The story of the rotting heaps of plantain at Idioro market
By Femi Olugbile
Among the short videos flying about on the social media lately is one in which the camera shows a long earthen corridor, not in the best of sanitation, in the manner of a typical Nigerian market. On both sides of the corridor are market stalls. The atmosphere wears a bleak, forlorn look. As far as the eye can see, there are piles of plantains, on the stalk. The last vestiges of green or ripe yellow are beginning to disappear from the skin of the plantains, leaving a black colour that tells more eloquently than any words can that in another few hours, each of the plantains will be rotten, soft, and soggy. It will lose its appeal for even the most ravenous and destitute human appetite, and become food fit only for rodents and vermin.
The caption of the video informs the viewer that this is a plantain market at Idi-Oro, a suburb of Lagos close to Mushin, where you grew up. The picture is its own narration. It is a metaphor for the situation of the man on the street, not just in Lagos, but across Nigeria. It depicts, more eloquently than any words can, the pain and suffering inflicted on a long-suffering populace – a culmination eight successive years of a lived experience where each year may qualify to be named an annus horribilis. In that dolorous sequence, this, the last in the tenure the incumbent President of the nation, is eminently qualified to be labelled the annus horribilis to end them all.
The contortions of language are not flights of literary fancy, and not the vituperations of alienated gentry caught on the wrong side of the avenging sword of a man who came into the prime office in Nigeria promising to wrestle corruption to the ground, as the main item on his agenda. Corruption, in any case, is still alive and well, everywhere you look, from the police and traffic wardens at the traffic points in Lekki and Surulere, to the tales of mind-numbing amounts of money that continue to exchange hands in inflated government procurements. What is not ‘alive and well’ is the poor Nigerian citizen who lives on the margin and forms a large segment of that informal sector that makes up the numbers in Okonjo-Iweala’s ‘rebased’ Economy, celebrated by government as the largest in Africa, though the benefits are hard to see for the man in the street.
The story of the rotting plantains, for anyone who lives on another planet, and has not cottoned onto it by now, is that each one of the piles represents the living and working capital of its owner. The short life cycle of the plantain, delivered to the market in trailers and rickety vans, arriving from farms in distant places with a green colour and a pristine hardness to the touch, requires it to be sold off to the consumer within four or five days, before it becomes black, soggy and worthless. In the narrow window of time that separates success from disaster, the precariousness of the advertised economic prosperity of the proletarian Nigerians is captured. The trader invests all her working capital, which includes what her children will eat for supper tonight and the transport-money they will take to school tomorrow, in a single transaction, which embodies her living. Having bought a load of plantains from the trailer, she now has, almost immediately, to get rid of her stock. Customers would normally abound, from other sellers taking the commodity to sell in other markets to street traders who will hawk them on trays in the streets.
Unfortunately, here, as the picture says, the plantain has been bought, and the trailers and trucks have departed. But there are no buyers because nobody has any cash money. Everybody’s money is locked up in the banks.
Day by day, the traders have watched the plantains rotting away before their eyes. What is rotting away before their eyes is not just their business capital, but the food of their families and the money to pay the landlord at the end of the month. Also ebbing away as they watch their rotting plantains is their hope and trust in their country.
It is good, and even necessary, for governments to have powerful vision for the positive transformation of society. Sometimes, the actions to be taken for the public good are tough, and painful in the short-term. To quote Menachem Begin, a former Israeli Prime Minister who knew much about tough decisions, which often involved killing people, ‘You cannot make omelettes without breaking eggs.’ President Clinton, when he took the decision to return a young Cuban boy to his parents in hostile Cuba, in the teeth of fierce public opposition, was heard to remark that leadership was not just about holding up a finger in the air to find out in what direction the wind of public opinion was blowing.
Having said all that, nothing illustrates the idiocy, incompetence and sheer wickedness that have been deployed in the conception, timing and execution of the so-called ‘Currency Swap’, which is really a ‘Currency Confiscation’, which has held the nation in its throes for several weeks now, better than the story of the rotting plantains at Idi Oro, and similar pictures replicated in the lives of the most vulnerable citizens in different parts of the country. A theoretically good idea, even if it was timed to influence politics, has failed in both its stated and ulterior motives, and transformed into a nightmare from which the nation is yet to awake.
Someday, for sure, all the present suffering will be gone, and the plantains will be ripe and lush again in the market at Idi Oro and other places across Nigeria. The market women will be happy, and there will be money in the various bodily crevices where they hide their money in the hurly-burly. But they will not forget.