A canvas of survival: An artist observations on Nigeria’s unofficial economy

Illustration of the suffering of the masses.
Illustration of the suffering of the masses.
A canvas of survival: An artist observations on Nigeria’s unofficial economy

By Aliyu Aminu Ahmed

As an artist, my days are spent in front of a canvas, but even the boldest strokes I lay down are no match for the vivid image of daily life unfolding outside my studio in Abuja. I’m not an economist, nor am I deeply versed in the mechanics of government and governance. My expertise is color and abstract form, yet I cannot help but be drawn into the complex social composition that is modern Nigeria. Through my eyes—an artist’s eyes—I see a nation improvising daily in an economy of self-subsidy.

In Nigeria, we don’t just buy water or pay for electricity; we pay twice, thrice over—the cost marked up by necessity and scarcity. We pay for our children’s education, our family’s healthcare, and the basic food on our table, with each transaction taxed in one way or another, a relentless drip of financial outflow. This isn’t just spending; it’s a perpetual investment in mere existence or rather survival. When we are able to gather a little for ourselves the community dependencies set in – in fact our community elders ask us to construct boreholes or even roads transferring the role of local government to individuals.


Tinubu promises hard times for those threatening Nigeria’s sovereignty

Unveiling the soft side of Nigeria;s pragmatic NSA, Mallam Nuhu Ribadu

New ID card with payment, social service functionality unveiled in Nigeria

Let me paint you a picture: A few years ago, a friend who worked for the government earned a salary sufficient to buy seven bags of rice a month, his life a stable still life set against a backdrop of predictable oil prices and affordable living costs. Today, that same salary struggles to stretch into the next week and can only buy one bag of rice. Our purchasing power is now eaten away by inflation and devaluation, the price of petrol skyrocketing to N600 per liter, and rice a luxury not at N58,000 a bag or more. Once, nine barrels of crude oil paid my friend’s monthly wage; now, it takes just the cost of one barrel to pay his monthly salary. The math of daily life, so stark, so unforgiving.

The private sector tells a similar story, each narrative thread woven with hardship. Currency devaluations sweep the ground from under entrepreneurs, and taxation climbs like ivy, suffocating growth. Friends in business recount tales of overnight financial reversals—imported goods doubling in cost, loans turning into chains as interest rates soar. The platforms that once offered a lifeline, allowing money to flow across borders, now shut their gates one by one, even local bank account limits on foreign transactions online. Interest rates climbed from 11% in 2015 to now 24% in 2024, in just nine years. Businesses in Nigeria face a daunting array of taxes, including Company Income Tax (CIT), Value Added Tax (VAT), Capital Gains Tax (CGT), Education Tax, Petroleum Profit Tax, Stamp Duties, Customs and Excise Duties, Personal Income Tax, Withholding Tax, Business Premises Tax, Development Levies, Employee Compensation Tax (NSITF), Pension Contributions, and Industrial Training Tax.

In addition, landlords often require a full year or even two years’ rent upfront for business premises, coupled with a 20 percent service charge, 10 percent legal fees, and a 20 percent caution deposit. It takes a genius to succeed in small businesses in Abuja, that’s why when a shop is opened the next year its shut down.

Personally, I observe the relentless increase in living costs with a heavy heart. Rent for a modest flat in Abuja that cost N800,000 in 2015 has ballooned to N3,500,000 today. Doctor’s visits, once a manageable expense, now threaten to become a luxury. Everywhere I look, the fabric of our community is stretched thin, resilience fraying at the edges. School fees have skyrocketed by over 300%, and the cost of electricity tariffs and generators has surged by 250%. Transportation costs, including fares for services like Bolt or Uber, have jumped by more than 150% and continue to climb. Amid these escalating expenses, we’ve drained three years’ worth of savings in just three months, following a nearly 220% hike in petrol prices.

I’m no economist, but the distress is palpable: businesses are shutting down, landlords are aggressively pursuing rent, pharmacists are raising drug prices daily, children are being pulled out of schools, and more people are seeking help. All these signs point to a troubling scenario, despite any apparent recovery of the Naira.

I record these observations through my paintings, like the ledger of everyday interactions. As an artist, I am no stranger to the concept of perspective, and it is clear that Nigeria’s current economic perspective requires a shift—a recalibration of roles where the government must take up its brush and correct the skewed lines of our collective plight. The colors of our daily struggles are too vivid, too harsh; they need the softening touch of thoughtful governance and sound policy. We really need humanity in our policies.

Through it all, the spirit of the Nigerian people remains a vibrant palette, resilient and adaptive. But even the most brilliant colors can fade under constant strain. We need more than makeshift solutions; we need a vision that encompasses all, a mural that includes every Nigerian from every region in its scope. As I blend my colors, I dream of a day when the vibrant hues of prosperity might dominate the canvas, hoping that our collective potential will be realized at last.

As an artist observing the abstract patterns of the challenges of our economy, I see several strokes we could apply to brighten the already dark canvas. Firstly, we should refine government subsidies to directly benefit essential services like electricity and healthcare, making them more accessible to everyone, there is no need for more electricity tariffs. Everything about subsidy should be transparent. Secondly, simplifying the tax system would help lift some weight off small business owners like many of my peers in the creative sector, making it easier for us to thrive, government should unify taxes and reduce the rates and make it transparent for everyone. Thirdly, an injection of government funding and accountability into our education system to reduce the huge cost of education, possibly through scholarships or vouchers, could keep the dream of schooling alive for many children who are being forced out by rising fees. Fourthly, substantial investments in infrastructure, especially in energy (electricity and subsidize solar equipment importation) and transportation (reintroduce urban mass transit buses and or locomotive trains, could ease the daily challenges faced by businesses, reducing costs and fostering growth.

Lastly, by streamlining bureaucratic processes and enhancing support for budding entrepreneurs with more accessible funding and practical training, we can cultivate a more vibrant entrepreneurial landscape, much like preparing a canvas that encourages every color and texture to come alive. I rest my artistic brush here until another time.

Thank you.

Ahmed writes from Abuja.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here