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Hunger, desperate search for food drive citizens to early graves

VICTOR AYENI writes about how Nigerians gripped by hunger pangs lose their lives while struggling to benefit from food palliative distribution due to poor planning and safety measures by authorities

On February 23, 2024, hundreds of Lagos residents trooped to the old zonal headquarters of the Nigeria Customs Service office on Harvey Road, Yaba, Lagos State, to purchase bags of foreign rice seized by the agency.

The bags of rice confiscated from smugglers were sold at N10,000 each, a sharp discount from the market price of N80,000 for a bag weighing 25 kilogrammes at the time.

The rice sale was inaugurated across NCS offices by the Comptroller General of NCS, Adewale Adeniyi, and was aimed at alleviating the economic hardship faced by citizens due to the hike in food prices.

A day before the distribution, the NCS had announced that residents could visit the Lagos office with their national identification numbers to purchase the 25kg bag of rice.

Sunday PUNCH gathered that the exercise commenced at about 8 am on the fateful day, but several hours later, the NCS observed that even at the discounted rate, people could not afford the bags of rice, and decided to distribute them free.

This move made more people troop out en masse and force their way into the customs facility; those who fell in the process were trampled, while others fainted.

The stampede that ensued claimed the lives of no fewer than seven persons with dozens more injured.

The mother of a three-year-old boy, Deborah Adetutu, was one of those trampled to death during the melee. She died leaving behind her son, a husband, parents and siblings.

The deceased woman’s sister, Blessing, said the 28-year-old had called her that Friday afternoon while she was at the NCS office and asked her to also come purchase the rice since there were still many people there.

Blessing recalled that when she arrived at the office at past 5 pm that Friday, she met scores of people there, including some who had been hit by tear gas used by soldiers trying to control the crowd.

“When I got there, there were so many people, some were even on the floor. Some had fainted. I was trying to get to my sister. The government said that we should come and take rice, but they, the Customs officers and soldiers, used tear gas on us.

“We waited and waited till 7 pm. I kept asking about my sister’s whereabouts. They said we should check the hospitals on Harvey Road. We went there after 7 pm, and when we described my sister, they said she was not one of those who were brought there,” the distraught woman told the Foundation for Investigative Journalism.

Blessing further noted that her search for her sister took her to the Lagos University Teaching Hospital without any sign of her whereabouts.

“We went back to the Customs office, and they said we should go to one hospital at WAEC. When we arrived there, they said they had brought in three women and a man.

“We went to her shop; we even went to LUTH. We were going from one hospital to another. They kept telling us they did not bring people from the customs office.

“But on Saturday morning, we found out that she was one of the people who died as a result of the stampede that Friday,” she added.

Following the incident, the NCS suspended the distribution of the food item.

According to a statement signed by the National Public Relations Officer for Comptroller General of Customs, CSS Abdullahi Maiwada, on February 26, the crowd became desperate when the NCS ran out of stock and announced the continuation of the exercise the following day.

He argued that meticulous planning went into the rice distribution to prevent any tragic outcome that may have occurred.

“The exercise was conducted following meticulous planning to address all potential risks that may emerge during the exercise. As part of our process and control measures, we had Nigeria Police and military personnel to ensure crowd control.

“We also fully equipped a medical team on the ground in anticipation of potential risks during an exercise of that magnitude. Their presence was part of our proactive approach to ensuring the safety and well-being of all participants,” the statement read in part.

In an interview with Sunday PUNCH, Maiwada blamed the stampede on the impatience exhibited by the crowd, noting that the NCS made efforts to rescue the casualties.

“At a point, they decided to be impatient. When we saw the crowd, we even suspended the collection of forms and said, ‘Let’s give them for free.’ We did that and exhausted everything. After exhausting everything and we told them everything had finished, and that they could go, that we didn’t have anymore, they persisted.

“Some of them broke the fence of that place. We had to put up some barricades to cover the area. Some of them went and entered the container. At one point, we used our ambulance and took them to hospital.”

When asked whether the deaths resulted from pushing, Maiwada answered, “I can’t say. Some of them went and entered the engine container. Did we cause the death of anybody? We didn’t.

