By Reuben Abati
There have been interesting arguments over Minister of Finance, Kemi Adeosun’s observation that “recession is just a word,” and NAN MD, Bayo Onanuga claiming that reports of hardship in the land is exaggerated propaganda. I think we need to break down the subject further from a layman’s perspective. Recession is a word, no doubt, but it is more than a word, it is an experience: the experience that the majority of Nigerians is going through. If you are at a significant remove from that experience, it may be difficult to know how it feels, and if you are an economist, you are likely to be conveniently obsessed with textbook ideas.
Recession is when Nigerians begin to shift the traditional dates for social parties. You know we love parties a lot. Virtually every weekend, there is one party or the other, very loud celebrations where people wear the famous aso ebi, and the Naira becomes a flying object, being thrown all over the place, at the musician, the celebrant, and her friends and family, with so much joy floating in the air, and plates of jolloff rice, eaten half way and left to waste, area boys having their own share of the fun, and Nigerians showing the world that life is indeed for the living.
Sometimes, these parties make no sense: imagine a man throwing a big party to “turn the back” of his great grandfather who died 50 years ago (!) – a great grandfather he never knew, or a lavish party to celebrate the purchase of a second-hand car. Those things are very rare these days. And when some parties are held, the date on the invitation card is during the week: can you imagine being invited to a wedding on a Monday? I have seen that happen. The event was over and done with before 5 p.m. Smart way to save money in a season of recession. There were guests of course, but not the kind of crowd you’d get at a typical Nigerian party on a Friday or Saturday. The celebrants actually confessed they didn’t have the means to feed too many people. That is what recession has done. Nobody boasts anymore about “declaring surplus” – a once-upon-a-time very famous phrase in this country!
When I was much younger, my friends and I used to gate-crash parties. Bored, with not much to do, we would dress up and go from one party to the other. It was called “mo gbo mo ya” – I heard and I came. In those days, all you needed was to go to a party to which you had not been invited, and without knowing anybody, you took a seat and before long, someone would come along and ask if you had eaten. In a matter of minutes, whatever you wanted would be placed before you. Drinks? Some friends used to boast about “finishing” a carton of beer, and they would have their fill and quietly sneak away. Try that these days and you would know that recession is more than a word. Virtually every party is now strictly by invitation. Even when it is not boldly stated on the invitation card, you’d get to know the truth when you attempt to gate-crash.
Parties are now organised with such strict protocols, it is like trying to access Aso Villa. You would be screened, your bag will be checked, and don’t think it is Boko Haram attack they are afraid of, they just want to be sure you are not gate-crashing, and if you don’t have an invitation card, you would of course be turned back. There are some exceptions of course, where the protocol is a matter of security: particularly at those parties where there would be many VIPs. Nigerian VIPs don’t like to mix with just anybody.
Even if you manage to gatecrash, nobody will attend to you. What operates at parties these days, is a KYG (Know-Your-Guest) system. After sitting down, someone has to identify you as his or her guest. You don’t get served food, unless your host or hostess gives specific instructions. And you can’t drink a carton of beer anymore at your host’s expense! I certainly can’t remember when last I saw anyone getting drunk at other people’s expense at a party. Even close friends of celebrants, the ones who are a bit comfortable, go to parties these days with their own small cooler of drinks. The celebrant will offer you one or two bottles. If you want more than that, the ushers could become hostile or they could tell you pointedly: “drinks have finished.” I have had on one occasion to give the ushers, money to go and get me the drink of my choice. But once upon a time in this country, drinks don’t stop flowing at parties. The host will be so ashamed he or she would order more drinks and apologize to no end.
Where I come from, local women used to go to parties with cellophane bags, hidden away somewhere, and when they are served food, they would pull out the cellophane bag and pour food into it, all of that is done under the table. Next thing: they will start harassing the ushers: “we have not eaten here oh. Nobody has given us drinks: drinks they have moved to their collection cellophane bags! But party organisers have also learnt to be vigilant: they serve table to table; map out the space carefully and monitor the tables. Before 2019, perhaps a time will come when ushers will take your photograph, or there will be CCTV monitors at social events, just so you don’t come back and say you have not been served. That is change. That is recession. If you are a man-about-town, you can’t fail to notice this: that something has indeed changed in the social circuit. But there is that one per cent crowd, whose pockets are still so deep, if you get invited to their parties, it is like going to a surplus declaration event, what Nigerians call “too much money.” Even that is changing though, people are learning to be careful, so they don’t get invited to come and explain how they came about so much money.
Recession is when you now read in the newspapers virtually every week about people committing suicide. Nigerians are so fun-loving we were once described as the happiest people on earth. Right now, we will fail the test. Suicide used to be so rare in this country. It was considered impossible. Why would anyone want to kill himself? I used to hear people say: “eba is sweet oh, I can’t come and die” or “life is for the living” or “e go better.” People are not so sure anymore. In the past month, there have been reports about two foreigners doing business in Nigeria who have also committed suicide. Every reported suicide in recent times, has been tied, one way or the other, to the recession in the country. One man had an argument with his wife over school fees and housekeeping money and he went and ended it all. Another man actually left a note saying he had to kill himself because there is too much hardship in the country. Marriages are collapsing. Domestic violence is on the rise.
Husbands that are out of work can no longer maintain their families, they can’t pay school fees, they have become useless in their own homes, they are helpless. Their wives want to leave, even when they are not too sure of the next destination. There are at least two celebrated cases of women who have either slain their husbands or wounded them badly. In both cases, there was that notorious thing about a second woman in the background. Sharing what is not enough for one person with another woman, in a season of recession, could be a crime, but the biggest dysfunction is that of the pocket. One woman, a lawyer oh (!) stabbed her husband in the neck. Another after having sex with her husband, and putting him to sleep, got a machete and butchered him. The man is presently in what Yorubas call, “boya o ma ku, boya o maa ye” condition. Whether he would live or die is uncertain.
Recession is when companies are retrenching everyday or closing shop and SMEs are dying. In the last one year, high unemployment figures have been announced. Banks have had to shed weight; the foreign exchange crisis has forced many companies to downsize or abandon Nigeria, investors are taking their funds out of the country, many states of the Federation are so much in distress, they have stopped paying salaries. Civil servants cannot even afford a bag of rice, because their minimum wage is N18, 000 and a bag of rice is N22, 000 or higher in some places. Recession is when Nigerians now steal pots of soup and basic food items, and they can’t buy rams for Sallah, and they are told “don’t worry, change begins with you!” Every worker who has lost his or her job in the last one year is not the only one affected, the knock-on effect has brought anguish to other dependants, who now have a bread-winner behaving like a bread seeker. That is recession. That is hardship.
Recession is when enjoyment spots that used to be filled up every Friday evening are now empty. Nigerians used to celebrate what they call “Thank God it is Friday.” In Lagos, Friday evenings used to be the boys’ night. Husbands didn’t go home early. These days, husbands go home early and Fridays have become slightly boring. Recession is when prostitutes reduce their charges. I have it on good authority, from those who know, that even prostitutes have had to embrace change. And old girlfriends now demand pension benefits. Recession is when families which used to run the generator 24 hours and boast that their children can’t stand heat, have had to adjust, and run the generator only from 12 midnight, or before. Recession is when men come out and complain that their wives no longer allow them to touch them: “Are you mad? With the way things are, all you think of is sex?” Kama Sutra rites are best enjoyed only in happy lands. Recession is when in spite of all this, the breweries in Nigeria are posting unbelievable record profits and smiling to the banks. The men go home and privately drown their sorrow in bottles. Mrs. Adeosun, this is the true meaning of recession.