#EndSARS Protests, Hungry and Angry Nigerians, CACOVID-19 and Social Safety Net, By Magnus Onyibe


The viciousness and desperation with which Nigerians went about looting warehouses containing food items meant to help the poor cope with the COVID-19 induced hardships, reflect the frightening rate of hunger in Nigeria.

And it is evidence of the total failure of the social safety net measures which government had introduced to ameliorate the harsh economic conditions that the rash of policies recently introduced as part of the reform agenda was bound to foist on the masses.

I’m still in awe as to how the masses were able to ferret out information about the locations of the warehouses containing the palliatives.

The unfortunate looting events by hungry Nigerians is instructive and it reveals a couple of things:(1) That the masses are keeping tab on everything happening in our country and the elites discountenance them at their own peril. So each time our leaders assume that the down trodden members of society are ignorant and as such treat them with ignominy,they may be inadvertently setting themselves up for a day of reckoning as we just witnessed, courtesy of #EndSARS protests.

Who tipped off the looters about the location of the warehouses and items therein ? Clearly , it’s either those who live and work in those locations or those who conveyed the items or helped in discharging them into the various facilities nationwide. Tell me, can there be a better and more effective source of whistle blowers in our society ?

( 2) The second thing that it exposes is that the police and other security agencies can actually prevent crime in Nigeria if they decide to do the simple, but fundamental investigative work of intelligence gathering. Undoubtedly , the folks in our communities are repositories of information about every member of society , no matter how highly placed. So they know the homes of all the ‘big men and women’ hence they were able to target the estates of a couple of top government officials especially the legislators, whose properties were raided, ransacked and even set ablaze.

Going by the same logic, the so called down trodden members of society are very well acquainted with the abodes of kidnappers, armed robbers, smugglers, oil bunkerers, and corrupt public servants as well as politicians in our society. All of these members of society can easily be identified, if the security agencies were to diligently do their job of good old policing via intelligence gathering. And the current unfortunate incident of low intensity rebellion by the masses against the bourgeoisie, validates the case for community policing.

As the commissioner for information in delta state government, from 2003 to 2005, l recommended and the governor approved the deployment of an information officer to each of the local government areas in the state.

Every month the officers attended meetings with the state Director of Information in the state capital, Asaba, where feedback was received and new programs and policies of government were shared with the information officers for unbundling to the masses at the grass roots level.

The benefits of that strategy to governance was that government was closer to the people as the information officers enabled the governor have his fingers on the pulse of the grassroots people through the two way traffic of information going back and forth. Today , it is a bevy of personal assistants to the governor that carry out that function.

It may be recalled that along with government , a private sector lead CA- Covid-19 humanitarian initiative; driven by billionaire business leaders in Nigeria, commenced its humanitarian activities to support the vulnerable in our society against the poverty and misery foisted on them by the negative consequences of the coronavirus on lives and livelihoods. As part of its publicity strategy, the captains of industry, who donated the funds were featured in adverts on CNN.

Convinced that the strategy may be faulty , l wrote and published on 23 April, 2020, an article titled “Covid-19: Do Nigerians Need Celebrity Enlightenment On CNN?”

In the article published widely in traditional media and online platforms, l denounced the concept. Then l characterized the CNN adverts as a case of the Ca-Covid leaders being tigers via the show-offs in the media advert and doing pretty little to help the vulnerable in the society for whom the gesture of raising funds to provide palliatives was being targeted.

Thereafter, l suggested that, the folks back home in the villages or in the lower rungs of the ladder in the society, may not even have the privilege of steady electricity supply, how much more watching CNN to see the ‘big men and women’ strutting on elite cable tv channel. My advise was that the masses would be better served, if the tv adverts were placed on local stations in the various regions or states like Delta tv, Kano tv or OGTV etc . I even further made the case, that it would be best if the captains of industry who were rendering the COVID-19 pandemic protocols message in English language on CNN, spoke in their local dialects to their people in their various places of origin. Imagine Alh Aliko Dangote speaking Hausa about COVID-19 protocol. Ditto for Mrs Folorunsho Alakija delivering the message in yoruba and mr Jim Ovia and Godwin Emefiele doing the same in Ika or lgbo dialect.

Then l concluded by emphasizing that if the advise was adopted, it would be in the best interest of the philanthropic billionaires, as they would be best understood and their Covid-19 message would be better assimilated by the masses or proletariat, as the Marxists like to refer to the hoi-poloi.

While a leader of CACOVID-19, CBN Governor, mr Godwin Emefiele pointed out to me that the CNN advert was gratis, the head of the communication subcommittee, sent me a rude messages that l should have obtained clearance from him before publishing my article which he claimed was full of errors-simply because the CNN adverts were not paid for.

