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Nigerians are rattled by prices that just keep going up. How are they coping?

Kehinde Adebajo, a beautician and barber, has been working in Balogun Market, the largest in Lagos, since he was 16. Now 56, he says it's never been tougher to earn a living: "So many people can't afford food or transport. We thank God for life, but the last few months have not been easy, everything has become expensive."
Manny Jefferson for NPR
Kehinde Adebajo, a beautician and barber, has been working in Balogun Market, the largest in Lagos, since he was 16. Now 56, he says it's never been tougher to earn a living: "So many people can't afford food or transport. We thank God for life, but the last few months have not been easy, everything has become expensive."

Kehinde Adebajo, a beautician and barber, carefully threads a woman's eyebrows. Pictures of his work — eyebrow tints, facial threading, tattoos he's designed — are scattered around in the clutter and on the walls of his narrow wooden stall in Balogun Market, the largest in Lagos with a vast sprawl of thousands of businesses. Now 56, he's worked there since he was 16.

For years, he and many other market vendors thrived, he says, operating out of stalls wedged along walkways and colonial era streets of Lagos Island, a district within the city. But now, earning a living here has rarely been more difficult.

"It's the afternoon and I haven't even eaten, only a biscuit and 'gala,'" a cheap pastry, he says. "But I'm even more fortunate than others. So many people can't afford food or transport. We thank God for life, but the last few months have not been easy, everything has become expensive."

Thousands of vendors do business at Balogun Market in Lagos. The rising cost of fuel has made it harder to do business — and for customers to afford services and goods, let alone public transportation.
/ Manny Jefferson for NPR
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Manny Jefferson for NPR
Thousands of vendors do business at Balogun Market in Lagos. The rising cost of fuel has made it harder to do business — and for customers to afford services and goods, let alone public transportation.

Soaring costs for food and transport

The cost of food and transport have soared since the end of May. The trigger was the removal of a fuel subsidy that dates to the 1970s and kept fuel prices artificially lower than the market rate and lower than in neighboring countries.

But in his inaugural speech on May 29, new president Bola Ahmed Tinubu declared an end to the subsidy. It had become too expensive — rising to $9.7 billion last year, a quarter of Nigeria's budget-- all while government revenues were stretched thin.

The ripple effects were immediate. Fuel prices almost tripled overnight, from roughly 180 naira (23 cents) per liter in May, to roughly 500 naira (70 cents). Fuel prices are expected to rise even further to account for the depreciation in Nigeria's currency since May.

The impact of the subsidy has been profound in a large but challenging economy with 70% of people living in poverty. The World Bank says an additional 7 million people in Nigeria could be plunged into poverty by the end of the year — driven by a combination of a painful cash crisis earlier this year, high inflation and the fuel subsidy.

Beautician Kehinde Adebajo pours fuel into the generator in front of his salon. When the government ended its massive fuel subsidy in May, fuel prices quickly shot up.
/ Manny Jefferson for NPR
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Manny Jefferson for NPR
Beautician Kehinde Adebajo pours fuel into the generator in front of his salon. When the government ended its massive fuel subsidy in May, fuel prices quickly shot up.

An overnight transformation

The end of the fuel subsidy was expected, says Adedayo Ademuwagun, an analyst at Songhai Advisory, an investment consultancy. But the timing along with the lack of support for the most vulnerable was a surprise. "What happened is it happened overnight," he said. "So while the president was giving his speech, petrol stations were changing their prices instantly. The Nigerian people were not prepared for that, and there hasn't been a clear idea of how to make sure that the most vulnerable in society will be protected."

On Thursday the government finally revealed a proposal to give 8,000 naira ($10) a month to 12 million low-income households for a six-month period.

Outside Kehinde's stall, the percussive, lively tones of Nigerian fuji music echo over the invasive hum of generators. Because state-provided electricity is intermittent, many people rely on generators, which are now extremely expensive to power.

