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Inflation: Nigerians struggle to afford food as prices soar

February 28, 2024

The West African nation's economic crisis has hit boiling point. Nigerians' anger over rampant inflation and the spiraling cost of food has reached fever pitch. Who is to blame for the growing financial pain?

Demonstrators hold placards during a protest against the hike in price and hard living conditions
As inflation skyrockets, many poor Nigerians have had to skip meals and give up products such as meat, eggs and milkImage: SAMUEL ALABI/AFP

The streets of Lagos, Nigeria's largest city, are packed with angry demonstrators calling to "end hardship now!" amid the West African country's worst economic crisis in more than two decades.

The protests kicked off on Tuesday after one of the country's main unions, the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC), called for Nigerians to come out to the streets.

‘'There is suffering in the land, there is suffering for the workers, no worker can live on 30,000 naira ($18.40) minimum wage and over 150 million Nigerians are living below the poverty line," NLC president Joe Ajaero told demonstrators.

Rush hour in Lagos Nigeria
Tinubu has called for patience to allow his reforms to take effect, but the measures have hit Nigerians hardImage: Adekunle Ajayi/NurPhoto/picture alliance

What caused the crisis in Nigeria? 

When Nigerian President Bola Tinubu took office in May 2023, he removed a fuel subsidy as part of his economic reforms. But the measures sent fuel costs soaring and the prices of food and transport almost tripled. 

The naira lost around 70% of its value and dropped to record lows after Tinubu last year scrapped the pegging of the naira to the US dollar.

Last May, 10,000 naira would buy $22 — now it will only fetch around $6.40.

The plunging naira has resulted in a rise in the price of all imported products — and inflation has soared to 30%.

But Nigerian economist Tunji Andrews told DW that the fuel subsidy's scrappage was not what tipped the Nigerian economy over the edge. 

"The downturn had been before he came into office," said Andrews. "The removal just made it harder. It increased inflation, which is natural. It just made it harder for most people to be able to live."

And it is ordinary citizens who have been bearing the brunt of the slump because Nigerian wages have not kept up with the rising cost of living. 

"The hardship in the land is very, very alarming," one protester in Lagos told DW. "The masses of Nigerians are suffering, and the federal governments are not doing the needful. They made a lot of promises and they have not fulfilled one."

Nigerians shop at a market in the capital Abuja, Nigeria
Nigeria's inflation and high cost of living have prompted some to eat rice grains rejected by millers or the rice sold as fish feedImage: picture-alliance/dpa/G. Esiri

Getting to the heart of the issues

Another Lagosian told DW that she struggles to afford medicine.

"I bought my hypertension medication for 6,000 naira — now it's 9,000 naira. The masses can't afford it, people are dying," she said. "It's terrible. Foodstuff has skyrocketed. Pure water cost 300 and is now at 600. We need a miracle." 

There are two major issues, according to Andrews.

"There is the challenge of high inflation and there's also the secondary issue of devaluation of the currency," the economist told DW. 

Nigerians who are concerned about the sliding naira currency have been buying up US dollars which they consider a more stable currency. 

The sharp fall in the naira value against the dollar has prompted Nigerians to stockpile dollars. 

"And the black market is dictating what the rate of getting dollars is in the country. Which shouldn't be. But that's the scenario," Andrews told DW.

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Who is to blame?

Tinubu inherited a range of challenges from his predecessor, Muhammadu Buhari. High unemployment, record inflation and widespread insecurity. 

During Tinubu's election campaign, he vowed to deal with these issues, but the unions say his government has failed to deliver on his promises — including a monthly wage increase for all workers, payments to millions of vulnerable households, and the rollout of gas-powered buses for mass transit.

Andrews said that Nigerians all need basics such as food, transport and power. 

"I think if they can have that, Nigerians are very resilient, and they will create jobs for themselves," he told DW.

"If they can get adequate power, if the food prices can reduced and the removal of petrol prices, then I'm sure that there will be some short-term succor for the average Nigerian.

Andrews acknowledged that the crisis started even before Tinubu's government came into power.

"There had been the challenge of liquidity, the economy had experienced some fragility," the economist told DW.

"So there was fire, and we then put petrol on it, and it exacerbated the scenario. It is my genuine thought that it is not a Tinubu issue per se, but maybe the fact that his policies could have been differently implemented for a better result."

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Food and cash handouts

Tinubu's government says it is working to address the crisis.

In a bid to tame inflation, Nigeria's central bank raised interest rates by four percentage points to 22.75%.

Nigeria's government announced the setup of a board charged with regulating food prices and ordered the national grain reserve to distribute 42,000 tonnes of grain to poor and vulnerable Nigerians.

Labor unions are concerned that much of it does not actually reach poor families.

Additionally, the government plans to support rice producers to get more produce onto the market. Around 15 million poorer households are receiving a cash transfer of 25,000 naira a month.

Nigeria needs long-term fixes in order to turn around its ailing economy and make it more productive, Andrews said. 

"Let's have more production and more factories. Let's make it work for the factories so that we have more factories coming in than leaving the country," he told DW.

"That will be a more sustainable fix for the economy at large."

Edited by: Keith Walker

DW - Silja Fröhlich
Silja Fröhlich is a German journalist and radio host.