Jesusegun Alagbe and Afeez Hanafi
Flanked by the National Theatre to the East and a high-rise Lagos Mainland Hotel to the West, Otto-Ilogbo community sits lowly on a swampy, filthy site in the heart of Ebute-Metta. But for a few decent houses on Jones Street overlooking the slum to the outskirts, the neighbourhood reeks of penury–one that defines the daily life of Mrs Florence Njoku, 65, and worsens it amid lockdown occasioned by the coronavirus pandemic.
Njoku and her husband relied on their eldest son, who is into furniture work, for their daily meals. Unfortunately, that source of income has been put on hold since the state was on lockdown about four weeks ago.
Days into the lockdown, the native of Owerri, Imo State, picked used plastic bottles and sold them to get money to prepare food for her husband, their two young children and four grandchildren living with them. It was a hard task. At N50 a dozen, Njokus leaned on the paltry income and little help from friends to battle hunger.
The grey-haired woman has heard of government palliatives, food and a sum of N20,000 the Federal Government is giving out to vulnerable people like her to cushion the effect of lockdown but none has yet to come her way. “I have not received any palliatives from government,” she disclosed.
“I have become sick because of hunger. If not for God and help from some generous people, maybe I would have died by now,” the grandmother bemoaned as she began to share her ongoing excruciating moments.
She said, “I used to sell drinks but I stopped three months ago when thieves broke into my shop. I have three children. Only one of them is working. He is into furniture making, but since the lockdown started, he is unable to get money to take care of us.
“The first two weeks of the lockdown, I went out to pick used plastic bottles and sell them so I could get some money to feed my younger children and grandchildren living with me. I sold a dozen for N50. One day while I was going to Oyingbo to sell five dozen I picked, I fell on the road around Railway. Since then, I stopped picking plastic bottles. It was one of my husband’s friends who came to give us some food last Sunday.”
The Federal Government has been giving N20,000 relief fund to vulnerable persons to cushion the effects of the lockdown after the President, Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd), imposed lockdown on Lagos, Ogun states, and the Federal Capital Territory. Other state governors have also initiated similar measures to contain the spread of the virus.
According to a report by The ICIR, as of April 9, the North-West region is the highest beneficiary of the Conditional Cash Transfer in the country, with 561,758 households benefitting from an allocation of N500bn.
Others are North-Central, 321,434; North-East, 109,442; South-South, 67,696; South-West, 37,904; and South-East, 27,977.
The report further showed that the highest number of beneficiaries is in Katsina State, Buhari’s hometown, at 133,227.
Other states with the highest number of beneficiaries are Zamfara, 130,764; Jigawa, 99,044; Kano, 84,148; and Plateau, 78,430.
As of 12pm on Tuesday when Njoku spoke with Saturday PUNCH, the family was hoping on providence for breakfast. These days, eating twice a day is a luxury for the family sheltered in a makeshift wooden structure.
“Even when my husband’s friend brought food for us, we ate two meals per day. We ate one late morning and took another meal in the evening. I heard that government promised to give vulnerable people like us N20, 000 each but I have not received anything.
“Apart from our CDA (Community Development Association) chairman who gave us some foodstuffs, we did not get any palliatives from government. As long as the government insists people should not go anywhere and we did not get anything from them, it is like they want to kill us,” she added.
Her husband, John, relived the same sad tale. Pale and worried, the hunger his stout posture concealed was exposed by his forlorn looks.
He said, “I have a small shop at Iddo (a neighbouring community) but I can’t go to shop since the lockdown started. Feeding is a problem. It’s my friend who gave us some staples. We are just managing whatever we get. We have not received any cash from government; not even food.
“If government wants us to stay home for now, they should provide what to eat for us. Government promised to give poor people N20,000 but I did not receive anything.”
The couple’s plight reflects the grim reality thousands of poor people in Lagos with a population of about 22 million have been battling since rising cases of COVID-19 forced the nation’s commercial hub into lockdown.
Their neighbour, Ayoka Ajide, said to be in her 70s, has grown frail as a result of sickness worsened by hunger and inability to get prescribed drugs. She leaned on the shoulder of a youth to come out of her hut that Tuesday noon. Her gloomy voice was evident of someone in dire need of rescue from the grip of poverty.
“I am from Oke-Onigbin in Kwara State. I started living in this place some months ago when I fell sick,” she croaked, taking a long pause to muster some strength.
“My children live in Lagos and they are petty traders. They give me some money which I use to survive. They have been trying their best but since the lockdown started, they could not do their business again. I have been eating whatever comes my way for three weeks now.
