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Mr President, Salary Hike Won’t Resolve The Present Hunger

I still recall a viral audio of a renowned Sheikh, Malam Qalarawi, complaining in the 80s that the dead were better than the living because the cost of petrol was ₦3 (yes, three naira) and torchlight battery formerly 80 kobo was somewhere around ₦1. And he threw in a puncher: “Ga basir”, meaning people suffering from haemorrhoids. Who does not have it now? Yet, there were no protests.

By Hassan Gimba

These days, the words dominating the air are “hunger” and “protest”. And that, we are told, is because of two others – “dollar” and “salary”. Unfortunately, those capitalising on the latter two words to push for the first two words hardly mention the words “production” and “security” which are fuelled by justice and fairness. And there can be no justice without the rule of law.

I suspect some behind-the-scenes push regarding cries of hunger and a subtle mobilisation for protests that would engulf the entire country. While not discounting the fact that there is massive hunger in town, it is not entirely true that this government caused it.

We grew up regaled with stories of hunger or famine hitting the lands that some people dug into the underground storage of ants to salvage grains. Or people eating wild leaves or even raw calabash plants. Yet there were no protests.

Under the Shehu Shagari administration, the powerful Umaru Dikko, minister of transport, and chairman of the Committee on Rice Importation, once told us when confronted by “cries” of hunger that there was no hunger in Nigeria “because no one was yet eating from the dustbin”, and that Nigerians ought to be grateful as the government was paying salaries without borrowing. There was no protest, either.

I still recall a viral audio of a renowned Sheikh, Malam Qalarawi, complaining in the 80s that the dead were better than the living because the cost of petrol was ₦3 (yes, three naira) and torchlight battery formerly 80 kobo was somewhere around ₦1. And he threw in a puncher: “Ga basir”, meaning people suffering from haemorrhoids. Who does not have it now? Yet, there were no protests.

We have had periods when even essential commodities were proportioned and rationed and people flogged while struggling for their share, yet there were no protests.

To be honest, there has never been a time in our history when there was no hunger. Perhaps the exceptions were that there were some positive factors in the society that made the hunger and deprivation of yesteryears more tolerable.

In the first place, no hope was misplaced because hard work paid off. People were educated almost free and health care delivery was functional and affordable. Crime was something read about and people felt secure while the judiciary was a sanctuary for the justice seeker.

Everyone was hopeful that their tomorrow would be better because they had seen those before them getting fair treatment and getting their just rewards.

But even then, Nigeria was a prosperous nation that was on the march to self-dependency. There were hydro basins scattered around that encouraged dry season farming while our farmers, even though predominantly subsistence farmers, were not short of fertiliser supply and other related Agro-allied inputs. Because of the robust and unhindered agricultural activities in the north, there was an abundance of groundnut, grains, cotton, livestock, etc. and these fed many industries in the food, cosmetics and textile industries.

We had rubber and cocoa plantations that served a lot of local and international manufacturers in the automobile and confectionery industry. There was coal and many others as well.

Now, most of the basins in the north are relics, the livestock are still being walked hundreds of kilometres for pasture, while insecurity has driven our farmers away from tilling the soil.

When Nigeria was facing some economic hiccups, the government of General Olusegun Obasanjo cut down the cost of governance drastically. A leader cannot be talking about improving the economy of his country while taking billions outside its shores to shore up foreign businesses to the detriment of hungry, jobless citizens back home. Among the measures Obasanjo took was the state policy of adopting assembled in Nigeria vehicles, the Peugeot.

In 1972, when the Udoji Commission recommended, among others, a Unified Grading and Salary Structure (UGSS) which embraced all posts in the Civil Service from the lowest to the highest, the naira was stronger than the dollar at about ₦60/$100. The commission increased the annual minimum wage from ₦312 to ₦720 (from ₦26 to ₦60). ₦720 was the equivalent of $1200.

As of the time of writing this, $100 was over ₦150,000! $1200 will be about ₦1,800,000. What this means is that the Udoji Commission’s minimum wage of ₦60 ($100 then) had more purchasing power than today’s minimum wage of ₦30,000 ($20 now). Then, just imagine $100 as a basic monthly salary today! That’s ₦150,000.

I have said it before and I will repeat it now: ₦1 million as minimum wage will help no one as long as the naira is weak. Period.

What we need now is not a salary increase, but the strengthening of our currency. Take the case of China. As of January 17, 2024, Shanghai had the highest monthly minimum wage among 31 provinces, with $370 per month. Germany had €1,584.00 per month as of June 2020. Spain, as of June 2019, had €1,050, Poland €523.09 and Belgium €1,593.81.

And these are countries that are richer than us and have higher GDP.

Now cast your mind back to when the naira was at par with the dollar and assume our minimum wage of ₦30,000 is $30,000 taking ₦100 to be equal to $100. Don’t you think that is more than enough?

To print more money just to pay civil servants will no doubt cause inflation, or even hyperinflation, as with Germany after World War II or what we saw in Venezuela and Zimbabwe. The salary gain would be so rubbished that the entire country would regret the increase for less than one per cent of the population.

The best way out is for public service salaries to be uniform, cost governance to be drastically reduced, and for Nigeria to start producing what it eats, wears and drives. And there is no better time to start than now and no better people to start than those running the country.

Then there must be fairness and justice. And security of life, property and investments.

With these in place, Nigeria will leapfrog many countries it is now looking up to.

Hassan Gimba is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Neptune Prime.

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