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The Year of the Scorched Yams: VERITATEM WITH OBADIAH MAILAFIA

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By Obadiah Mailafia

When some of us were young, our country had the promise of greatness. We entertained the vision of a New Jerusalem. Today, it has become a dream deferred. There is a creeping, odious, despondency in the atmosphere. The collective zeitgeist is one of hopelessness. The flame has died. The signs everywhere foretell a coming age of thunder, fire, iron and blood.

The influential London-based Financial Times recently warned that our country is becoming a failed state. Nigeria has become a vast killing field – a graveyard of shattered dreams. Last year, a Diaspora couple from the United States were returning home for the first time in two decades. On the Lokoja road, they were abducted by kidnappers and spent a week wandering barefoot in the primeval savannah bush. Their sixteen-year daughter, who had never been to Africa before, was serially raped in the presence of the parents. They were subjected to beatings and humiliations; stripped of every dollar they had on them, including their American passports. They were lucky to escape with their lives. They have brushed the dust from their feet and have vowed never to set foot on this country ever again.

In November, a father and son driving from Ado Ekiti to Ondo were waylaid by herdsmen kidnappers. They spent a week in the impenetrable forest without food or water. They were forced to drink their own urine while their kidnappers were feasting like kings. The father made some mild complaints. For his effrontery, they took him aside and had him executed by firing squad. The boy was released after payment of a rather hefty ransom. The young man remains traumatised beyond words.

Before Christmas, 344 pupils from Government Science Secondary School Kankara were kidnapped in General Muhammadu Buhari’s home state of Katsina. They were later released after desperate negotiations. Although government denied it, some of the pupils confessed that the sum of N1 million was the ransom on each of the pupils.

Christians churches throughout the Holy Season have been on their guards as a result of rumours of bombings by all sorts of shadowy reptiles. On Christmas Day, the old missionary town of Garkida in Borno State was sacked by the insurgents. Most of the inhabitants have taken refuge in the surrounding hills and caves. Nerves have been on edge throughout the Middle Belt. The far North has become a scorched earth of hopelessness, poverty and despair. In Biafra land, they are sharpening their swords and waiting. The denizens of Oduduwa are not taking any chances either.

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Our collective trauma must be incalculable. I came across the work of Harvard social psychiatrist and writer Robert H. Coles who achieved intellectual fame for his book, The Children of Crisis. He wrote about the impact of racism and structural violence on the collective psyche of Black children in the southern states of America. I am sure if the likes of Cole where to examine mass society in our country today they would come up with nightmare conclusions.

There is existential evil in Nigeria. We are the land where children are sacrificed and virgins buried alive by wicked elites seeking money and power. I happen to be a Patron of the Boys’ Brigade. There have numerous instances of truck drivers driving straight into some of our boys, killing dozens at a time. It happened in Barkin Ladi in Plateau State. It happened in Gombe. And it happened more recently in Nasarawa State. In the latter case, the truck merely knocked off a bus full of the boys who were going on a camping expedition. Several of such trucks have crashed into crowded streets in Lagos and elsewhere; laden with fuel and bursting into flames. The carnage is often horrific. There are accidents, of course. But I refuse to believe that some of these destructive occurrences are mere accidents. There are people out there who want to kill innocent children for cultic, religious or other reasons. Using trucks provides a perfect legal cover. This is how evil our Nigeria has become today.

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Thanks to the novel coronavirus and the generalized economic lockdown it has provoked, our economy is forecast to undergo the worst recession since the eighties. The World Bank predicts a contraction of 4 percent by year’s end 2020 before gradually rebounding by a modest 1.1 percent in 2020. When you realise that our population grows by an annual average of 2.6 percent, then one grasps the full implications of what this contraction means in terms of livelihoods and collective welfare.

The key fundamentals have deteriorated sharply in recent times. The naira is exchanging at $1/N500 in the black market. Headline inflation has risen to 14.23 percent according to the official NBS. But the American economist Stephen Hanke disputes these figures. He believes inflation in our country hovers around the 33.5 percent mark and that the naira is under heavy pressure.

There is also a looming debt crisis. Our total national debt is projected to reach N32.51 trillion by December 31, 2020. In principle, there is nothing wrong with borrowing. What is wrong is borrowing for consumption and borrowing to build railways and refineries in a foreign country. It is dangerous to fritter away foreign loans without fastidious expenditure controls in place. What is also problematic is the growing budget deficit, which stood at N2.8 trillion during Budget 2020. As economic theory would suggest, the budget deficit also impacts negatively on the current account balance, which has been in deficit of $3.2 billion as of June 2020.

Nigeria recently overtook India as the world capital of poverty. According to recent estimates, some 98 million Nigerians live under extreme poverty, amounting to 45 percent of the population. The unemployment figures are just as bad. Youth unemployment in Nigeria averages 24 – 60 percent, depending on the region.

On top of this, inequality is reaching unacceptable proportions. The elites live in an embarrassment of affluence while the poor wallow in destitution. The rich send their children abroad. When they graduate, posh jobs are waiting for them while children of the poor with first class honours degrees are wandering in the street.

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It is no surprise that a Tsunami of youth protests recently swept through our country recently. The youth of our country have shown extraordinary patience and fortitude in the face of a society that has cruelly mortgaged their future and destroyed their hopes.

Let me conclude with an extract from Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart:

The year that Okonkwo took eight hundred seed yams from Nwakibie was the worst year in living memory. Nothing happened at its proper time; it was either too early or too late. It seemed as if the world had gone mad. The first rains were late and when they came, lasted only a brief moment …

The drought continued for eight market weeks and the yams were killed. The year had gone mad. When the rains finally returned, they fell as it had never fallen before. Trees were uprooted and deep gorges appeared everywhere.

That year, the harvest was sad, like a funeral and many farmers wept as they dug up the miserable and rotting yams. One man tied his cloth to a tree branch and hanged himself.

Okonkwo remembered that tragic year with a cold shiver throughout the rest of his life. It always surprised him when he thought about it later that he did not sink under the load of despair. He knew he was a fierce fighter, but that year had been enough to break the heart of a lion.

“Since I survived that year,” he always said, “I shall survive anything.”

Anno Domini 2020 is a year we all gladly want to put behind us. It has been a year of the locusts, canker-worm and caterpillar — an annus horribilis. Let me boldly say that since you, my gentle reader, survived it, nothing will stop you from flourishing in 2021. Happy NewYear to you all!

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