Nigerians lament another bleak Christmas as hardship persists

Christians the world over celebrate Christmas as the birth of Jesus Christ and use the opportunity to express love for mankind. However, this year’s Christmas celebration appears to be another bleak one as a result of hardships occasioned by high food prices among other factors; PAUL OKAH reports.

Every Christmas brings a feeling of nostalgia as Christian families prepare for exchange of gift items, visits, and other activities while celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ every December 25.

Many business owners use the opportunity to hike prices of goods and services nearly beyond the reach of average families, thereby denying them the joy of celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ.

In the transportation sector, fares are over increased by over 50% often discouraging many from travelling, except for more pressing reasons like wedding, child dedication, burial ceremonies, and family meetings, among others.

The removal of fuel subsidies by President Bola Ahmed Tinubu on May 29 led to an increase in fuel prices and transportation fares. Consequently, many people have opted to send money to loved ones at home instead of travelling to villages for Christmas.

Also, as a result of economic hardship, occasioned by fuel subsidy removal, which has led to increase in food items and hitherto affordable items, many people have painted a picture of a bleak Christmas, compared to previous years.

 Blueprint Weekend’s investigations revealed that this year, many Christians and their well-wishers have shelved the idea of travelling as transport companies have increased fares.

Speaking with this reporter at Peace Mass Transit (PMT) Park in Utako, a driver, Godwin Okafor, said the hike in transport fares is as a result of the high cost of fuel and a few people coming into the city during the yuletide.

“There is always a pattern during the Christmas and New Year period. From my experience of over 20 years as a driver, many people travel to the village from the cities, while a few others move in the opposite direction. It is always a one-way thing. “Therefore, there are usually a few available vehicles available to travellers; so we have to maximise the situation by increasing the transport fares from between 20 and 50 per cent.

“This is because drivers taking passengers to their villages often return without up to five passengers to Abuja. In order words, they return with empty vehicles. The few passengers they pick along the way pay little money for the driver to add to his fuel money.

“Again, it is not our fault that the demand for vehicles to travel is usually not met because so many people want to travel, whereas there are only a few buses available. Simple mathematics or economics will tell you that we will have to use the opportunity of many demands to make money while travelling to the village as we will lose when coming back to the cities with empty buses. Moreover, bus fares are usually more affordable compared to air fares.”

Another driver at Bright Mass Transit in Zuba, Mr. Peter Ekene, said the abnormally high transport fares is as a result of the removal of fuel subsidy and rising cost of vehicle spare parts, admitting that people are not travelling this year unlike past years.

Hiked air fares

Though road transport fares are usually high during the yuletide, they are nothing compared to the present cost of flights. A check by this reporter on some major airlines revealed that air fares have increased compared to what were obtainable a few months back.

Blueprint Weekend’s checks on December 21 revealed that a one-way economy class ticket from Abuja to Enugu at United Nigeria Airline was ₦225,500, the same from Lagos to Enugu. However, a flight ticket from Enugu to Abuja was ₦75,063 at Air Peace and ₦67,500 at United Nigeria. Furthermore, air ticket from Enugu to Lagos was ₦75,063 at Air Peace, ₦62,000 at Green Nigeria and ₦70,000 at United Nigeria.

On the other hand, Dana Airlines charged ₦205,000 for Abuja to Owerri airport, while Air Peace charged ₦436,259 for the same route. An air ticket from Lagos to Enugu was ₦225,500 at United Nigeria, but ₦456,798 at Air Peace.

Interestingly, a one-way economy class ticket from Lagos to Abuja at United Nigeria was ₦90,000. However, the same air ticket from Lagos to Abuja was ₦100,000 at Dana Airlines, ₦101,500 at Green Africa, ₦110,313 at Air Peace, ₦111,190 at Aero Contractors, ₦113, 500 at ValueJet and ₦115,500, 051 at Arik Air.

