It is like a playback of that old, odd and ugly song. Nothing changed. The same crude style used some awkward 33 years past are being tactlessly contemplated.
Clearly, our leaders are working in reverse. They are pretenders, deceivers. They have learnt nothing since 1984 when that cruel strategy was first put to use. It did not help matters then, it won’t now.
Flashback: It was like yesterday. In 1984, you hardly could find essential commodities, aka “essencos”, in the stalls or markets. These “essencos” are mainly provisions (milk, beverages, etc.) and, of course, rice. They were as essential and scarce as foreign currencies, particularly dollars.
Soldiers were sent after traders to force down prices of these commodities, which were never their making. The Federal Government closed its eyes to market forces. It opted for bullying tactics to whip traders into line.
It was a gory display of raw power. Occasionally, soldiers would bring these commodities, especially bags of rice in trucks. It was a common sight to see people queuing all day in the scorching sun. They were there to purchase the “essencos.” You could see frustration on their faces.
Man hours were wasted waiting to buy some few tins of milk, packets of sugar and quantity of rice. Of course, you dared not go shopping. You were compelled to procure within a limit, even if you had all the money.
For the traders and dealers of these “essencos,” hoarding was the best option. In fear and terror, they locked up their shops. The daring ones would open in the dead of the night to sell to equally daring buyers. They had no viable choice.
Then, the soldiers went a step further. Fully armed, they would break into these stalls and flung them open. It was like a bazaar in giveaway prices. The market forces of demand and supply were thrown into dustbin.
It was the forces of gun and whip that determined the prices. The prices were virtually at the discretion of the soldiers turned traders. They called the strategy War Against Indiscipline (WAI). Incidentally, General Muhammadu Buhari headed that military junta. It called itself an offshoot of Murtala/Obasanjo regime; whatever that was supposed to mean.
Strangely, government is picking some lessons from that awful era. It is determined to go back to that Stone Age. It is eager to recede to the Dark Ages. As it was in 1984, so it is (worse?) now.
These times are extremely hard. With this in mind, the Federal Executive Council (FEC), locked itself up in the Villa nine days ago. Members were troubled. Not only about Buhari’s ill-health, but more importantly about the rest of us.
This time, it was the ever-rising food prices. The hike affected every food item. The FEC was worried and anxious. Members dug into the archives and stumbled on the 1984 recipe. They were excited and jumped for joy.
They beat their fleshy chests. They thought to themselves: “We have found it.” They all agreed to set up a task force to bring (force?) down prices of food items, as it was the case in 1984. Graciously filing out of the meeting, they put the words in the mouths of Ministers of Finance, Kemi Adeosun; Information, Culture and Tourism, Lai Mohammed, and Minister of State for Transportation, Hadi Sirika, in that order.
The task force is “formidable.” It includes Audu Ogbeh (Agriculture and Rural Development; Adeosun; Okey Elelamah (Industry and Trade); Rotimi Amaechi (Trasnportation); Suleiman Adamu (Water Resources) and Chris Ngige (Labour and Employment).
Its terms of reference were never made known. However, it has the mandate to submit its report within a week to FEC. So, we expected the committee would have complied by yesterday.
But clearly, Nigerians would want none of this. They literally took FEC to the cleaners. Samplers: Bismarck Rewane, CEO, Financial Derivatives Ltd.: “Those things are totally irrelevant at this time. The committee will achieve nothing because it is a total waste of time.”
For him: “The important thing is about polices. It is policies that will bring down prices of food (items). Committees will take sitting allowance and achieve nothing.”
Tochukwu Okorie, a development economist, gave us a useful reminder: He was blunt: “That is an attempt to go back to 1984 where government used the military to break into people’s shops and warehouses to sell goods at giveaway prices.
“There was mass hoarding. That will likely repeat itself. When goods are available, prices will come down. That is competition.”
Another development economist, Odilim Enwegbara, wondered aloud: “How did someone in his right frame of mind conceive this in the first place? How did this government decide that this can work? It is just an effort in futility.”
However, it is not all knocks, there are kudos all the same. Ibrahim Kabiru is national president, All Farmers Association of Nigeria (AFAN). He agreed that government cannot tell anybody what and how much they sell what they produce.
“But the decision to set up a panel to ensure food security is very good. If it is the task force that will ensure food security, which is to maximise production of food so that it will become affordable, and probably with that the prices will be affected.”
Frank Jacobs, President, Manufacturers Association of Nigeria (MAN), joined Kabiru: “Food meant for certain places don’t get there. The food materials end up diverted and as such, such goods become very expensive in certain places. If government plans to address that, it is a welcome development.”
Still government received praises on the proposed hike on Value Added Tax (VAT) on luxury items. That ought to be focus of a responsible and responsive government. FEC got it right this time around.
For Ezekiel Essien, President, National Association of Small Scale Industries (NASSI): “It is necessary for government to jerk up the taxes paid on ostentatious articles. They only benefit the very rich, who are less than 20 per cent of the nation’s population.”
He has a willing ally in Ayuba Wabba, President, Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC): “Government should make sure people pay appropriate taxes on the wealth they accumulate. Presently, it is only the workers that pay appropriate tax like Pay As You Earn (PAYE).”
What then do we make of this? The attempt to force down food prices will likely bring back the 1984 havoc: Mass hoarding. It will draw us back, and we dread that.
Perhaps, the hike on VAT for luxury items will move us forward. That is our fervent prayer.