African socialism: The bad dream Nigeria can’t seem to wake up from

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Sometime in September 1984, my dad and his pregnant wife drove to Abeokuta with my older brother in the car, pretending to be on a family getaway. The real purpose of their trip however, was to buy the only brand of baby food that my then 18 month-old brother would eat. Just under a year ago, a certain General Muhammadu Buhari had seized power from Shehu Shagari in a coup, and one of his signature policies was to establish a top-down price control directive that penalized traders and shop owners for selling certain items above the government-directed price.

At the time, it was not uncommon to witness the absurd spectacle of soldiers dressed in full combat gear storming street markets and stores to catch and punish errant shop owners for selling so-called “Essenco” (Essential Commodities) above the prices dictated from Dodan Barracks. Regardless of cost price and the havoc wreaked by a sliding naira, selling prices were to be strictly adhered to on the pain of seizure and destruction of goods, or even prosecution.

Predictably, traders and other business people quickly caught on to the game being played and adapted in typical Nigerian fashion. Soon, shortages of all such goods became the norm as shop owners adopted the methods of drug dealers, surreptitiously letting people know how to get their contraband commodities away from the prying eyes of the military government.

One of such commodities was my brother’s preferred baby food brand, which could no longer be found in Lagos. With the benefit of being among a handful of Nigerians with a telephone at home, my parents were able to find out that the “contraband” baby food could be found in Abeokuta, and so commenced the least cheerful family roadtrip ever according to the story … Read More...