Most Nigerians are tense and not at ease. The reasons are plausible. The scourge of hunger, spiralling inflation, insecurity, and a sense that the country is in distress stares us all. The cumulative effect of these is anger in the land. A combination of hunger and anger is a time bomb. It is the emotional underpinning of every populist revolt.
There is absolutely nothing a hungry and angry man or woman cannot do. The signs are self-evident that the product of hunger and anger is upheaval. Ask the residents of Minna, Suleja, Kano and most recently Osogbo. They took to the streets last week to register their frustrations and distress on the level of hunger in Nigeria. Other cities may follow suit if the government does not respond promptly and concretely.
Economic Hardship Is Real
Nigerian workers represented by the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) and the Trade Union Congress (TUC) have already given the federal government two weeks to implement policies that will reduce the impact of the government’s economic policies on citizens.
The NLC and TUC said they are concerned about the “non-implementation of the 16-point agreement reached with the Federal Government on October 2, 2023.” “These agreements which were reached with the federal government were focused on addressing the massive suffering and the general harsh socioeconomic conditions prevalent in the land,” they added. Labour further acknowledged the fact that widespread hunger is now ravishing millions of Nigerians, with the workers’ purchasing power significantly eroded, while insecurity has assumed an increasing dimension.
These harsh economic realities have widespread social implications, including increased crime rates and social unrest. We have increased poverty levels, making it difficult for individuals and families to meet their basic needs. Many people struggle to afford necessities such as food, shelter, healthcare, and education.
Nigeria’s economic hardship exacerbates existing social disparities. Vulnerable groups, such as women, children, and older people, are disproportionately affected. These demographics face increased challenges in accessing resources and opportunities causing significant psychological toll on individuals. Anxiety, stress, and mental health issues are becoming more prevalent as people grapple with financial uncertainty and the challenges of making ends meet. This hardship strains social cohesion, increasing community tensions and contributing to social unrest or conflict as people express frustration over economic inequalities and lack of opportunities. Traditional community support systems have become strained as individuals and families face economic difficulties. Networks that once provided a safety net may find it challenging to cope with increased demands for assistance.
This economic uncertainty is negatively affecting investor confidence. We are experiencing one of the worst exchange rate fluctuations in our history. Within one year, the exchange rate has increased by about 200%, which has devastated businesses. Small businesses, which often form the backbone of many economies, face closure or reduced operations due to economic challenges.
AFCON Pause Potential Upheaval
It may not have occurred to the leadership that the just concluded AFCON football tournament may have been the pause to a potential national upheaval. The emotional attachment of citizens to the game of football resonates. By the last count, as a country, we have lost not less than six persons during the Nigeria-South Africa semi-finals clash. Citizens may have channelled their emotional reaction to the economic hardship to their passion for football.
It has been proven elsewhere that sports, in general, and football in particular, can relieve people in distress. It has put a pause in wars. It happened during World War One (1914), the Nigerian-Biafra Civil War (1968), and Côte d’Ivoire (2005). Although there is no consensus or empirical evidence yet, the love and passion for football have been an antidote to the potentially provocative reaction of Nigerian citizens to misery, anger, and hopelessness.
Psychologists have told us that football triggers a chemical known as endorphins, responsible for happiness and a relaxed mood. It promotes social bonding, community spirit, and a sense of patriotism that can help our anxiety. Football also acts as a distractor and relieves us from stress, the type most Nigerians are going through. In fact, “Football is the ballet of the masses”, as posited by Dmitri Shostakovich.
Football is more than just a game. It’s about life, struggle, and the beautiful moments that relieve us from our daily concerns. To the average Nigerian, football brings out 90 minutes of pure nationalism in us. In economic challenges, sports, especially football, provides a sense of unity and joy that transcends financial worries. The beautiful football game lifts spirits, create camaraderie, and offer respite from economic anxieties. Football tournaments unite communities, fostering a sense of pride and joy that transcends economic challenges.
It is not the narrative of government officials nor the ingenuity of “palace jesters” that have kept the country calm in the past few weeks. With AFCON now over, it is time the government acted fast to relieve the tension in the land. If the AFCON has brought welcome distraction, its end could unleash a collective depression from the present crises of hunger and poverty. Attention will return to domestic issues. Economic and existential problems will magnify. As hunger escalates, misery reigns, and prices of essential food items surge, the government cannot misread the morbid silence enveloping the land as normal. It is not. As seen elsewhere, the anger and hopelessness associated with this situation is a natural path to popular revolt. The government can get away with impunity but not with the chronic hunger of the ordinary man drawing complementarity from the anger of the elite.
The signs that danger lurks can only be ignored by all at significant risk to the country’s existence.
Addressing economic hardship requires honesty, inclusiveness, innovative thinking and sustained government and private sector efforts. Policy reforms, anti-corruption measures, diversification of the economy, and investments in education and infrastructure are some strategies that can contribute to economic recovery and long-term stability. Also, targeted interventions that focus on social welfare, education, healthcare, and community development are crucial to improving the well-being of individuals and fostering resilience in the face of economic challenges. Economic hardship and poverty are the worst forms of violence against the people. They are like punishment for a crime you did not commit.
The government must create an enabling environment to confront hardship and poverty. Franklin Roosevelt aptly posits, “The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.”
After AFCON, What Next?
AFCON was the opium of the Nigerian masses. It has come and gone with its glory, impact on our collective psyche, and the emotional relief it gave us during these harsh economic times. The emotional excitement about the nation is a passing mass phenomenon. It can only last long and linger afterwards if the populace feels the government has given them so much. The excitement of a football tournament turns into heightened anger soon after the excitement blows over if there is no realistic solution to the misery. The danger lies in the government assuming that post-AFCON, if nothing realistic is done to ameliorate the economic hardship millions of Nigerians face, things will continue as normal. That may be a pipe dream. With the opium effect of AFCON gone, many Nigerians will focus on demanding an improvement in their quality and standard of living. This demand may come in ways we never anticipated, as demonstrated by the uprising in a few flashpoint areas across the country. We must not allow this to happen, for it may not portend well for Nigeria.