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In a “shoeless” economy, inexperience is very costly, corruption is worse

By Kassim Afegbua
The so-called complete deregulation of the downstream sector and the removal of subsidy may seem like a purely economic policy decision, but it is so tied to larger Nigerian questions that it ought to be more rigorously debated, and government should make haste slowly. As at this moment, Nigeria operates a partial deregulation regime in the downstream sector.

Petrol and kerosene prices are regulated while diesel is fully deregulated. The regime is corruption-ridden, it is badly managed. There is no indication that a complete deregulation regime will be better managed. The problem is not one of form, but leadership. The arguments being advanced to justify the proposed full deregulation do not make sense. All the arguments have a ring of deja vu.

They are taken from the same textbooks that the economists have refused to update, the same ideas that led to the collapse of the global economy.

Other countries are making a U-turn and subjecting textbook knowledge to the test of reality, Nigerian policy makers are still holding on to old paradigms. One of these days, we shall start stoning the economists in official corridors.” Reuben Abati, Presidential Spokesman to President Jonathan (March 2009)

Just imagine the cost of what inexperience could wrath on a nation? Just imagine what corruption could do to a nation in transition? And sum that up at the level of ignorance and see for yourself what damage this whole idea of strike has done to the psyche of the average Nigerian.

I have read all the bullshit about President Jonathan’s so-called courage in taking a decision that has sent the country on the fault-line. I cannot see any courage in the action of Mr. President because the whole object of his decision has brought pains and hardship on the people.

For a “courageous” decision, we now have bloods on our hands. For a “courageous” decision, we have lost over 200billion naira. For a “courageous” decision, we now have a big challenge of break down in confidence and trust between the government and the governed. For Mr. President’s action, we are now faced with a credibility problem coupled with legitimacy. What the people are now saying is that President Jonathan’s breath of fresh air is now choking.

Once there is a disconnect between the leaders and the led or once there is collapse of the social contract that binds the leaders and the led together, it takes more than a passing remark to rebuild that trust, and once trust becomes questionable, the leader will simply be on his own.

It is worse when you see dogs and goats dramatizing and protesting to show that they are also affected by the pinch and pains of the subsidy disease.

It is very obvious that President Jonathan is out of tune with the reality of the Nigerian situation. From his conduct so far, he has shown manifest inexperience in handling this whole issue. It does appear to me that Mr. President is under a spell by the cabal he claims to be fighting.

His damage control mechanism has been most obtuse, compounding issues and exposing his weaknesses more than ever before. That brings me to the question on the lips of everyone; who are the real advisers of President Jonathan? Are they sincere with him? Are they patriotic? I have heard from some quarters that it is not that the President is not getting the right form of advises, but that too much of advice can spoil the cook.

I know that Dr. Reuben Abati copiously quoted above cannot possibly be on the side of the President even though he now serves as his Spokesman. His views expressed in 2009 will cogently remain in place because of the profundity and fecundity. I do not think that a spokesman job can take away such view from Dr. Abati. True to his counsel, the issue has to be thoroughly debated and agreed upon.

I still insist that there is a missing link here in the entire subsidy discourse. Why do we discuss subsidy as if it is deregulation? Why on earth will government be talking about deregulation as a substitute for subsidy? This explains why there is so much insincerity in the system.

The Minister for Petroleum, Mrs. DizieaniAllison-Maduekwe told a nation in turmoil that one of the rationales for imposing this hardship was due to the fact that our petrol is being smuggled to our sister African countries because the cost in those countries is apparently on the high side.

Such a position is admittance that President Jonathan cannot guarantee the protection of our territorial integrity since our borders have become porous and could no longer be manned. One cannot possibly understand why the petroleum Minister would want Nigerians to pay for the inadequacies and incompetence of the government.

In other words, if government is able to secure our borders and ensure that smuggling activities are checkmated, perhaps the idea of removing the subsidy would be defeated. Again, government’s response has been slow in coming; it is either provocative or essentially missing the point.

A nation that is aspiring to be one of the twenty largest and strongest economies in the world; such an ambitious dream, cannot possibly allow its economy to be shut down for one day, let alone for five days. It is five years backward. And for such an economy also, the purchase of 1600 buses as president’s palliative to cushion the impact of subsidy removal is as insulting as it is ridiculous.

Lagos State alone reportedly bought over 2000 buses for its BRT project and yet is still battling with transportation challenges, hence the idea of quickly announcing 1600 buses in a formless economy that has no mass transit culture is like a drop in the ocean.

Talking more seriously, it is my opinion that President Jonathan lacks good thinkers and proactive strategists. He also does not have good, effective and persuasive communicators. All the “neighbour to neighbour” wrap-around advertorials are simply money wasting adventures.

Those who have been speaking for government appear too militant in their delivery. Communication on its own has its principles.

When it becomes a matter of forcing down the throat what should rather be vomited, it creates a crisis situation. Rather than talk to Nigerians, government spokespersons have been busy talking to themselves. At best, it has been a monologue; government talking to government; each government apologist trying to outsmart the other and battling for any available media space to add voice.

The efforts have been uncoordinated. The organization lacks coherence and cohesion. Every government person is seen running amok in desperation to reply Nigeria Labour Congress. In the fullness of time, you see them deploying the same old-fashioned tactics of crowd renting as a response to NLC.

That is not a good response to the argument. It will further compound the crisis. I expected government to have on ground a good team comprising people who understand the subject-matter of subsidy discourse, and not those who are mixing subsidy with deregulation.

This whole plot appears to be wrapped with corruption. The approach must certainly change if we must move forward.

President Jonathan must yield to the demands of Nigerians. Government is meant to serve the people. It is not a limited liability company that counts its achievements on the basis of profit and loss. The United States of America’s debt profile is alarming, yet the people are still enjoying the gains of good governance.

There is no harm in borrowing insofar the money is channeled to the purpose for which it was sought. We need to explore the option of diversifying our monolithic economy. With our vast arable land, agriculture is a sector we must seriously invest in especially on account of our present reality where too much attention is focused on oil.

President Jonathan’s decision at this critical juncture of our national development and in the face of this strike challenge will go a long way to reposition the country. He must not yield to the claim that he is incompetent and inexperienced.

That will be too costly to administer. He also cannot yield to the accusation that he is incapable of fighting corruption which has destroyed the fabric of the society. He must show leadership and be prepared to consult widely with opinion leaders and stakeholders in his desperate efforts to find a middle road solution. He cannot afford to allow this strike drag on in the interest of the unity and oneness of the country. He must show concern and reason to act fast.

Nigeria and Nigerians are very easy to govern provided you are honest with them. On account of government’s insistence on the removal of fuel subsidy, trust and confidence in the system have been eroded. Building that trust will require a lot of time. How do the people believe and trust their leaders when the document issued by government as the possible gains of the subsidy, are also listed in the 2012 budget?

How will the people take government serious when it cannot address the issue of the cabal that has held the country hostage? Why will the people believe government when most of the political appointees are cruising in exotic automobiles and architectural derring-do and now telling poor Nigerians to sacrifice for the future? I think very seriously that President Jonathan must gain experience and capacity.

He must also learn fast too. He doesn’t need to flex muscles with Nigerians; it is certainly not a sign of strength, but that of weakness. He must be prepared to listen to all sides of the argument and take the right and plausible decision. Those who are beating the drums of support for his anti-people policy are not doing so for altruistic reasons.

It is simply an opportunity to enrich themselves. With President Jonathan’s conduct so far, he is confirming the public held view that he lacks capacity and experience. These are not good signs of a man who presides over 150million population in Nigeria.

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