“We made efforts to rescue them because we took them to hospital. We have learnt our lessons. We have to go and re-strategise on how we’re going to continue and sustain this initiative.”

Nasarawa varsity students killed

Two months after the stampede in Lagos, tragedy struck at the Nasarawa State University, Keffi.

On March 22 no fewer than two female students of the university reportedly died following a stampede that occurred at the university’s convocation square.

The convocation square was the venue for the distribution of rice and N5,000 cash which had been earmarked by the state government to be given to students in all tertiary institutions in the state.

The state Governor, Abdullahi Sule, recently distributed two 7.5 kg bags of rice and N5,000 to each student of the Federal University of Lafia, Isa Mustapha Agwai Polytechnic, Lafia; and the College of Education, Akwanga.

However, during the distribution at the state university, the crowd became chaotic and overpowered the security agencies at the site.

Describing the incident as uncalled for and pathetic, the National President of the Nasarawa State Students Association, Yunusa Baduku, told Sunday PUNCH that students broke through the gate into the convocation square where the bags of rice were to be shared.

“Unfortunately, most of our female students sustained several degrees of injuries, while others suffocated because of the population at the venue for the distribution of the palliatives.

“Also, as National President of NASA, I got an official report that one student had died as a result of the unfortunate incident,” he said.

Following the incident, Sule, in a statement signed by his Chief Press Secretary, Ibrahim Addra, described the incident as “painful,” adding that the authorities of the university, and security agencies had been directed to commence an immediate investigation into the unfortunate occurrence to unveil those behind it.

More tragedies

In a similar twist, on March 24, 2024, at least seven persons died in a stampede during an almsgiving exercise organised by the AYM Shafa Foundation in Bauchi State.

The victims were mostly women and children who came out en masse to the Shafa Holdings head office located along Bauchi-Jos Road to collect N10,000 as zakat from the foundation.

But the exercise turned tragic after the crowd became uncontrollable as the scramble to get the token before it ran out became fierce.

Amid the confusion, the policemen who were stationed at the venue to provide security and control the crowd, fired tear gas canisters, sparking panic and pandemonium at the venue.

In the end, seven females, with ages ranging from eight to 53, were trampled to death, while others sustained injuries.

According to the state Police Public Relations Officer, Ahmed Wakili, the police received a distress call in the morning when five unconscious patients brought from the stampede scene were brought to the Abubakar Tafawa Balewa Teaching Hospital Bauchi.

“In the process, five people were in the hospital, but four were confirmed dead by medical doctors. The exercise is a zakat exercise that was given to the underprivileged by Shafa Holding Company along Jos Road which was the major cause of the stampede,” Wakili noted.

However, one of the leaders of the AYM Shafa Foundation, Dr Ibrahim Disina, who described the incident as an act ordained by God, stressed that it was not a deliberate attempt to endanger the lives of the poor.

On April 4, no fewer than nine persons were also trampled to death at the Gawon Nama residence of Senator Aliyu Wammakko during the distribution of food items for Sallah in Sokoto.

The unfortunate incident was said to have claimed the life of one Fatima Bala, a volunteer operative with the Nigeria Security and Civil Defence Corps.

The PPRO, Ahmad Rufai, who confirmed the stampede but could not ascertain the exact figure of the casualty toll, added that an investigation had commenced into the incident.

Hunger under biting economy

Findings by Sunday PUNCH showed that citizens who have been pushed to the wall amid the lingering economic hardship and skyrocketing prices of commodities are left with no option but to throng distribution centres put in place by government officials and other stakeholders to provide food and other items.

In recent years, an upward trend in the prices of food and other products has weakened the purchasing power of many citizens, making it difficult for many households in the country to afford daily meals.

The country’s naira has tumbled across both the official and unofficial markets on several occasions in recent times, coupled with an increased forex demand and a significant spike in the prices of goods and services.

According to a study by an economist, Eric Otaokhia of the Ahmadu Bello University, published in the January-March 2024 Central Bank of Nigeria’s quarterly publication, food inflation resulted from the removal of the fuel subsidy by the government in May 2023.

