.
It is not their fault, they also need to survive the times and the only way they can survive is to hike fees. In the face of all these crises, the government has not deemed it appropriate to undertake wage review as the standard practice in other prosperous climes. If it is to increase the prices of commodities, the government always found it convenient and expedient to expeditiously carry it out. But to increase workers’ wages to improve their conditions is a problem. In other climes, once there is instability in the economy with changes in income, the Federal Government usually responds with adjustment in minimum wage by the appropriate agencies created to undertake the assignment. Unfortunately, this is not the case in the country.
Rather, the agencies undertake their assignments when it comes to issues that will benefit the governments and their cohorts at the expense of the masses.
Therefore, if the President really meant the statement credited to him that the poor should be allowed to breathe, he should go back to the drawing board to fashion out policies that will create good and conducive environment for people to thrive, flourish and enjoy the good things of life. One will recollect that the country had at a time been classified as the world poverty capital and at another time, 133 million people out of about 200 million citizens were described as multidimensionally poor.
Indeed, how did the country get to this dismally level and why has it been impossible to change or redress the negative narratives about the poor living condition of the people.
Unfortunately, many Nigerians seem to gloss over the statement that have come to describe the reality of the pitiable living and working situations of the people in the country. Perhaps, in the bid to cope with the appalling situation by searching for their daily bread, many Nigerians don’t consider it worthwhile to dwell on the issue. Of course the dictum is strong to draw attention of our leaders and the led to the issue of poverty ravaging the country.
Since government policies that embrace the removal of the petroleum subsidy and the merging of the prevailing two parallel autonomous foreign exchange markets have escalated hardship in the country, the government must review and reconsider their positions on the two policies. As argued in the past, there is no society that does not subsidise one thing or the other and no society fully open their national currencies to the vagaries of markets forces. It is time to consider the poor in Nigeria and allow them breathe as canvassed by the President. It is not enough to bemoan the problems of the poor in the country but to devise realistic policies and programmes to address the problems. Beyond the talk, let us do what will not suffocate the poor so that they can breathe like normal human beings.