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Nigeria: Blackmailers beware or beware of blackmailers?

By Tabia Princewill
HOW did we get here? How is it that a country like Nigeria borrows not to fund infrastructure and lift its people out of extreme poverty but to pay salaries and fund its recurrent expenditure? Quite honestly, I am not surprised that national debt now stands at 63 billion dollars. We are a country of showmen who would rather spend on frivolities than on anything of substance with long lasting effects on our lives.

Our champagne lifestyle and the envy it enables (we love nothing more than to be admired) have made us into a typical what-not-to-do-in-business case: we spend more than we earn and spend not to halt this vicious cycle by enabling ordinary people to become sources of wealth for the country but to keep up appearances (e.g. the illogically large presidential fleet) and to ensure the comforts of the unproductive minority who feed off the system. Our country spends more on running government (that is, payment of salaries, maintenance and allowances) than it does on the people who elect said government.

We have created and enshrined a vastly unequal society where getting into government has become the only way to a life of comfort or to be exact, a life of extravagance using state funds. Looking at the simple dress and demeanour of some of our newly elected House of Representative members, especially those getting into power for the first time, I couldn’t help but wonder how much their lives would change after four years in office.

They too will be driving fast cars and spending wildly before their terms are over. But what benefits will they bring their constituents? That remains to be seen. However, I do not expect change from them or from the average Nigerian politician who has little to offer this country besides antiquated ideas of zoning and ethnicity, the only way many know how to play politics or to stay relevant in a game where the objective is not prosperity for all Nigerians, or inclusiveness for that matter but to further divide and segregate us based on class and ethno-religious lines.

I was struck by pictures of lawmakers’ aides dragging ACs, fridges, water dispensers, chairs and various office furniture out of the National Assemblybuilding.No wonder we spend so much on “maintenance” in this country! If the Presidency’s food budget can serve to develop a small country, it is no wonder our lawmakers, after losing an election, feel entitled to even the furniture in their offices, the consequence of which is that every newly elected official must spend Nigeria’s money to make their office comfortable (or rather, fit for a king) while the average Nigerian still has no access to running water or electricity, a national embarrassment for a country such as Nigeria in the 21st century.

While we continuously forego all forms of financial prudence and responsibility, despite the presence in our government of high priestesses of the World Bank, a house panel in the US just approved a bill to cap expenses for former presidents who earn more than $400,000—bad news for George W. Bush’s reported $1.3 million per annum for office space and travel. This shows that although ambition and greed are universal, Nigeria differs in that neither we the people, nor those we elect, who are a reflection of our psyche, have the will to do the right thing, even when it is possible.

Of course, every human being deserves a level of relative comfort. But what output do our government officials show to justify their earnings? States award incredibly large pensions to former governors and their deputies, yet the average civil servant has not been paid in months, unemployment in some states is so high, some young people have never held down a job since university. Pensioners, elderly former teachers, earn barely N2000 a month, the amount they were entitled to in the days where one naira was equal to one dollar.

What is N2000 in today’s Nigeria? Is this governance? It’s an issue of fairness rather than going after anyone: in fact, the way one hears Nigerians defending things that are not, frankly, in their interest, one is forced to further question the state of our educational system and its inability (perhaps this is done purposefully) to teach critical thinking.

This is after all the country where embattled ministers run after the president-elect at airports, where the army engages in a war of words with #BringBackOurGirlsCampaigners and an entire economy can be shut down by fuel crisis. How is it that suddenly, at the 99th hour, the Finance Minister realises she cannot pay marketers because their claims are “fraudulent”? If indeed marketers “just want to make Nigerians suffer” then government should have curbed its own waste so that Nigerians would have trusted it to remove subsidy and not use the savings it would have made to fund their own extravagant lifestyles, leaving Nigerians to bear the sacrifice, as always. The entire system and the government that fine tunes it is blackmailing Nigerians which is why a “soft-landing” for anyone involved in misdeeds will never be acceptable to Nigerians.

Fuel shortage and Ifeanyi Ubah

AN oil marketer’s claim to “refuse to be part of the sabotage” by bringing in petroleum products to save the masses, has been met with relief by some and confusion by others because in Nigeria, a country of ironies, inconsistencies, blackmail and sabotage, the more you look, the less you see.

Ubah, in a statement, recognises fuel scarcity is a result of unpaid funds which marketers owe transporters, because said marketers are also owed by government. He goes on to lament that hospitals cannot perform surgeries and that our telecommunications and aviation sectors risk total shut down. In recounting events we are quick to normalise incomprehensible situations: how is it that an entire country has been allowed to run on generators?

Is this possible in other climes? Capital Oil’s decision to “not be part of the sabotage” is as interesting as the idea of subsidy itself, as it is premised on self-aggrandizement for some and a deepening poverty trap for others, as Nigerian refineries or our capacity to generate any sort of energy has been unequivocally sabotaged over the past decade. There is also something more insidious here: would a business man without any links to government be able to so easily, in such a context, load and distribute products nationwide?

How is it that some marketers (those close to government) do have the funds to import products while other’s stare the hangman’s noose in the face, as their bank loans and interests pile up? Is it possible that this whole affair is an attempt at sabotaging the handover by creating an impossible climate in the country and blaming marketers for governments’ own failings? The ability to magically import products overnight is a brand of “patriotism” that not all marketers can afford as banks will not extend their credit lines and they will barely make a profit on their imports as government is a notoriously bad debtor. The Nigerian system is fair to no one besides the blackmailers who write its rules.

Where is Stella Oduah?

AS many of Jonathan’s “super ministers” which some nicknamed “the untouchables” now face popular scrutiny and many quarters of society call for a probe of activities involving the Finance and Petroleum ministries notably, the senator-elect best known for her comments after the DANA crash during her time as aviation minister and the purchase of reportedly inflated BMW bullet-proof cars and allegations of corruption, is not currently facing the heat, unlike many of her former counterparts whose often abhorrent acts have not only trampled our constitution but kicked at our sensibilities and yearnings for honesty and transparency in government.

This senator-elect has quietly reinvented herself, apparently focusing on improving her constituency. Some like it hot, others disguise their sweat when the heat is on by burying themselves at home. I am still looking forward to the coolness of change.

 


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