Foodstuff prices

It is not a surprise that prices of food items have skyrocketed as many citizens are known to hike prices when it is celebration time, thereby making items unaffordable particularly at festive periods.

For instance, prices of onions, yam, rice, beans, semolina, fish, tomatoes and other items are usually hiked by traders, who cite high transportation costs, high demands and other factors as reasons.

A market survey conducted by this reporter in the FCT showed that prices of almost all the food items, especially those needed to celebrate the yuletide, have increased.

At Wuse market, a sizable chicken was sold at N7, 000 as opposed to N5, 000 a few weeks ago. A bag of 50kg local rice was sold at N50, 000 and above, as opposed to N45, 000 a few weeks ago. Also, a four-litre vegetable oil was sold at N8, 500, as opposed to N7, 000.

Similarly, five tubers of sizable yam were sold at N10, 000, while smaller ones were sold at N5, 000, as opposed to N8, 000 and N4, 000, respectively. On the other hand, a bunch of plantain was sold at N2,000, N3,000, N4,000, N5,000 and above, depending on the size.

Also, a small bucket of fresh tomatoes was sold at N3, 500, as opposed to N1, 500, while a small paint size of onions was sold at N5, 000.

Likewise, a mudu of yellow garri was sold at N800, while the white version was sold at N500. A mudu of beans was sold at N1, 000, N1, 100 and N1, 200, depending on the type.

Prices of spices and other ingredients needed for preparing different meals were also increased by either 50 per cent or 100 per cent, as opposed to what was obtainable a few weeks ago.

Naira scarcity

Appallingly, there appears to be scarcity of Naira notes, traceable to the change of the Naira notes, especially with the old Naira notes which were supposed to cease to be legal tender by the end of December until a Supreme Court judgement extended it indefinitely.

The CBN on December 13 said Naira notes in circulation had increased from one trillion in February to 3.4 trillion in December, with CBN’s acting director, Corporate Communications, Mrs. Hakama Ali, reassured Nigerians of enough Naira notes in circulation to carter for their cash needs even beyond the yuletide.

She admitted that some Nigerians were creating the scarcity being experienced nationwide as they were hoarding the currency due to challenges experienced during the Naira re-design project.

Speaking with Blueprint Weekend, a civil servant, Mrs. Blessing Yetunde, said Point of Sale (PoS) operators were making matters worse by hiking charges during the yuletide.

“I won’t be making a mistake to say this is going to be the bleakest Christmas ever to be celebrated by Nigerians. I had the worst experience on Wednesday when I visited different ATMs in Wuse, but didn’t get a single cash in all the banks I visited. I met hundreds of people queuing in Zenith, GTB, Union, First Bank, Access and other banks, but there was no single ATM that was dispensing cash. It is just as if the banks conspired to starve Nigerians of their hard earned money.

“At the end, I was forced to patronise a PoS operator, who charged me N1, 000 for N20, 000 I needed for transactions requiring physical cash. Imagine having money in your account and not having access to it. How are we going to enjoy Christmas without cash? Just like earlier in the year, when there was Naira scarcity, PoS operators are presently exploiting Nigerians. To make matters worse, the CBN keeps saying there is enough cash in circulation, whereas the situation is different when you go to deposit money banks. Christmas celebration without cash is demoralising,” she said.

On his part, a businessman, Mr. Joseph Nnamdi, said money is important in celebrating the yuletide as there are many aged people without bank accounts that would appreciate cash from their family members.

“Cash is needed to celebrate Christmas. There are so many things cash is needed for, including gifting people. For instance, you can’t transfer money to your grandmother and other people who may not have bank accounts or knowledge of digital banking. Such people need physical cash, which is why the scarcity of cash is pointing to a bleak Christmas,” he said.

Non-payment of salaries 

Discouragingly, many private establishments hesitate to pay salaries to their workers, thereby directly and indirectly contributing to the workers’ plights at Christmas.

