By Lasisi Olagunju
SOMEHOW, we’ve all, individually, managed to get by and get better but the country gets progressively worse every new day. I thought of how much I paid to get university education – my first degree. The first year, I paid N20 caution fee; I also paid N90 for accommodation. The second year, there was no hostel accommodation so I didn’t pay anything. The third year, there was no accommodation but the university authorities introduced an examination fee of N30. There were protests: “we no go gree…” The school was closed for weeks. We came back and still had to pay. Final year came; I paid N90 for accommodation and N30 examination fee. That was all. So, how much did I pay for my four years university education in Great Ife? I don’t need a calculator to arrive at the total – It was N260 (two hundred and sixty naira only). That was thirty-something years ago. A colleague who attended Ogun State University during same period told me her “fees in the university for four years was less than N1,500.” She paid so much because her school was a tuition-charging state university. Mine was federal; it was tuition free.
Was life really easy during our time? It was tough. We were told that the yesterday that preceded us was better. We were told students needed just N1.50k per day to feed very well on five-star meals. We were told government gave university students money they called bursary. There was subsidized feeding on campus. Tea was free; there were free fruits which the poor without meal tickets feasted on. We didn’t meet that. What we met was the receding aroma of good life. We met cracked hearthstones and cold cafeterias; we met dour dining chairs and sullen tables – all converted to reading items of furniture. We were very unlucky to enter the university shortly after the military came, sacked workers, cancelled bursary payments and annulled feeding in the universities. It was tough. It was during our time that 0-1-0 (one meal a day) or 0-1-1 (lunch and supper, no breakfast) as self-imposed meal-ration formula gained traction. Only children of the really rich could afford 1-1-1 (three square meals) per day. There was an influential Kaduna-based newspaper called New Nigerian. It died years ago because everything Nigeria touches withers. On Friday, June 14, 1985, it published a news piece on hunger in the universities. The introductory paragraph was: “Three square meals have become a luxury in the nation’s institutions of higher learning. This followed the withdrawal of food subsidies by the Federal Government…” So, you see, I am not making up these things. They may sound very far and distant in time, but they are true; they happened. What then was the experience like after we left? I would not know. I was not there.
I travelled back to that past because of an old sheet of paper which trended online last week. It is somebody’s 1984 list of how he or she spent N100 for housekeeping. The author of the paper listed 18 assorted food items that a hundred naira was used to buy. The person bought N14 yam, N6.50 meat, N2.10 beans, N3.60 rice etc. The sheet of paper was an instant Internet hit. It became a celebrity of some sorts and flew from one WhatsApp group to another. Then I remembered Jason Marcus’s song: ‘Yesterday Was Better Than Today.’ It is always better. Right at the top of the sheet was: “See the purchasing power of 100 naira in 1984. Small change still remain sef.” It is a commenter’s snide remarks. Other comments followed – a mixture of anger and self-mockery at what today offers. I took time to read as many as I could. I shook my head.
I forwarded the paper to a professor in America. He did not find it funny. He replied immediately: “Recall that 1984 was a very tough year.” He told me and I agreed with him – we queued to buy rice and sugar and milk and everything – the kind of spectacle you see in Venezuela. Lucky persons (like the author of that N100 sheet of paper) got stuffs to buy. Unlucky sellers and buyers routinely got thoroughly flogged by soldiers – the kind of sight you may see soon in Afghanistan. My professor-friend wrote back again that he hoped “future generations don’t look back at this horrible year, 2021 and sentimentalize how much N100,000 could buy.” I told him that I hoped so too. Then he added: “1984 was the first time in my life that I knew what hunger meant. Buhari’s boneheaded policy of changing currency brought enormous hardship. My dad lost all his money.” True. Many highflying beings during this period got grounded. It was tough for everybody who had to live through the affliction, the scourge. It was definitely tough for that person who took a whole N100 to the market and came back with a change of N5.30.