First of all, l was not in a position to know that the adverts were free of costs, because practically all adverts on CNN are often paid for, except when discounts are offered based on heavy patronage. But the leader of the Ca-Covid media subcommittee failed to see the efficacy of drilling the Covid-19 protocol down to the grassroots when it is couched in local dialects. Meanwhile, immediately the opinion piece was published, one of the captains of industry and another leader of CA-COVID, Mr Tony Elumelu, chairman of UBA Group and HEiRS holdings reached out to me, acknowledging the genuineness of the message in the essay and promised to get the communication team to reach out to me for guidance. Apparently, Mr Elumelu had shared my telephone contact with the fellow leading the communications sub-committee who called me up with an attitude. The bottom line is that the CNN advert was discontinued. But no local adverts in Nigerian dialect, was to the best of my knowledge produced, how much more placed on local tv stations for the benefit of the critical masses, as l had advised. If that had happened, perhaps there would have been a feedback that the palliatives were not reaching the grassroots for whom they were intended. Perhaps, the newfangled mass communications denizens don’t understand that when you send a message through the mass media, you have to also develop or create a feedback mechanism.

Feedback was lacking since communication was one way traffic , hence the survival items for the masses also known as palliatives ,hardly reached those targeted to benefit . So government as well as the philanthropists were in the dark while the items were accumulating dust or expiring while being kept in warehouses. I do not buy the narratives that a certain minister stopped the distribution in some states until she could be involved or the items founded in the warehouses were being kept in anticipation of the 2nd wave of COVID-19 pandemic.

Those are subsidiary or secondary issues. The real cause of the palliatives not impacting society is the method adopted in distributing it.

There might not have been the pent-up bile and venom which were unleashed on society by the hungry and angry masses who seized the opportunity of EndSARS protests to vent their spleen, if there were ways of knowing that ‘what was getting to table one, was not reaching table two’ as the masses like to put it at social gatherings/parties where food and drinks are shared and some revelers feel left out of the loop.

Evidently, it is the communication gap between the elite and the masses that manifested in the upheaval of the sort that we are currently witnessing via the EndSARS protests turned into a revolt by the poor masses against government and the affluent. That’s what happens when blustering and braggadocio by the inexperienced is trumped by the wisdom of the experienced, derived from consistent practice and dexterity.

How could the authorities have known the level of bitterness in the society owing to how poorly the social safety net measures aimed at ameliorating the pains of the masses were implemented?

If things did not go awry, as the rogue elements seized the noble and laudable initiative of the youths, leading to the organized protests careening out of control into the stranglehold of the looters and vandals, did government have any idea of the level of animosity that had been built up against it ? Is it not amazing how arsonist were so intent on setting ablaze public assets that symbolize government and also gunning for the personal wealth of the rich in the society, into which, fortunately they could not easily gain access?

Isn’t it not unbelievable that a social investment put together by the best money makers in our society-bankers, economists, and industrialists, with a name plate cost in excess of N35 billion naira would backfire so badly that it puffed up in plumes with so much toxic smoke filling up the nostrils of both the rich and poor?

Did the billionaire donors realize at the time they were making the donations that they were saving their own lives by providing for the vulnerable since no man is an island? Probably not.
It reminds me of the iconic song ‘We Are The World’ composed by late Micheal Jackson, organized by bob Geldof, and performed by other music royalties such as Tina Turner, Stevie Wonder etc back in 1985 to raise funds when the most vulnerable in the world-Africans were suffering hunger and starvation. An instructive lyric in the hit song goes thus: “There is a choice we are making. We are saving our own lives“.

After the #EndSARS, the billionaires behind Ca-Covid now more than ever, must realize that they were indeed saving their own lives through their gesture of donating funds towards the alleviation of the suffering masses.

By now, I also believe that some critical lessons in communication and crisis management have been learned by both government authorities and CACAVOVID billionaire philanthropists, albeit the hard way as the peaceful protest got out of control with considerable collateral damage to society.

To understand the dangerous nature of revolutions, I recommend that our leaders in the public and private space read up about the American Revolution war(1775-1784); The French Revolution (1789-1799); The Spanish Revolution war of independence (1808-1826); The European Revolution of 1848 and the Russian Revolution 1917.

The 1979 Islamic Revolution or Iranian revolution as it is sometimes referred to and the Arab spring that happened in Africa in sehalian region in 2010 are dark reminders of the destructive and disruptive powers of the masses which our leaders must take cognizance of all the time.

With respect to the array of social safety net measures, which Presideht Mohammadu Buhari spoke glowingly about in his broadcast, as his buffer for the hardships which his reforms policies (well intentioned) have wreaked on the masses, while the upheaval was afoot and the embers of the fire and fury generated were yet to settle, the EndSARS protests and the subsequent riots are clear messages that the social safety net measures are just beautiful on paper and little or impact in reality. It is the very same manner that economists refer to high stock market performance as beneficial only to businesses on the high streets , but with little or no positive impact on the Main Streets, which is the space occupied by the masses.

