Wages for Nigerian workers are falling as inflation rises and government revenues fall

Lagos, Nigeria – When Yusuf Mogaji joined the Nigeria Federal Civil Service as a non-teaching employee at the University of Ilorin in 2015, he dreamed of building his own house. His monthly salary of 46,000 naira (then $236) was enough to support himself and his family, and in the same year he even bought half a plot of land (300 square meters).

Eight years and four civil service appointments later, the land remains untouched and Mogaji’s aspirations are no longer a priority as he finds it difficult to feed himself and his family of three.

The value of the naira has declined to such an extent that although his net salary has increased to 57,000 naira, the equivalent in 2023 dollars is $68.06 – $167.94 lower than the amount he earned in 2015. Almost half of new earnings now go to commuting to and from work.

“Will I use this money, which is not even enough to feed me, to invest? There was a time when government work was great, but now there is no such thing,” Mogaji said.

Nigeria has experienced two recessions since 2015, with its economy devastated by volatile global oil prices, the Covid-19 pandemic and Russia’s ongoing war in Ukraine. In June, the National Debt Management Office found that the government was servicing debts for at least 73.5 percent of its revenues, making it difficult for it to meet its core responsibilities.

Inflation in Nigeria is currently at an 18-year high – 26 percent – while the naira continues to depreciate against the dollar. The economic reality became grimmer when Bola Tinubu, elected president in February, devalued the naira and removed decades-old fuel subsidies that had helped lower the cost of living. Mogaji has reduced the amount of ordinary food and household items he buys, including rice, semolina and even diapers, as their prices have tripled.

The Nigerian Labor Congress, the country’s main trade union coalition, has repeatedly threatened to shut down the economy to protest the government’s refusal to raise workers’ wages despite a huge increase in the cost of living. The minimum wage in Nigeria is currently 33,000 naira ($39.40).

During the independence speech, the government compromised by opting for an additional salary of 35,000 naira ($41.79) for six months. Al Jazeera spoke to Mogaji and three other employees who said it was barely enough.

“Even the salary is enough for food and the rest for commuting to work, there is nothing left. And they [the government] he said palliative treatment lasts six months. Will everything go back to the way it was before after six months? We will go back to square one,” he said.

Police officers control traffic as protesters block the domestic terminal of Murtala Muhammed International Airport during a strike over working conditions and wages, Lagos, Nigeria, April 17, 2023. [Temilade Adelaja/Reuters]

“The Rock and the Hard Place”

As Nigeria’s economy deteriorates, the main demand of various trade unions has become an increase in the minimum wage. According to experts, salary increases cannot take place because Africa’s largest economy is bankrupt and can barely finance its expenses. They add that the temporary measures will barely help the beneficiaries.

“There is no other answer than to reduce inflation and keep inflation low. The honest truth is that anyone earning in naira, a 26 percent inflation rate guarantees that they will get nowhere, no matter who they are; Your monthly salary is more or less irrelevant,” said Joachim MacEbong, senior analyst at Stears, a Lagos-based economic research firm.

“The money just isn’t there. Nigeria’s total revenue is five trillion naira and below; for this amount you can’t do anything for a country of 200 million people,” he said.

Workers say they are not to blame for the country’s plight amid decades of corruption and wasteful government spending during a booming economy.

“Unfortunately, this type of management, which does not aim to prevent long-term pain, comes at a cost. There is nothing we can do,” Amara Nwankpa, director of public policy initiatives at the Shehu Musa Yar’Adua Foundation, told Al Jazeera. “We may put it off for a year or two years, but ultimately the chickens will still come home to roost and that is the reality – Nigerian workers are between a rock and a hard place.”

A bus with a Yoruba language sign that can be translated "hard work doesn't guarantee money" in Onipanu, Lagos
A bus with a sign in Yoruba that means “hard work does not guarantee money” in Onipanu, Lagos [Anthony Obayomi/Al Jazeera]

“A living wage”

Since Tinubu announced a series of economic reforms, many workers, even at the state level, have demanded comprehensive policies to cushion the associated shocks.

According to the National Bureau of Statistics, food inflation in Nigeria reached 30.64 percent in September. According to SBM Intelligence, a geopolitical consultancy based in Lagos, inflation has put even staple foods such as the popular jollof rice out of reach. Similarly, electricity rates have increased by 40 percent, and fuel now costs 700 naira ($0.84) per liter (0.26 gallon). Transportation and other amenities are also increasingly beyond workers’ reach.

Tunde Taiwa* [name changed for fear of retribution]The 31-year-old sergeant in the Lagos Neighborhood Safety Corps, a security agency established by the state government to combat urban crime. His job often puts him in danger. Last year he was overpowered and brutally treated by boors.

When his October salary of 50,000 naira ($59.70) before taxes arrived, three loan companies shared it.

“It’s not that I want a loan, but what will you do when your family is suffering? What is the point of doing a government job if you can’t even feed your family?” Taiwo, who has been working for the government for five years, said. And that is why they are not afraid of temporary gains.

“They should give us a living wage that we can rely on, not the minimum wage because the way we live does not meet any standard of living,” he said.

Experts say the government may have missed the opportunity to introduce a safety net because it wasted the boom years. “The government must go for the low-hanging fruit that can target the vulnerable and most affected people in the country, such as food and other energy sources that can have an immediate impact,” Nwankpa said.


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