After coronavirus, the hunger virus
As keen observers have long predicted, Nigeria has finally arrived at that inevitable juncture where oil sales will no longer guarantee the flush in the purse of the governments in Nigeria. Nigeria is now running a deficit economy. Deep poverty is staring this nation in the face. The violence which this will unleash will be uncontainable. There is a strange lull before the deluge of violence that will be unleashed. Ironically, that lull has been provided by the Coronavirus pandemic. The management of this event in Nigeria reminds me of the very memorable lyrics of Fela’s song: “Everybody, run, run, run…/everybody, scatter, scatter… .”
It has been chaos. In a bid to contain this very mysterious virus, after weeks of pussy-footing, the various governments, Federal and states, put in some measures. They were weak measures. But they at least put in place task forces and policies for isolating possible cases. They also announced the programme of “social distancing.” Nigerians were getting their playbook straight out of America, and out of CNN. There has been very little originality in their response to this. Still, people have been told, stay at home, keep a distance, avoid crowded places. I personally knew that the programme of “social distancing” would not work and was unsuited to Nigeria. First, the design of our public spaces is different. Our living densities, our housing and streets, our social and cultural formations and behaviours cannot quickly adapt to “social distancing.”
There are factors that make that impossible. Living to the average African, especially a Nigerian, is free theatre. Our markets are open spaces. These open air markets have their charm, but they are not suitable for “social distancing.” Markets also are not just where we go to buy and sell. They are the places we go to meet friends and relatives, and exchange gossips and news and rumours, and wise-cracks. Our pubs are also not just where we go to weep alone in silence into our beers. It is where we go to perform sociability. It is not just that we eat “Nkwobi” and “Point-and-kill,” it is that when we are pointing and killing and dipping hands in the same source at the same time, we make a community.
Food to us cannot be enjoyed alone. Food to us is a collective ritual. And Coronavirus is really not about to change these habits. Isolation will not work. My 83-year old mother, a former Schoolmistress, defied all my injunction and plea not to go to mass on Easter Sunday. I told her that even the Pope was holding a virtual mass to which she could key in, and that she could certainly not be more Catholic than the pope! And she said, “Our lady, will protect us.” I always suspected that my mother’s devotion to the “Blessed Virgin” was a transfer of piety to a more ancient, recursive instinct – the cult of the goddess, “Ala.” It is the cult of the feminine, the mother of nature.
It is the foundation of the life and worth of true Igbo women like my mother, whose devotion to the goddess Ala – whether it emanates as our Lady of Fatima, or our Lady of Immaculate Conception, or as Mata Dei – the Blessed Virgin Mother of God to whom she became an adherent by her own parents Christian conversion from Odinala long before she was born, and taught to her in College by the Irish nuns at the Regina Caeli College – the devotion is total: the earth mother, Ala, protects. Nothing else matters. Not even Coronavirus could change that. This is what we call the pagan mindset. It is not scientific. It accepts phenomena as an inexorable expression of nature. They may be right.
But there is also the other factor why the order to self-isolate in order to contain seamless, people-to-people transmission of the virus, is not working: the social and economic conditions make it too difficult. The Images streaming out of Nigeria in the past three weeks since the lock down give some indication of the coming anarchy. The social media is awash with these images. Nigerians congregating in clusters, unwary of the consequences of the spread of the virus. The law enforcement authorities have also taken enforcement to its new heights: the police have killed more people in the bid to quarantine them than the Coronavirus pandemic itself. This number is about to change, of course, as Nigeria enters the exponential stage of the infection. There is also the rather amusing image of Police at a roadblock stopping Public health officials in a marked public health bus from moving about to do their jobs. According to the very ignorant head-honcho of the Road-Block brigade, his orders were that no one must pass the cordon.
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Talk about taking “orders” to the most absurd limits. It is all typically Nigerian, that we kill the symptom with the disease. As folks on the social media circuit note, this is the result of government’s long reliance on the worst of the lot for its recruitments to the lower and middle cadres of the police.
