Some three centuries ago, the French people, the common working people, crippled by hunger and crushing poverty and despairing of all hope spilled out into the streets of Paris and raised a chant and a cry for bread, that basic and essential component of the French diet that they could no longer afford. The din was so powerful and ubiquitous that it resounded in the Elysee Palace itself.
The French queen, Marie Antoinette, distracted from her peaceful repose, stepped out onto the balcony of her palace with her retinue of servants to demand why the people were making such a hullabaloo in the streets. “Your Majesty, the people are crying for bread”, her servants responded.
“Bread?” the queen pondered in genuine perplexity, “Why don’t they eat cake?”
In Nigeria, it would appear that we are approaching that level of disconnect between those that wield the reins of power at various levels of government and the people whose toil they depend on for their survival. While the people are starving and dying from preventable causes in addition to being systematically eliminated from their fertile agricultural lands so that their oppressors can send their hired minions to roam freely with their cattle, the leaders of the country are asking of the oppressed, the decimated and degraded, “Why don’t they eat cake?”
Let us begin at the bottom where the weakest links of our social cohesion can be seen. The street urchins that in the past have been able to afford glue and petrol to sniff in order to get their high and zonked out feelings can no longer afford these necessities of their existence. They have discovered that the methane and other gases that come from the decomposition of human waste knock out their brains much faster and keeps them zonked out much longer. So they are now going to the cesspits and applying their noses to the cesspit exhausts for their highs. The ministries of youth and sports and the universities are yet to come up with the diagnostics for this sizable population of our youth. Of course they are yet to log on to the Internet portals provided for their empowerment. Why don’t they eat cake?
A working couple that should have two salary income streams from their public service jobs has not received any salary for eight months. They can no longer afford the gas with which they used to cook. The wife has resorted to the three stones stove outside in the communal compound where they live in their three bedroom rented flat. The wife has just completed kneading the yam flour (Amala) in the open kitchen. She goes back into the flat to bring out the plates and the stew to warm before dishing out the food for the family. She comes out to find that her pot of freshly-kneaded amala has disappeared from the fire. Her husband who is waiting hungrily is not amused by the story of the disappearing pot of food. He thinks she is pulling his leg.
Her story is confirmed when one of the neighbour’s children tries to sneak out with the pot and leave it outside. The lady raises an alarm and her husband confronts the child’s father. “We were hungry beyond rationality,” the contrite neighbour replies. The man turns to his wife “OK, give them the pot of soup also. Obviously there are people who are worse off than us.”
“We have already eaten the food,” the contrite neighbour responds. “We put salt in the little palm oil that we had and ate it.”
Meanwhile, the governors are still going around in fifteen and twenty car motorcades to grace well-publicized party to party decamping of political heavyweights whose only weight is in the size of their egos and pouches bulging with the stolen commonwealth of the people. Why don’t they eat cake?
The end of the Marie Antoinette saga was the descent of the guillotine that severed her head from her body. Popular folklore has it that the people happily tossed it from hand to hand and played ball with it.
The stories of impunity coming out of the Nigerian political woodwork would seem to indicate that a criminal class may have got the country by the jugular. It would appear as if those with vested interest in iniquity hold sway in spite of President Muhamadu Buhari’s spirited war against corruption. It would appear as if corruption is punching back hard at those who dare to question its omnipotence and ubiquity in the land. Even some well-meaning leaders are caught up in the “Why don’t they eat cake?” syndrome. They simply have no notion of how deep the rot is. That is why the wives of the political elite, bedecked in their glittering finery will make token gifts of rice and wrappers to a selection of the poor for the cameras.
We must face the reality that tokenism without serious commitment will only delay the day when “Why don’t they eat cake?” translates to “Off with their heads.”
May God in His infinite mercy touch the minds and spirits of our leaders and spare us that eventuality.