By Pini Jason
FOR laughing out loud, a general problem is no problem. People just need to adapt and adjust. There has been a warning since last year about global economic problem in 2012 close to the depression in the 30s. Countries are making adjustments. Nigerians don’t pay attention to serious issues like they do to English soccer league and Brazilian hairs. It’s here!
The above is a text message a Nigerian sent me on the 6th of January 2012 from the United States. The above view of Nigerians may be a little unfair, given the plethora of analysts and experts tossed up by the fuel subsidy debate. Nigeria is very rich with experts, but the problem is, are we really listening, even to our own prescriptions? As the global economy changes, nations change the way they do things.
It cannot be business as usual. Only on Monday, 16 January 2012, BBC carried the news that the United Kingdom is in recession! Many businesses have gone into administration. Peacocks, a retail chain, has closed shop, losing 10,000 jobs. On the other hand, China Investment Corporation, the country’s sovereign wealth fund, last week bought 8.68 percent stake in UK utility group, Thames Water.
The battle is not just about subsidy removal. Subsidy is just, perhaps the biggest symptom of our collective past transgressions. The greater challenge facing us now is how to re-format our country as a place of law and order where infraction of the law is punished; a disciplined society focused on a common national objective. Therefore, let us not pigeonhole our discussion in subsidy removal only. It is about our economy. We have simply mismanaged our economy and grossly abused our country.
Every Nigerian contributed to bringing our country down. Our economy has never really been healthy since the entry of the military into our lives. Our economy has been limping on by the grace of free oil money and the informal sector. In the early sixties, long before we built the first refinery in Nigeria, we drove to a petrol station and filled up without knowing how the petrol got there!
The products were imported, yet nobody knew of any regulation or subsidy. We didn’t know or hear about downstream, upstream and midstream! But once the military got government into the sector, the cankerworm of corruption started gnawing at the sector. There is no sector of our economy that government presence has not ruined.
Govt’s rent-seeking cronies
Government’s involvement in petty trading has always benefited only its rent-seeking cronies and fronts. During the second Republic, things were so bad that government established a racket called National Supply Company where members of National Party of Nigeria, NPN, fed fat on the economy. Basic commodities became “essential” commodities, known as “essensco”!
One man, Dr. Umaru Dikko, Shagari’s powerful Minister of Transport, was solely in charge of the rice we ate! The scandal then was that rice was so much that a Shagari Minister was jailed by Gen. Buhari for carting away rice sweepings from a ship!
That period created its own “cartel”, “cabal” and “vulture capitalists” who fleeced the nation. Indeed some Nigerians made their first millions (we hadn’t started spending billions then) during that era!
Take your mind back to Gen. Buhari’s era of “counter-trade” when, because of our pariah status, crude oil was pawned as foreign exchange for importations. That era also created its own “cartel” and “cabal”. So, let us not forget that the ruination of our economy went way back and many Nigerians, including today’s angels, were implicated.
One issue many Nigerians have spoken about during this crisis is fighting corruption in our national life. The nation is weighed down by deeply entrenched and widespread corruption and the poverty and alienation it creates. Today, unfortunately, we all pretend about corruption. It seems corruption is acceptable when one of our own is involved.
We feign ignorance of its pervasiveness but rather see it only in public offices. It is true that politics is one arena of transaction that provides the quickest returns due to the level of corruption. But really, not many Nigerians can afford to point accusing fingers on others. That is why the position of the opposition parties in this subsidy crisis has not been substantially different from that of the ruling PDP. They simply went to Abuja to hunt with the hound and went back to their states to run with the hare!
Major beneficiaries of corruption
Who are the major beneficiaries of the corruption embedded in recurrent expenditure of which overheads form the criminally bloated part? Who are those responsible for the prevalence of ghost workers? Who are those who budget for the same office items every year? And why does the National Assembly hike budget proposals from the Executive instead of pruning the fats with their scalpel and protecting the people from such annual sleaze?
When last did you hear any opposition party insist on pruning the budget of the fats? Is there any of the “looters”, member of the “cartel” or “cabal” that has not received man-of-the year award from some of those now baying for their blood? What do we make of those “youth organizations” and “groups” who place advertorials pleading the cause of people accused of corruption? Who are those who pocketed funds for their educational institutions and allowed the institutions to decay!
What of those who import fake drugs and substandard products? How many self-employed Nigerians pay tax? Why were fellow Nigerians reluctant to revert to N97 per litre? Why have Nigerians not reduced price increases that are clearly disproportional to the fuel price hike? Nigerians have cheated fellow Nigerians more than the government has. We do not love one another.
We as Nigerians must take full responsibility for what we have done to ourselves and work to change things for our collective benefit instead of playing holier than thou!
The subsidy crisis is a wake up call to us all that we cannot continue to live the profligate way we have lived. Elsewhere, when prices increase, people look at areas of their lifestyle they can cut down.
But in Nigeria we look for ways to steal money to make up for the difference and continue our extravagant ways. And because our systems are porous, we continue to live as if Nigeria is a rich country. Fighting corruption means that we must all shun ill-gotten wealth in all ramifications and create an entirely new national ethos.
A few interesting things emerged during this subsidy crisis. Many delicious lies and figures were concocted and disseminated and people, not just the unwary, actually believed them! Nigerians now seem to relish a new culture of being misinformed!
Many “experts” who had no value to add to the debate simply obfuscated it by blaming every economic measure on IMF and World Bank. Such people advance a “chop and quench” theory which says because we have oil, we must drink it till we develop distended stomach! We may be oil-rich but we are definitely not a rich country!
Shadow experts instead of management team
From the number of experts I saw on television networks during the subsidy protest, it would appear that President Jonathan has the wrong economic management team! He can constitute a “shadow” economic management team from the array of expert analysts who appeared at the rallies and television studios. This shadow team should be given the 2012 Budget and future Budgets to clean them up before presenting them to the National Assembly.
Secondly, when a coach has a yellow-carded player who is likely to get a red and thus deplete the strength of the team, the coach pulls him off. There are members of the President’s team, especially in the oil sector, who are obviously yellow-carded because they no longer connect with Nigerians. He should pull them off. If such key actors were in the reality show—The Apprentice—they would have been simply told: You are fired!
Thirdly, we heard many people, very eminent Nigerians say emphatically that there is no subsidy on imported petrol. They may be right, but how would we know? My suggestion therefore, is that the Federal Government should please give such people licence to import petrol and sell at N65 or less a litre, then we will believe them and stone all those who said there is subsidy!
What our politicians must take away from the subsidy protest is that they can no longer take Nigerians for granted. Doing business for Nigerians can no longer be business as usual. Nigerians have lost their innocence. We must not forget that for a week before the NLC/TUC came on board, Nigerians were already on the streets protesting against the removal of subsidy.
And they were ready to continue even after NLC/TUC called off the strike. It is trite to talk of the opposition hijacking the protest. It is expected that any opposition would cash in on the misfortune of a ruling party. So the government must be proactive and develop a capacity to read public mood. But above all, we must raise our game as a nation.
Other smaller African countries are managing their affairs in a way that make Nigerians to flee to such countries. A Nigerian refugee from Libya told the press that a Libya at war is better than Nigeria at peace! That is something to ruminate about. Living in squalor and pretending to be a rich country is the greatest delusion!