These folks climb the ropes and become DIGs and Inspectors General and Commissioners and DSPs as the case may be, and they become the face of policing in Nigeria. It is an ignorant police system built around ignorant and aggressive men. It is the continuation of the colonial constabulary system of policing that has no respect nor were they in fact trained to understand the concept of citizenship and rights. Those two words are often contradictory: “citizens” and “rights” in Po-lingo. This is because at its foundation, the Nigerians were not “citizens” of a free republic, but “subjects” of an alien Queen and an alien rule. The British Empire was not a democracy. It was a constitutional monarchy. The British are not full citizens of a republic but subjects with limited rights represented by a House of Commons under the benign powers of a reigning monarch who could decide to close Parliament sine die. Yet an ordinary English man with so limited a right, was better treated than a Nigerian whose equal rights are guaranteed by the principles of free citizenship in a free republic under a constitution.
The trouble is that the police institution which Nigeria inherited was founded on a tradition that did not regard the Nigerian as a human person deserving of respect, but as a savage animal to be contained by force. It is like keeping animals in a zoo. That’s the doctrine of the Nigeran police. The Nigerian Parliament should long have reformed the Police and given Nigeria a modern police system which it deserves, by recruiting and training the proper caliber of well educated, thinking, and self-respecting people rather than reformed or active thugs, the dregs of society who make up the ranks of the current police force. The effect is government’s “gra-gra.” A sort of organized frenzy. Always, the Nigerian government has resorted to deadly force, and to other extreme measures to establish regulations over Nigerians.
Their excuse often is that Nigerians do not like to obey inconvenient laws. Tell them to turn left, they’ll most diligently turn right. So, the police and the Army are often sent to kill Nigerians in order to protect them. It is a great irony, isn’t it? Well, that might soon no longer be effective deterrence. One of the great fallouts of the Coronavirus containment might be that it will ignite the preludes to the long-imagined revolution that has been lurking in the shadows in Nigeria. This uprising of the Nigerian citizen has often been prevented by the use of the bacteria of “tribe” and “religion.” That hegemonic doctrine perfected by Niccolò Machiavelli which has pitted Nigerians against each other while its ruling elite profited madly from disenchantment and inter-ethnic hate. This has kept Nigerians from finding common cause. But that gossamer wall of difference is about to collapse and here is why: In the image I’ve been seeing, I can feel the consequence of the coronavirus lockdown already. The deaths currently in Nigeria are still in small digits. Perhaps it has to do with the humidity of the equatorial climate. I don’t know. But I suspect there will be a dramatic spike by the time the rains come. Death will knock on many doors. And many will die. But death will numb Nigerians, like the Parabalani of old, they’ll begin to dare and defy it. They are already saying it. The greatest threat for Nigerians is not the Coronavirus infection. But the virus of hunger.
Nigerians have been told to stay home. But there is no food, no medicine, no succour: and their homes are criminally hot from a lack of electricity. Many who could buy food in good quantity cannot preserve it long term. Very inadequate arrangements have been made to provide nutritional support for citizens who have been asked to self-isolate. There are already rumblings – slow in forming as people are defying the quarantine and are beginning to organize large, isolated protests. Street gangs are forming. At the end of the pandemic, a new Hunger will rise. Jobs will be lost. The food supply and production chain already hampered by large scale displacements by the Fulani herdsmen will dry up. Nigeria already facing the gloom of poor sales will face even greater loss of oil revenue as that cash-cow also dries out. I can see it now: the makings of the “Green Revolution.”
The great challenge for Nigeria’s ruling elite is not Coronavirus. The great, dicey challenge is the day after Coronavirus. No police or Army can stop the tide of angry people driven mad by hunger. It is important for this government to make long term containment arrangements. But it cannot be by the use of force. It will be by the soft power of well-organized relief.