Since the removal of the petrol subsidy and the floating of the naira by President Bola Tinubu upon his assumption of office on May 29, 2023, poverty has become a scourge threatening the survival of many citizens.

More than 80 million Nigerians survive on less than $2 a day, representing “the world’s second-largest poor population after India,” stated the World Bank.

Signalling the alarming rate of hunger in the country, the 2023 Global Hunger Index ranked Nigeria 109th out of the 125 countries with sufficient data to calculate 2023 GHI scores.

With a score of 28.3 on the 2023 GHI, Nigeria has been noted to have a level of hunger that is “serious.”

A projection by the World Food Programme pointed out that insecurity, rising inflation, and the impact of the climate crisis continue to drive hunger in Nigeria “with 26.5 million people across the country projected to face acute hunger in the June-August 2024 lean season”.

“This is a staggering increase from the 18.6 million people food insecure at the end of 2023,” the report added.

The effects of this economic difficulty include sporadic protests and mass looting of food items in several states of the country.

The National Bureau of Statistics, in a report, revealed that the headline inflation rate increased year-on-year by 0.98 percentage points to 29.9 per cent in January 2024 from 28.92 per cent in December 2023.

In February, Nigeria’s annual inflation rate rose to 31.70 per cent from 29.90 per cent in January, according to the NBS.

In March, the country’s annual inflation rate had risen to 33.20 per cent from 31.70 per cent in February, the NBS said in a report released on April 15.

To soothe tense nerves, federal and state governments, faith-based groups, corporate organisations, and well-meaning Nigerians resort to the distribution of food items and other palliatives that would alleviate the crisis.

Unfortunately, this move has been bogged down in many cities by what experts describe as inadequate coordination which has led to stampedes in the distribution venues and loss of lives.

Institutional failures

On May 28, 2022, hundreds of residents in Port Harcourt, Rivers State, thronged to the venue of a ‘Shop for Free’ programme organised by a church, the King’s Assembly.

As early as 6 am, according to eyewitnesses, a large crowd gathered at the locked gate of the Polo Club, the venue of the event where free food items were to be offered to indigent citizens.

When a small gate was opened, pandemonium erupted during which the attendees began pushing through the barricade in defiance of the organisers, resulting in a stampede that claimed no fewer than 31 lives.

Recounting his ordeal, one of the survivors of the incident, Samuel Orji-Eke, said he lost his five-year-old son in the stampede.

Narrating his experience he stated, “Around 6:30 am, I attended the church programme with my three children. I was holding my son and carrying my six-month-old daughter in my arms and my wife was holding the other one. When we got there, the gate was locked and the crowd was not much. People were not allowed to enter.

“In such an event, the gate was not supposed to be locked. This made the crowd increase, such that the entire road was blocked.”

He said that the organisers were forced to open the small gate, leading to what he described as “a mad rush”.

 “It was in that process that the stampede occurred. We had entered the gate when people started falling and the ones behind trampled on them. The surging crowd trampled on me and broke my hand and my son slipped off and was trampled on to death.”

 “As of the time of the incident, there was no presence of the police, only the ushers were there; it was when the place became rowdy that the police came and started shooting in the air to disperse the crowd after the damage had been done,” he added.

Orji-Eke further disclosed that his son died because there was nobody to administer first aid treatment to him and called for justice for the victims of the stampede.

The state PPRO, Grace Iringe-Koko, confirmed the tragedy, adding that 31 people died during the stampede.

In a Facebook video posted on May 30, 2022, and sighted by our correspondent, the pastor of the church, Chris Ugoh, called for prayers.

He said, “Many people lost their lives; 31 people lost their lives. Please keep praying, we are praying for everybody involved. Pray for me, pray for our leadership and their family. Pray for the King’s Assembly and the families that lost their loved ones.

“The consolation that we have as we navigate this season is the assurance of God’s word that he (God) is our refuge and our fortress and our very present help in times of trouble.”

Our cities need better planning – Architects

Commenting on the spate of stampedes at food distribution centres, an urban architect and Chief Executive Officer of Haap Living, Ezekiel Bassey, told Sunday PUNCH that Nigerian cities needed better planning to reflect the reality of their expanding population, suggesting a connection between town planning and crowd control.

