Abuja, Nigeria – Nigerian security forces are struggling to contain increasing cases of looting on government-run warehouses across the country, in the latest incident of unrest following widespread, youth-led protests against police brutality.
The storage facilities hold tonnes of relief materials including food meant for distribution during lockdowns previously enforced to stem the spread of the novel coronavirus.
While the distribution programme had been temporarily halted across several states in the country in recent months, it emerged this week relief items were still stored in some of these facilities, as well as the private homes of politicians.
The news angered many in the country with the biggest number of people living in extreme poverty globally.
“The food items belong to Nigerians. Why are they hiding them? This is wickedness. How do you hide food from hungry people?” asked Ibironke Babalola, a resident of Nigeria’s commercial capital, Lagos.
“There are many families who are struggling to even get just one meal a day, yet we have food in warehouses that were kept by some politicians,” the 41-year-old told Al Jazeera.
Tens of thousands of peaceful protesters have taken to the streets across Nigeria this month to demand an end to police violence and other sweeping reforms.
Amid rising tensions, criminals this week vandalised public buildings and damaged property while others took advantage of the unrest to attack the warehouses holding food items and other supplies.
On Saturday, police officers in the capital, Abuja, shot sporadically into the air and used tear gas to disperse residents who had approached a warehouse.
It was a different scenario in the southern city of Calabar where security forces were unable to stop the ransacking of homes of local politicians, where the attackers suspected some of the COVID-19 relief materials were being kept.
In Ilorin, in central Kwara state, security officers faced difficulties in containing attacks on a government facility in recent days. The state governor has declared a 24-hour curfew to prevent further escalation of violence.
Authorities in Adamawa state, in the country’s northeast, also imposed a round-the-clock curfew on Sunday after looters attacked a large food warehouse.
Home to more than 200 million people, Nigeria is Africa’s most populous country and the continent’s top oil exporter.
But according to the National Bureau of Statistics, almost 83 million people, or 40 percent of the population, live below its poverty line of 137,430 naira ($381.75) a year, with millions depending on daily income for survival.
Some states which have previously suspended handing out coronavirus relief materials had pledged to resume distribution of the food items to poor residents – but some were unconvinced.
“Big fat lie,” said Effiong Zachariah, an Abuja resident.
“Some of the food items people found in the warehouses had gone bad,” the 35-year-old told Al Jazeera. “It shows you how wicked our people are. What would it cost them to share these rice and other items amongst the poor? People are hungry and they need to eat,” he added.
“The government should ensure that the warehouses still having food in them should be opened and the food distributed to avoid further clashes between security forces and poor Nigerians looking for food.”
Government officials have issued statements urging looters to stay away from warehouses and called on the police to arrest and prosecute those breaking the law.
On Saturday, Muhammed Adamu, inspector general of police, said he had ordered the “immediate mobilisation” of all police resources “to bring an end to the wanton violence, killings, looting and destruction of public and private property, and reclaim the public space from criminal elements masquerading as protesters in some parts of the country”.
Meanwhile, some government agencies warned looters against the consumption of some of the stolen items.
“Some people even made away with pre-fermented corns preserved for planting. All these items are poisonous and not fit for consumption,” Akin Omole, Ekiti state’s commissioner for information and civic orientation, said in a statement.
“We, therefore, appeal to our people not to consume these items because they can kill,” Omole said.
The Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP), a civil rights organisation, expressed disappointment at the non-distribution of food items to poor Nigerians and called for an urgent inquiry.
“Unless promptly investigated, the allegations of hoarding and diversion would undermine public trust in any efforts to bring the spread of the pandemic under control, exacerbate the negative impact of the crisis, and deny those most in need access to basic necessities of life,” SERAP stated.
According to SERAP, “the alleged hoarding of COVID-19 palliatives in several states and the apparent failure to timely, effectively, efficiently and transparently distribute the palliatives to the poorest and most vulnerable people have continued to deny many citizens the much-needed support.”