Beautician Murphy Oyewole tends to a customer at his salon at Balogun Market, where the rapidly rising cost of fuel has been stressful for vendors and customers alike.
/ Manny Jefferson for NPR
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Manny Jefferson for NPR
Beautician Murphy Oyewole tends to a customer at his salon at Balogun Market, where the rapidly rising cost of fuel has been stressful for vendors and customers alike.

The subsidy removal has taken a toll on the entire economy of the market. It costs more to commute to work, to transport goods, to buy food.

Abbey is a 38-year-old IT technician and mobile money operator, running a business that lets people send money out. He only gives his first name because he doesn't want to be identified as someone critical of the government. Working in Balogun for the last 10 years, he also charges phones on a large dashboard of extensions and chargers. "It used to be 100 naira before, but the cost of fuel we're buying right now? It's too much!" He now charges double but most of his customers complain about the increase so he often offers a discount.

He runs his generator for 4 hours fewer a day now to save money but still spends so much on fuel he's not really making a profit anymore. "It's just that we can't steal," he says, implying he'd turn to crime if he didn't feel guilt. "We have families! But in buying fuel, it's like we're wasting money."

'Lapping' is happening

Vendors at Balogun Market are feeling the pinch of rising prices. Anjola Lawal, who specializes in eyelash extensions and nails, says "Not everyone can come to the market everyday like they used to." Her daily transport costs have gone from 600 naira (77 cents) to 1,500 naira ($1.92).
/ Manny Jefferson for NPR
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Manny Jefferson for NPR
Vendors at Balogun Market are feeling the pinch of rising prices. Anjola Lawal, who specializes in eyelash extensions and nails, says "Not everyone can come to the market everyday like they used to." Her daily transport costs have gone from 600 naira (77 cents) to 1,500 naira ($1.92).

Anjola Lawal specializes in eyelash extensions and nails in her purple stall next door to Kehinde, with a large array of colorful acrylics hung on the wall behind her. "Not everyone can come to the market everyday like they used to," she says. Her daily transport costs have gone from 600 naira (77 cents) to 1,500 naira ($1.92).

High transport costs have meant she often sees people begging bus drivers and passengers to help them get home. On Lagos buses, which charge per seat, commuters now regularly plead with passengers to sit on their laps and split the cost of their seat. "They are lapping because they can't afford the transport fare. We are lapping ourselves."

To cut down on commuting costs, she now stays with her grandma who lives close to the market and only sees her three children when she goes home on weekends. "It's very difficult but I have to endure it, I have no choice."

Similar stories are replete on social media and call-in radio. Workers say they're sleeping in offices or lodging nearby midweek to avoid travel costs. Lagos' infamous traffic jams have eased in some areas as there are less cars on the road.

Oluwole Urban Mall, Nnamdi Azikiwe St, Balogun Market, Lagos Island, Lagos.
/ Manny Jefferson for NPR
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Manny Jefferson for NPR
Oluwole Urban Mall, Nnamdi Azikiwe St, Balogun Market, Lagos Island, Lagos.

Nigeria's unions have been banned from protesting the subsidy removal by court orders favorable to the government, effectively dousing demonstrations of public anger. Union officials have been in talks with the government on social welfare policies that will mitigate the subsidy removal. It's not clear when the planned cash transfers to the poorest households will be dispersed, and what other support will emerge.

"We have to be patient," beautician Kehinde Adebajo says. "The government needs time to get it right, to provide support to the masses." His optimism is not shared by everyone.
/ Manny Jefferson for NPR
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Manny Jefferson for NPR
"We have to be patient," beautician Kehinde Adebajo says. "The government needs time to get it right, to provide support to the masses." His optimism is not shared by everyone.

"We have to be patient," Adebajo says. He's remembers difficult times, most in the last 10 years, when he and others had to dig deep. "The government needs time to get it right, to provide support to the masses. We just have to wait."

Others like Lawal are far less hopeful: "The government should know that we are suffering but it's like they don't care, they only care about themselves."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Emmanuel Akinwotu
Emmanuel Akinwotu is an international correspondent for NPR. He joined NPR in 2022 from The Guardian, where he was West Africa correspondent.