A worker in a logistics firm in Wuse, Joseph Ette, said his organisation has not paid for his services since October and that there is no possibility for his travelling home to celebrate the yuletide.

He said: “I come from Cross River state and I usually travel to my hometown every Christmas to celebrate with my family back home as we usually get a week off to celebrate the yuletide. However, there is no possibility of travelling back home this yuletide as a result of the nonpayment of salary by my organisation. I really wanted to travel home this yuletide because I didn’t go home for Christmas last year. However, I don’t see that happening this year.

“I think the situation of the economy is generally affecting organisations. My office usually didn’t owe salary before, so the situation is a troubling one. I have not received my salary since October, so it will be a miracle to get it this Christmas. It is really discouraging so I am even looking for another job. If the situation persists, I will leave the organization by next year because I don’t see any future here again with the nonpayment of the salary I really worked for. Imagine when others will be preparing for Christmas, mine is with a bleak outlook because of the nonpayment of salary.”

On her part, a businesswoman and mother of three, Mrs. Gloria Attah, said the cost of living will not allow her to travel with her family as they usually do every yuletide.

She said: “A lot needs to be done as there is hunger and suffering in the land and people are helpless. I am appealing that more measures be put in place to ameliorate the sufferings of citizens and enable them to enjoy the coming festive period. There is a high cost of living in the country with little or no money to purchase items.

“I am almost forgetting that Christmas is a few days away because I am yet to see or smell it around my vicinity, unlike how it had been in the past. Things are very tough and many families struggle to feed and get by. I thank God for my petty business because it puts food on my table.

“We always travel to the village as a family every festive period. This time, I do not think we are going anywhere because the cost of fueling our vehicle to the village is very high, and I can’t guarantee the safety of my family on the road. We will stay in Abuja in good health and celebrate Christmas.”

Expert’s take

In an exclusive interview with Blueprint Weekend, an economic expert and chairman of the Board, Amaka Chiwuike Uba Foundation (ACUF), Prof. Chiwuike Uba, said many Nigerians will still overspend at Christmas, despite their poor economic status.

He said: “As the 2023 Christmas approaches, one can only hope that a deeper understanding of the prevailing challenges and a collective desire for change will eventually encourage a shift towards more prudent spending habits. The reevaluation of societal norms, coupled with a recognition of the long-term consequences of extravagant celebrations amidst economic hardships, may provide a glimmer of hope for a more sustainable and equitable future for all Nigerians.

“Monies are spent recklessly on unnecessary items and extravagant indulgences, driven solely by the desire to conform and be regarded as part of the lavish spending crowd. Simultaneously, many individuals are burdening themselves with debts in a desperate attempt to fulfil their Christmas shopping desires. At the end of each year, numerous employers bestow bonuses upon their employees, which, instead of being saved for rainy days, are impulsively squandered during the festive season. The societal expectation placed upon parents to provide their children with a grand Christmas experience often leads to a sense of failure if they cannot afford extravagant gifts. 

 “Considering the prevailing cost-of-living crisis and the mounting pressure on incomes, it is crucial for Nigerians to re-direct their spending towards essential and affordable indulgences. It is imperative to prioritise prudent use of resources during this year’s Christmas festivity, as Nigeria may encounter even more profound economic challenges in the approaching year. Wisely managing personal finances is not only a prudent approach, but also a profitable one, ensuring stability and sustainability in the face of adversity.”

Tinubu’s largesse 

On Wednesday, President Tinubu approved a 50 per cent reduction in the price of inter-state transport fares for those travelling during the yuletide between December 21, 2023 and January 4, 2024. 

Additionally, the president approved free rides for commuters on all train services within the period. 

The Minister of Solid Minerals Development, Mr. Dele Alake, who disclosed this, said the special presidential intervention “aims to provide relief for Nigerians during the holiday season.” 

“The discount applies to public transport via mini-buses and luxury buses, while train services on specified routes will be offered at zero cost. Air travel is excluded from the initiative, focusing on mass transportation for the general public.”