Bassey explained that Nigerian cities were largely designed for cars but not for people.

He said, “A typical case study is Festac; it was completed almost 50 years ago and yet it shows that better urban planning can be done to cater for our rising population.

“Festac is around 19 square kilometres in size with a population of around 700,000 persons; Oshodi, on the other hand, has a size of 40sqkm and a population of 1.1 million people – 400,000 more than Festac. Which of the two areas looks overpopulated?

“In the case of a stampede, which would most likely lead to more casualties? The answer is obviously Oshodi and this is quite ironic considering that the land mass of Festac is less than half of the land mass of Oshodi. Therefore, proportionally, it could be said that Festac has way more people per square km than Oshodi.”

On his part, an architect and principal partner at OddSpace Consult, Mr Ayomide George, in a chat with our correspondent, said,  “These incidents are the fallouts of poor urban planning. If our cities were planned better, it would be easier to control these things. For instance, my office is in Yaba and I come here at least thrice a week. The roads are narrow; they were constructed to be for communities but the areas have become commercialised.

“Furthermore, the method of palliative distribution is not well organised; it’s often impromptu. And if the poverty rate in Nigeria wasn’t so high, we would not have so many people thronging such venues.

“This is why Nigeria needs to become an organised country where there is proper planning based on statistical knowledge and a revised architecture of these distribution sites to accommodate larger numbers of citizens that usually barge into such venues,” George added.

‘Poor crowd management, desperation responsible’

In an interview with our correspondent, the Director-General of the Lagos State Safety Commission, Mr Lanre Mojola, explained that these stampedes resulting in the loss of precious lives could be attributed to a combination of factors like inadequate planning and poor crowd management, among others.

He added that a lack of effective communication using safety briefing before the distribution and during the programme, desperation among intended beneficiaries, and limited access points contributed to the incidents.

He explained, “It appears that there was a lack of proper coordination and logistical planning in these instances. Distributing essential supplies to large crowds requires meticulous organisation, including effective crowd control measures, well-defined queuing systems, and efficient distribution mechanisms. The absence of such measures contributed to the chaos and confusion that led to the stampedes.

“The desperation among the intended beneficiaries, likely exacerbated by economic hardships and scarcity of resources, could have played a role in fueling the chaotic scenes. When people are struggling to meet their basic needs, the prospect of receiving aid can trigger a sense of urgency, leading to disorderly behaviour and disregard for safety protocols.

“To prevent stampedes and avoidable deaths, there should be comprehensive planning. The responsible agency for distributing palliatives should develop detailed plans that consider the expected turnout, distribution logistics, crowd management strategies, and contingency measures.

“An involvement with law enforcement agencies and the Safety Commission for the deployment of safety marshals for crowd management and emergency response in the planning process is crucial.

“Clear and timely communication with the intended beneficiaries is essential. Providing accurate information about distribution dates, locations, and procedures as well as safety briefing before and on the day of distribution can help manage expectations and avoid confusion or misinformation that could contribute to chaos.”

Mojola added that crowd control measures such as “barriers, designated queuing areas, and sufficient safety and security personnel” should be implemented.

“Instead of attempting to distribute palliatives to large crowds simultaneously, authorities could consider staggering the distribution over multiple days or locations.

“There should also be post-incident review: After each distribution event, authorities should conduct thorough reviews to identify areas for improvement, evaluate the effectiveness of the implemented measures, and make necessary adjustments for future distributions,” he added.

 Also speaking with Sunday PUNCH, a disaster risk management expert, Dr Oduduabasi Inyang, faulted the level of planning and coordination involved in the distribution aids across the country.

He said, “The primary causes of stampedes include poor planning of the event, coordination, poor crowd control and many others, if I take my time to list them. Giving aid is a good gesture to alleviate people’s suffering but when the process leads to deaths, then you are causing more harm.

“For example you don’t need to call on the public to come out at the same time and collect palliatives, it will cause a stampede. You can have the list of the people you want to give to and call them one after another to come for such.

Inyang also advised that risks be communicated to the public “so they become aware of the nature of risks they might face and how they can prevent or reduce it”.