By Isaac Asabor
There is no denying the fact that COVID-19 pandemic, the attendant policy of lockdown and social distancing for months have occasioned unprecedented depth of hunger in the land as many people were unable to work. Majority of those that worked hardly got profitable rewards as great portion of the rewards in the form of profits and salaries were spent on inflated transport fares, feeding and other necessities. The period of lockdown, no doubt, created hunger hotspots and epicenters of hunger across the country. During the crisis, not few Nigerians, particularly those in the cities such as Lagos nervously speculated that by the end of the crisis people could die from hunger linked to COVID-19, potentially more than will die from the disease itself.
The lockdown or rather Stay-at-home order, no doubt, triggered an unparalleled level of hunger in the land coupled with the fact that the economy has before the implementation of the policy being in a bad shape.
Meanwhile, while the people grapple with the difficulties that emanated from the pandemic, some Nigerians at the top relished all the perks of office and selfishly hid the COVID-19 relief materials meant for those considered to be vulnerable in the society in various government run warehouses, and in their homes. While explaining to his constituents on why he stored away COVID-19 materials meant for the people in his house, a lawmaker, Sanai Agunbiade aka SOB, the Majority Leader of Lagos State House of Assembly, and who represents Ikorodu Constituency 1 said he wanted to share the items meant for the people on his birthday to widows, vulnerable and indigent individuals across the three local councils of his constituency.
Against the foregoing backdrop, it is not surprising that at the time when leaders in various countries are worried that the COVID-19 arrived at a time of unprecedented global need, with millions of people requiring humanitarian assistance, that political leaders in Nigeria resorted to storing away food items meant for the vulnerable in warehouses, and worse still leaving the foods to rot away.
Analyzed from the foregoing perspective, it is not an exaggeration to say that most Nigerians that understood the life-threatening consequence of hunger, and by extension the fatal consequence of poverty were not in the least flabbergasted when some angry Nigerians, majorly youths, upon the discoveries of warehouses filled with foods across the country, resorted to looting spree. The underlying fact remains that people faced by huge hardships are sometimes forced to steal when hungry to save their lives, or when their children are in dire need in the face of grim poverty.
According to facts gathered from Voice of America (VOA) in its news report on the issue, many Nigerians justified the looting spree that trailed the recent #EndSARS protest. For instance, David Ojo said, “We need our palliatives. It is our right. My neighbor almost died of hunger because of COVID-19,” and explained, “He used to work as security guard at a government institution, but he was sacked. What do you want him to do? I gave him beans and rice, he almost died of hunger.”
In the same vein, Sunday Chukwu, an Abuja resident, said they didn’t receive any government assistance during lockdowns.
“They didn’t share anything here.” “Maybe they shared for themselves. But they didn’t share for everybody and these ones now they are hiding it so that people may leave it, they’ll now gather them, they’ll be selling it to the people.”
Without any iota of exaggeration, the coronavirus pandemic exacerbated hunger for many of the country’s extremely poor, who number some 83 million, about 40 percent of the population, according to findings by National Bureau of Statistics (NBS).
Vivian Bellonwu, the head of Social Action Nigeria, says the amount of food kept in storage is an indication of “systemic failure.”
“To think that certain persons could lock down this quantum of food and materials as we are seeing them in their premises, in their custody and watching while people wallow in poverty and difficulty, is really unthinkable,” said Bellonwu. “I think that it is quite mean, I think it’s highly insensitive and I think that this is a betrayal of trust of the people.”
As gathered, no fewer than 649 suspected looters have been arrested in different parts of the country following attacks on warehouses where palliatives are stored.
At the Federal Capital Territory (FCT), the police arrested 51 suspected looters and recovered stolen palliatives. No fewer than 144 suspects were arrested in Kwara, while 30 were arrested in Taraba. The police also arrested 25 suspected looters in Kaduna; 130 in Adamawa; and 80 in Cross River. In Plateau State, 189 more looters were arrested, bringing the total figure to 307. The army had on Sunday said it arrested 118 suspected looters in the state.
At this juncture, it is expedient to ask, “What manner of justice awaits those arrested for looting the foods that were originally meant for them?”
To my view, if I am asked to suggest what punishment should be meted out to those that looted foods or rather Ca-Covid-19 palliatives originally meant for them, I will suggest that in punishing them that justice should be tempered with mercy, after all those that hid away foods that were originally meant for them in warehouses and personal stores, have, to my view, committed crime as well by hoarding foods not meant for them. Unfortunately, it is surprising that while almost everyone pays lip service to the idea that the interest of vulnerable victim should be paramount in crisis such as witnessed during the lockdown, the link between poverty and crime is usually discussed in terms of criminals rather than their victims.
In this context, it plausible to suggest that those been arrested for looting foods meant for them, and that were stored away in government run warehouses should be tried with justice tempered with mercy. For the sake of clarity, it is expedient to say that “Mercy’is compassion or forbearance shown especially to an offender or to one subject to one’s power”.
To amplify the foregoing plea, the bible in Proverbs chapter 6 verse 30 says, “People do not despise a thief if he steals to satisfy himself when he is starving”.
For the sake of clarity, it is germane to illustrate in this context with a story that originated from Indonesia thus:
An Indonesian judge by the name of Marzuki was sitting in judgment of an old lady who pleaded guilty of stealing some tapioca from a plantation.
In her defence, she admitted to the judge that she was indeed guilty of the crime because she was poor and her son was sick while her grandchild was hungry.
The plantation manager insisted that she be punished as a deterrent to others. The judge going through the documents then looked up and said to the old lady, “I’m sorry but I cannot make any exception to the law and you must be punished.”
The old lady was asked to pay a fine of 1 million rupiah (USD 100) and if she could not pay the fine then she will be jailed for two and a half years as demanded by the law.
The grandma was bowed, her heart crushed, while the judge Marzuki removed his cap, opened his pocket and then took his wallet and put 1 million rupiah into his hat and addressed the people in the court:
“I on behalf of the court, herewith fine each one attending this hearing 50’000 rupiah, for settling in this city and allowing someone living here to starve so that she is forced to steal to feed her children and grandchildren. The registrar will now collect the fines from all the accused.”
The court was able to collect 3.5 million rupiah (USD 200) and once the fine was paid off, the rest was given to the old lady including the fine collected from the plantation manager.
If you ask me, I will definitely tell you that those that looted warehouses harboring Ca-Covid-19 palliatives should be treated the same way.
To this end, I am of the view that in a country where ex-militants have been given amnesty to the extent of gaining foreign university scholarship, it would not be a misnomer to temper justice with mercy on those that looted, indomie, rice, garri and sugar which constitute palliatives that were meant for them but wickedly withheld from them by those in the corridors of power.
Isaac Asabor is a Public Affairs Analyst.