Now that the ebb of the flow of emotional weeping has dried up, it is time to reflect on the saga of the 123 Jigawa Okada riders and other artisans arrested in Lagos and bring out some salient issues that were side-stepped by both sides of the social media dispute. It is interesting that the media did not give us any background information about the riders beyond that they were from Jigawa State. Who were they in Jigawa State is an important question that needs to inform public understanding of the issues at stake.
Of course, by telling us they were from Jigawa, it is also loaded with information that only reflective mind can make sense of. Jigawa State which took its name from the undulating panoramic waves of longitudinal sand dunes, is a farmer’s delight but this is not by choice.
Jigawa was the backyard of the old Kano State and never saw comparative level of industrialisation as Kano. Even as it marks more than 27 years of existence recently, the state has nothing to write home about in terms of industries. So, outside of the small number of civil servants and students, everyone in the state makes a living from either farming or farming-related activities, including grain trading. So, if you have no farm, finding a sustainable alternative means of livelihood is not easy.
Okada riding requiring little capital and skills and virtually no regulatory control is one option that is opened to youth who are neither students nor civil servants.
But Jigawa major towns (Dutse, Hadejia, Kazaure and Gumel) are compact, moderately small in size and one can easily transverse them from one end to the other, without requiring mechanical means of transportation. In this case, the volume passengers for the okada riders is not large to sustain them. This is why they seek more distant and populated places like Kano, Abuja and Lagos.
The Okada riders are mostly youth from rural areas of the state. But why should they leave their farms at the height of the farming season and head for Lagos? You will be forgiven to think they actually have farms. These are landless peasants whose life has been turned upside down by a combination of events and processes.
Let us start from the most obvious but hardly noticed. This is that farming in Jigawa is predominantly characterized by small peasant land ownership, with the land being transmitted from generation to generation. At every turn of a new generation, the size of the land decreases. This is because at the death of the head of the family, the land is divided and shared to inheriting children. Thus, if the farmer had five children, each will inherit just about one fifth of the land. They in turn will transmit to their children the small land that will farther be divided by the number of inheriting children.
But as the size of the land keeps diminishing, the productivity of the soil itself keep decreasing. This is due primarily to three developments. First is the increased impact of desertification and chainmen change in the ecosystem. Second is the lost of fertility of the solid due over farming and processes engineered by climate change. Third is the increased cost of agricultural inputs that make it possible for the poor farmer to cultivate any appreciable land were him to get it.
Another issue that emerged recently is the large-scale expropriation of the land of the peasant by big time land users. They include Mr. Lee who has a number of projects including sugar plantation at Gagarawa, tomato farm in Ringim, rice field in Kaugama, Dangote rice project in the Hadejia valley, the Abacha family sugar project in the same Hadejia valley. As a result of this, many of the families have become landless.
A fourth issue is that in the absence of any price stabilization mechanism by government and because peasant agriculture is labour intensive, by the time they have harvested, they sell at a loss, and have to buy what they need at higher prices. Inevitably all those have turned farming unprofitable. Matter of fact is that many of them cannot live on what they are able to produce in a season. At best it lasts them for three months. Thus, they have to look for how to make ends meet for the next nine months.
So, the Okada riders are already victims before they leave the shores of their state. They have been squeezed out of the only professional engagement they had known. Option for okada riding is just the only thing that is available. With no capital and no other skill, they would not have sought any other thing.
Their second level of victimhood is that they have been orphaned by their own state government. A caring, responsive and responsible government will have studied the plight of these people and designed alternative means of livelihood for them. Even if it is not built around industry, there are many other appropriate alternatives. So, our politicians have made mockery of youth empowerment by distributing motorcycles and okadas as youth empowerment. Besides contributing to polluting the environment, exacerbating climate change, these are not sustainable business ventures. In this case, we must hold their state government responsible for their plight. Interestingly, the state government has never explained why its citizens move in droves. Its only interest was to secure their release and be assured of their onward journey to Lagos, meaning it actually has no plan for them back home.
And finally, as citizens of Nigeria, they have the right to freedom of movement, even if they were from Niger Republic. Nigeria is under the ECOWAS Protocol of Free Movement of People and Goods required to guarantee their right to freedom of movement and passage. It makes of hypocrisy that when we all rose up to condemn the xenophobic attacks on foreigners in South Africa only for us to support action that profiles and exposes poor citizens to such attacks. It is even surprising, the trade unions who have been campaigning and championing the rights and protection of the migrant workers have not even issued a statement.
But for being poor; this right can be dispensed with or so it seems to dominant view in the media. If they had flown in aeroplanes or have private cars driven them, no one will have cared to arrest them. The action of the security tells even one more hypocrisy. Not long ago, a prominent citizen was picked by kidnappers from his house and for months, the kidnappers were moving him from one city to another undetected but it was easy to detect poor citizens with rickety Okadas on lorries and suspected of being danger to the good people of Lagos.
All said, in this saga, we have seen a clear case of class collusion, the abdication of responsibility by government and the penalizing of poverty as if people had option not be poor. The media, including much of the social media was busy reinforcing this discourse that if you are poor, you are suspect of terrorism, even when we have seen terrorists and other criminals live having access to stupendous riches and drive classy cars and maintain a watertight network of informants within the police and military that assured they are not easily brought to justice.
Mr Ya’u writes from Kano