Grass-Roots View of Nigeria's Woes

SMALL-TOWN AFRICA

THIS former slave-trading town has become a city of hope, hairdressers, and hardships. Federal plans for economic revival have, at least so far, left Ikere-Ekiti with desperate, jobless youth, and with college lecturers driven back to farming.

What is happening here is similar to conditions in towns and cities across Nigeria, according to local and nearby academics.

On the surface, things are bustling, life is pleasant. By one count there are 86 local churches. A common sight along the crowded streets is a signboard for one of the dozens of tiny, wood or mud-walled hairdressing shops like this one: ``God's Grace Beauty Salon.''

Tiny, yellow and blue mini-bus taxis, crammed with passengers, zoom back and forth through town, dodging potholes and passing the open-air market and endless roadside stalls that sell canned foods, plastic buckets, soap, matches, and vegetables. Pedestrians overflow into the street.

Staying here a few days and talking to local residents, an outsider learns of people's friendliness, their hard work, and hope for the future. But one also learns that the present is tough for most, and may be getting tougher.

``People are struggling,'' says Peter, a security guard at the home of a staff member of the local college.

A few years ago he ran a small photographic studio. But he was forced to close down when the price of imported photographic paper jumped after Nigeria began slashing the value of its currency to make Nigerian exports enticingly cheaper abroad. Now he depends on his meager guard's salary and small farm, two miles from town, where he raises cocoa and cocoa yams.

The economy is ``becoming worse and worse,'' says Bayo Asalu, a local official. He is also a lumberman and cocoa farmer.

Almost everyone who wasn't farming a few years ago is doing so now - for survival, as the price of food and imports have risen under government reforms aimed at boosting local production of food and goods. Local farmers say they are doing better, but wage-earners are hurting.

``My salary was not enough,'' says Mr. Kenig, who teaches agriculture at Ondo State College of Education here. But even with farming in off hours, ``I can't keep up.'' Not everyone has turned to farming. College graduates here typically move to the cities to look for jobs. Today, few are finding them. Some have turned to driving taxis, or collecting garbage. Others are jobless.

One of the local secondary schools has closed. Many parents can no longer afford school fees.

Federal efforts to promote rural industries are not evident here. Several planned factories, including one to make nails, have not opened for lack of hard (foreign) currency to buy imported machinery. And a number of small commercial or residential buildings stand partially completed.

Less obvious than the economic problems are the political ones. In the last national elections, in 1983, feelings ran so high that the houses of some political activists were burned by members of rival parties. In parts of Oyo state and here in Ondo state, some people were killed in election-related violence.

The hope here is that the civilian, two-party system the military government has called for to take power in 1992 will work peacefully, with less bitterness.

As for the future of this town, Mike Olofinboba, a professor of botany who lives here, sees the possibility of revival. ``There is a lot of agricultural potential: The forest is not too thick, so if the implements were available, one could go into large-scale farming.''

And, he says, studies reveal the large rocks surrounding the town could be quarried and polished for commercial sale. But no one would dare touch the large - ``holy'' - rocks.

``The bigger rocks saved us from inter-tribal wars in the past,'' he says. ``We want to see how these smaller ones can save us from economic collapse.''

Last in an occasional series on Nigeria. Other articles in this series ran Dec. 14, 21, and Jan. 18.

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