A decade before 1984. We were told that life was better. It was Nigeria’s oil boom era when money flowed freely for the elite and the other side salivated and died of envy. That was when the head of our government announced to the world that money was not the problem of Nigeria. He said the problem was how to spend it. There must be a way to do something about the careless positive entries on our balance sheet. So, in 1972, the Head of State, General Yakubu Gowon, set up a commission to review civil service standards and compensation in the country. The commission, headed by Chief Jerome Udoji, came up with a list of recommendations, the most popular of them was an increase in the salaries of public servants. The increase came with arrears because the decision was backdated. Then government workers got the Udoji awards and became rich. A colleague said after his dad “collected his Udoji largesse in 1974, he took N500 to the market and bought a brand new television set, a new refrigerator, a brand new fan, a new Karaoke music system and a brand new motorcycle.” Several white-collar homes experienced that transformation while others outside government offices carried the trash can. Even then, what was the exchange rate that time?
Nigeria introduced the naira on 1 January, 1973 as replacement for the Nigerian pound. At inception, the naira exchanged for $0.66; the following year, 1974, it appreciated to $0.63; 10 years after, 1984, the naira exchanged for $0.77. By 1986, it collapsed under the weight of our husband’s insistence that the naira was overvalued. That year, for the first time, the naira bowed to the American dollar – it exchanged for N1.75/$. By 1988, it went down to N4.54 to a dollar; 10 years after, in 1998, it moved further down to N21.89 per US dollar. Galileo’s Law of Falling bodies took over in 2015. That year, N192.44 equalled one dollar. In 2016, it fell to N253.49 per dollar; in 2017, it fell to N305.79 per dollar. In 2018, it fell further. It slumped in 2019; in 2020 it was N373 per dollar. In 2021, it is aiming at the sea bed. What was the value of the naira yesterday? A dollar exchanged for N530; one Pound Sterling was N722. Remember it was N2 per Pound at the inception of the naira in January 1973. What will happen when a dollar and a million naira become equals? Nothing. Nothing will happen. Nigerians and their country will just trudge on while their leaders hold feasts of wealth.
We feel daily that we may have failed permanently to halt the drift; that we have lost the ocean to the sharks and the whales – the big fishes who fat on small fishes. We, truly, are in precarious times etched in depressing headlines every day. We do not have the optimism that keeps other nations going in difficult times. Outside here, things get better. Outside here, people do what Max Roser, an economist at the Institute for New Economic Thinking at Oxford University, asks his people to do in moments of dire straits. He asks them to breathe in and breathe out and confirm that good things may be happening around them. Oxford is in the United Kingdom, so Roser could bask in sunny optimism. The economist tells his audience: “To really understand how the world is changing, you have to look at the big picture. You have to zoom out from the current events to understand in which direction the world is changing. We live in a much more peaceful and inclusive world than our ancestors of the past.” Of course, if you live in Nigeria as I do, you would have no problem disagreeing with the last sentence; what that economist said on peace and security. It was our ancestors’ world, not ours, that was a “much more peaceful and inclusive world.” They passed it to us, we lost that world – without tears.
Unless we collectively do something drastic about our situation, the cascading doom will consume us. Very soon, a dollar will exchange for one thousand naira and nothing will happen. On May 12, 2014 – seven years ago, I wrote here, in this column, that Nigerians don’t cry for long over anything, let alone grieve over spilt milk. Nothing has changed. We sustain nothing positive. Nothing shocks anyone in Nigeria for more than one second. It is a nation of solid shock absorbers. Nigerians’ journey through rough life rarely evokes the kind of grin you see on the faces of bumpy riders. Their ride, no matter how stress-filled, knows neither compression nor rebound. The damper in their system is beyond human comprehension. It confounds as it riles. Even amid tears, their eyes see and make excuses for failure. They don’t get blinded by events that pluck other people’s eyes. So, will today be better than what yesterday was? What does your religion tell you about how to get better? My own faith tells me that “Indeed, God will not change the condition of a people until they change what is in themselves.”