Here is how Mr President puts it: “Government has put in place measures and initiatives principally targeted at youths, women and the most vulnerable groups in our society. These included our broad plan to lift 100 million Nigerians out of poverty in the next 10 years; the creation of N75 billion National Youth Investment Fund to provide opportunities for the youths and the Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises (MSME) Survival Fund, through which government is:
a. paying three months salaries of the staff of 100,000 micro, small – and medium – enterprises,
b. paying for the registration of 250,000 businesses at the Corporate Affairs Commission,
c. giving a grant of N30,000 to 100,000 artisans; and
d. guaranteeing market for the products of traders.
These are in addition to many other initiatives such as;
a. Farmermoni,
b. Tradermoni,
c. Marketmoni,
d. N-Power,
e. N-Tech and
f. N-Agro”
Mr President then concluded that “No Nigerian Government in the past has methodically and seriously approached poverty-alleviation like we have done.” No sir!

The truth is that most of the lofty programs and projects catalogued above are not reaching the people. If in doubt, ask madam First Lady, Aisha Buhari, who in not too distant past was miffed that her people, in upstate Adamawa were not receiving the government largesse.

Now, a plethora of commentators have wondered why public policy veterans like the media royalty, mallam Maman Daura, ex Managing Director of New Nigeria Newspaper and Alhaji, Adamu Adamu, present minister of education are no more the authors of Presideht Buhari’s speeches hence they appear not to be in tandem with the existential realities in our country.

I would like to add my voice to those pricking Mr President’s conscience by reminding Mr President that, the Petroleum (special) Trust Fund , PTF which he led as chairman in 1994, under late head of state Gen Sani Abacha’s regime did better than the social safety net measures outlined in his speech.Thats clearly incontestable (despite the indictment of the management by the interim management committee) as the projects executed those days are the monuments of today that testify to the positive impact of PTF.

The Udorji Award, named after the chairman of the public service review commission , set up by then head of state, Gen Yakubu Gowon in 1972 was another palliative measure of yore.
It was a government initiative headed by Jerome Udoji with the mandate to increase salaries of workers across the board. Although it came with the risk of inflation, it was far better than the hoax-egregiously referred to as social safety net measures, currently on parade.

Better Life For Rural Women initiative started in 1987 by the wife of then head of state, (lbrahim Babangida) Mrs Mariam Babangida is another successful social safety program whose legacy still ensures till date.

A typical example of the negative value of some of the initiatives listed in Mr president’s speech is the sleaze emanating from the school feeding program of which the Independent Corrupt Practice Commission, ICPC, recently reported that it traced N2.7b to private bank accounts. Let’s not even dwell on the billions claimed to have been used by the ministry of humanitarian services in feeding school, both in out of school which has been mired in misappropriation controversies.

In my view, direct crediting of money into the accounts of beneficiaries by both government and philanthropist, such as Ca-Covid would be more effective and efficient option. If nothing else, it would cut off the contractors who mark up the cost of goods and services with excessive profits, and delay in delivering the service. Considering that it is the process of contracting that the Ca-Covid 19 team is currently blaming for the items found in the warehouses, which the masses broke into, in order to help themselves to cure hunger, then the case for direct cash transfer to Nigerians, appears to be the correct panacea.

Practically all bonafide Nigerians have BVN and bank accounts.
Forget about Trader Moni and Farmer Moni, plus all the other similar measures with hifalutin nomenclatures which have political undertones, and let’s think of how help can truly get to the folks in the main streets.

In the USA from where we borrowed our presidential system of government and from which our leaders often copy ideas ,until last September, an average of $600 was being paid directly to citizens to help mitigate the pains of COVID-19 pandemic induced hardships. The individuals decide how they want to apply the funds based on their peculiar needs. The pertinent question is after giving the vulnerable Nigerians rice, noodles and semovita, how do they get fish or meat and vegetables to make a pot of soup when they are not availed of cash?

Although the orgy of destruction that enveloped our country in the course of the #EndSARS protests remains a dark and sordid experience never to be repeated, hopefully, it has also awakened our leaders to the reality that we may be seating on a keg of gunpowder as long as we fail to seriously factor in the interest of the youths estimated to be about 70% of our population, when budgeting and engaging in other governance activities.
In conclusion, the disbursements of the funds meant for the alleviation of poverty in our country through the hyenas, piranhas and barracudas, in the public service and their cohorts that go by the name of contractors, is not only futile , as the objective ends up not being achieved, but it is also foolhardy of our leaders in both the public and private sectors.

So better channels of reaching out to the critical mass of vulnerable Nigerians would have to be sought urgently before another blow out of the anger of the masses against government and the bourgeoisie manifests.

Based on experience, revolution like the Arab spring of 2010 can happen in the twinkling of an eye. It is a pity that we have learnt the hard way when the #EndSARS went out of control before it was successful managed.

As president Buhari hopes to end his tenure well in 2023, he can spend the remaining two years plus listening to the voice of the people, which is the voice of God. Rendered in Latin as, vox populi, vox dei.

Leveraging the EndSARS protests, Nigerians have defined or gotten President Buhari’s job cut out for him. And most of their demands are focused on reforms in the politics and economy of our country.

All that Mr President needs to do without much ado, is to implement the wish of the people diligently, so that his tenure now in autumn season may end well.

▪︎ONYIBE, an entrepreneur, public policy analyst , author, development strategist, alumnus of Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Massachusetts, USA and a former cabinet member of Delta state government sent this piece from lagos.

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