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Hunger during the pandemic shows Nigeria’s social security gaps

Water mixed with salt was dinner for Umar Abubaker and his family of eight, including three young children, for many nights during Nigeria’s five-week lockdown to curb the spread of the coronavirus.

Hunger during the pandemic shows Nigeria’s social security gaps

Before the lockdown, Abubakar, who has a physical disability, lost his job as a commercial tricycle driver, after the tricycles were banned in his neighbourhood in Lagos State. Abubakar’s only source of daily income vanished with the ban, and when the lockdown went into effect, he was not even able to beg for charity on the streets. Without any savings, Abubakar and his family struggled to eat. Abubakar is among millions of people living in poverty across Lagos State for whom any disruption to their livelihood in the informal sector has a significant impact on meeting basic needs.

The World Bank forecasted in January 2021 that the COVID-19 crisis will result in an additional 10.9 million Nigerians entering extreme poverty, living on less than a dollar a day, by 2022. Prior to the pandemic, about 90 million Nigerians, more than 40%, were already living in extreme poverty.

The government has acknowledged that the COVID-19 pandemic has had a devastating impact on the livelihoods of the poorest Nigerians and promised to reverse the trend. But its efforts have been limited. Nigeria has no social security system for unemployment, children, disability benefits or food assistance. Although some ad hoc programs provide support, the World Bank said in 2019 that just 2% of households, and only about 4% of the poor in Nigeria had access to them. Efforts to scale up an existing cash transfer program and distribute food during the pandemic have been severely limited in the absence of a more structured system to reach those in need, while the number of Nigerians experiencing hunger has doubled.

The problem clearly goes far beyond the current pandemic and Abubakar’s life experience is an example of how millions of people are repeatedly hurt by the authorities’ failure to institute a social security system to help citizens deal with economic shocks. Years ago, Abubakar owned a food shop in Borno, his home state. He lost his shop after a commercial motorcycle accident, which led to amputation of one of his legs. With nowhere to turn, Abubakar began to beg on the street, but was ashamed to do so in his own community, so he moved to Lagos State.

There he eventually got a tricycle, under a hire purchase agreement that valued it at twice its price. With the proceeds, he provided for his family’s needs and paid the steep remittance for its cost – until he came face to face with another misfortune, the tricycle ban, and again had nowhere to turn. Abubakar’s story and the continued economic impact of the pandemic for millions of Nigerians underscores the fact that most people in the country are one misfortune away from hunger and abject poverty. It further highlights the importance of social security, a fundamental right enshrined in international human rights covenants that Nigeria is a party to.

The right requires governments to use a range of measures to ensure that people can attain an adequate standard of living and enjoy the rights necessary to live in dignity, including adequate food and nutrition, health and well-being, water, sanitation, and basic shelter. Key reforms are urgently needed to allow the Nigerian government to meet its minimum core human rights obligations and make these rights a reality for its citizens. This should include legal recognition of Nigerians’ right to social security, national and state-level strategies to realise the right, increased investment to make this possible, and new entitlements, such as disability and unemployment benefits for informal workers. Although Abubakar is back on the road transporting passengers after securing a commercial minibus under another higher purchase agreement, he and his family still live from hand to mouth amidst rising food prices. He fears that their ability to eat will be lost by the slightest challenge, especially as the government recently issued a red alert against the third wave of COVID-19 in Lagos. Without a system in place to ensure that families can navigate the pandemic’s continuing impact and future economic shocks with dignity, this may be the case.

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