“I rely on little food I get from my neighbours; I have not received any food item from the Lagos State Government let alone N20,000 cash from the Federal Government. I am appealing to them to assist me. I am sick and need to get drugs,” she appealed.
Locked in hunger’s grip
Donning thin-framed dark glasses and decked in a blue polo with white stripes, 78-year-old Abiodun Ajimuda emerged from a small wooden kiosk where he sold provisions. His wife sat behind him, folding her arms and covering her chest with a long blue wrapper.
For about 26 years, the couple, who hailed from Igbokoda in Ondo State, had been living in a slum Ifesowapo, Otto/Ilogbo Extension in the Oyingbo area–an old residential neighbourhood in Lagos beautified by colonial architecture.
Since the lockdown started, Ajimuda also said he and his wife had been expecting the N20,000 relief package promised the vulnerable people by the Federal Government but had not received a dime.
He said, “We are aware of the coronavirus lockdown and since it started, we have been observing all the directives from the government, including hand-washing and social distancing.
“We heard about the N20,000 promised the vulnerable aged people like us but we have not collected any money from the Federal Government. My wife and I have just been coping with the meagre foodstuffs that we have. Since the government said we should not go out to work, we’ve been staying indoors but they should also fulfil their own promise. We don’t have any money.”
Ajimuda said he and his wife would have not relied on the Federal Government’s relief money if their six children had been able to work and send them stipends as they usually did.
“Our children send us stipends but they too are complaining that they can’t go out to work due to the lockdown. We have spent all the little money they sent before the lockdown started,” he said.
“We need government’s help and that is why we are obeying all the rules they laid down. I have not eaten any meal today (1pm on Tuesday). We are suffering too much.
“As we are cooperating with the government, they should also help us. If they can give us the N20, 000 they promised us, we will use it to feed during this lockdown,” he added.
It had also not been easy for Lambe Amosa, a widow from Ora, Kwara State, who lives at Oyingbo.
Although she trades in palm kernel nuts, Amosa said she had been unable to sell since the coronavirus lockdown began. Because she is poor and unable to eat even two meals in a day, the widow, who is perhaps in her 70s, pleaded with the Federal Government not to forget aged people like her who had not received the relief fund.
“I have not collected the N20,000 the Federal Government promised us. They should help me with whatever they have. I am hungry and my children too are unable to send me anything,” she said.
Living every day on the off chance
Similarly, Moruf Bello, a widower from Oyo town who is in his 60s, said he had been unable to feed himself and two grandchildren living with him because of the lockdown.
“I have two children who usually send me stipends but since the lockdown started, they couldn’t give me any money because there is no money. My wife who used to take care of me died about two years ago.
“I have been managing the foodstuffs I have at home. I have not collected any N20,000 from the Federal Government but I hope they remember me and other aged people. I don’t eat three meals a day. Sometimes once, sometimes twice,” he said.
For another widow, Abebi Akinpelu, who lives at Ebute Metta, if not for some foodstuffs that her church donated to her when the lockdown started, she said she might have died of hunger.
She also complained that even though she was a poor elderly person, she had not received the N20, 000 money that the Federal Government promised to give people like her.
She said, “I don’t have anybody. My church helps to provide certain foodstuffs for me once in a while. I have not collected the N20,000 from the Federal Government.
“I have not been given a dime. I was only given three small paints of rice and beans each some days ago by some people.”
As of 1 pm on Tuesday when Saturday PUNCH spoke with Akinpelu in her slum dwelling, she said she had just gone to buy noodles on credit to have her first meal for the day.
“I am suffering. My only child is in Côte d’Ivoire and she sends money once in a while but this coronavirus has disrupted everything. I want the government to support me with the N20,000 they said they are giving the poor and the vulnerable. The money will help in some ways,” she said.
Experts fault FG’s palliative sharing method
A lawyer and social commentator, Mr Liborous Oshoma, stated that the Federal Government Conditional Cash Transfer was fraught with controversy and shrouded in secrecy.
He said it was laughable that a government lacking a comprehensive list of underprivileged people could claim to have disbursed millions of naira in one week.
The lawyer said, “First and foremost, it is shameful and disgraceful that we don’t even have data for sharing anything to the vulnerable. We don’t have the number of the vulnerable among us. We can’t even say for sure the number of retirees despite the fact that the government does the audit of these retirees year-in-year-out.
“The first time they said they wanted to share money to 2.5m Nigerians; in less than one week, the Federal Government said it had shared money to more than a million people. Some people even raised a poser that the Federal Government that finds it difficult to share voter cards has suddenly become effective in sharing cash.
“It was shrouded in mystery and controversy so much that the National Assembly wants to get involved. ‘’
Oshoma said the government ought to address the controversy surrounding the disbursement by setting up mechanisms conforming with the realities across the country.
He added, “The government said they would give cash to the poor of the poor. That means you can be poor and not be poor. Some people have said the North is the poverty capital of the country. If you have six geopolitical zones, does that mean there are no poor of the poor in other geopolitical zones apart from the North? Can’t you take like 200,000 people from each geo-political zone rather than concentrating it in one place?
“Even in the North, I have many friends who complained that they didn’t receive a dime. That now takes us further to the fact that where was the money shared? It seems they just go to IDP (Internally Displaced Persons) camps, give money to few people there and then tell the rest of Nigerians that they have shared the money in the North. Why is it difficult for the money to get to Lagos, Ondo, Oyo and the entire South?
“With the data they brought out, what was shared in Katsina State alone was almost at par with what they shared in the entire South. And if you go to Katsina now, you will find it difficult to get 100 persons in Katsina who received that money.”
The lawyer also urged the government to make provisions for those engaged in small and medium scale enterprises, noting that more people would be pushed further down the poverty ladder if it failed to address the effect of the lockdown.
An activist and political commentator, Mr Tunde Esan, said it was leadership failure for government to ask the vulnerable, as well as every other citizen to stay at home without providing any palliatives for them.
He also said the Federal Government was not displaying accountability in the manner it was distributing the relief fund.
Esan said, “We have failed leadership in Nigeria because figures are being thrown out without any facts to back them up. Personally, I have yet to see a beneficiary of the N20,000 palliative. Recently, there was a member of the House of Representatives who complained that there was nobody in his constituency who had received the money. He asked if the money was being given to ghosts. Also, the National Assembly recently faulted the Social Investment Programme for excluding poor Nigerians. This is billions of naira we are talking about.
“I think it’s a high level of irresponsibility to lock people down without feeding them. You are asking them to stay indoors without making provisions for them? Even in the North, who are those being given the money? Let them publish their names. Why is there so much secrecy about this whole thing? Let each state publish the names of those being given the money and the amount spent so far. At least, provide some accountability. I think the government has failed the people.”
In this period, Esan said governance meant leading and providing solutions, amid economic uncertainties such as the future of the price of oil, which the country heavily depends on to make income.
“If coronavirus doesn’t end today with oil price drop and no vaccine discovery, how will the government feed the people? In other places, be it in the Middle East, North America, or Europe, their governments are telling their people not to bother about feeding.
“They are feeding them. But we are not ready in Nigeria. We have failed leadership. You’re asking the people to stay at home without feeding them. In other countries, people want to get out of home because of boredom, not because of what they want to eat,” the activist said.
A professor of sociology at the Ambrose Alli University, Ekpoma, Edo State, Stephen Omorogbe, said it was a fallacy that some people in a region were poorer than some others in another region.
“We don’t have any statistics to determine that. As a matter of fact, some people who think they are rich are poor if we go by the indices of poverty. There are poor people everywhere,” he said.
Omorogbe said a good way to alleviate the suffering of poor people was to distribute the palliatives across the country to those who really deserved them.
He said, “Also, the government should reexamine the method of the palliatives distribution, and this is where they should bring experts in. The government may have good intentions, but do the people implementing the intentions have the expertise?
“It is not about how much is available for distribution but how well planned the process of distribution is. If you want to give money to the people, why don’t you transfer it to their accounts, rather than making them queue?”
The don pointed out that lack of data could hamper the effective distribution of the palliatives.
“In the United States and other countries, they have data of everybody, including the aged. Hence, it is not difficult to reach everyone. Here in Nigeria, we need to do more so that when interventions of this kind come again, we can have a blueprint that we can use so that the people who really need the interventions can be reached,” he added.
Another sociology lecturer at the University of Ibadan, Oyo State, Dr Omobowale Ayokunle, said the government’s definition of poor Nigerians appeared to be premised on the World Bank definition of people living under $1 per day.
The scholar urged the Federal Government to reconstruct the social intervention list of the poor to include those living on the fringes of poverty.
He said, “The first thing we have to address is the social intervention list of the poor which is based on the World Bank definition of poverty of people living under $1 per day. You find people living at that level more in the North but it does not mean the South does not have people who are poor.
“They (Southerners) may not be living under $1 per day but they are on the fringes. They may be working as porters and conductors earning N400-N1,000 per day. But with the lockdown, they cannot work again and they are poorer now. So, what is supposed to be done is to have another list that will accommodate those people.
“I think Southern governors should engage the Federal Government on the need to reconstruct the welfare list of the poor in Nigeria. We need an urgent poverty reduction agenda that will capture those who are on the fringes. By the definition of World Bank, they may not be poor but in actual fact, they are poor.”