By Tolu Ogunlesi
President Jonathan is not doing anything unusual, others before him have made similar arguments asking for “sacrifice”. The only thing that ends up getting sacrificed is the future and wellbeing of tens of millions of suffering Nigerians.
I remember watching Goodluck Jonathan’s telepromptered presidential bid declaration speech on 18 September, 2010. He promised change: “Let the word go out from this Eagle Square that Jonathan as President in 2011 will herald a new era of transformation of our country…”
He also succeeded in pulling an ‘Obama’ on us: “I was not born rich, and in my youth, I never imagined that I would be where I am today, but not once did I ever give up. Not once did I imagine that a child from Otuoke, a small village in the Niger Delta, will one day rise to the position of President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. I was raised by my mother and father with just enough money to meet our daily needs. “In my early days in school, I had no shoes, no school bags. I carried my books in my hands but never despaired; no car to take me to school but I never despaired. There were days I had only one meal but I never despaired. I walked miles and crossed rivers to school every day but I never despaired. [I] didn’t have power, didn’t have generators, studied with lanterns but I never despaired.”
Inspiring story. The canoe-carver’s son who became Deputy Governor, Governor, Vice President and then President without ever hustling for power, wowed us all, with his humble beginnings, his humility and his accessibility (via social media).
But that was then. Today the canoe-carver’s son seems bent on recreating, for present and future generations, all the obstacles he faced all those decades ago. He seems eager to ensure that as many Nigerians as possible study with lanterns and survive on a single meal a day. And how is he doing this – by hitting the most vulnerable part of the population where it hurts them the most – via what is no doubt one of the most ubiquitous items in the land: petrol. The seeming disconnection from reality, for a man who boasted of being born without shoes, is shocking. Nigeria is a country full of poor people. Nigerians consume more fuel than necessary because their country continues to produce, for its 150 million citizens, a tenth of what South Africa produces for its 50 or so million citizens – and they therefore have to depend on petrol-guzzling Chinese generators to keep the lights on.
Controlling the price of petrol has therefore been the easiest way to ensure that Nigerians enjoy the benefits of the crude oil they produce in copious amounts. But in the spirit of the Nigerian system, the country is largely unable to refine crude oil, and therefore has to import most of its fuel needs. The subsidy system is constructed around this importation: Government pays importers to ensure prices are kept reasonably low. Over time, as expected, trademark Nigerian corruption has crept into the system, and dubious importers have found ways of inflating their receipts. Last year, the government spent 1.3 trillion Naira on subsidies, instead of the budgeted N248 billion. The government has admitted the existence of a ‘cartel(s)’, but has done nothing to confront it, or attempt to expose it. The only solution, they’ve argued, is to scrap the entire subsidy, the only thing that resembles ‘welfare’ in a land teeming with poor people.
Against all opposing voices they have gone ahead to scrap it, in the most callous of ways: On New Year’s Day, via a press statement by an obscure government agency (quick joke: “What’s the difference between Boko Haram and GEJ? Boko Haram at least claims responsibility. GEJ gets PPPRA to do so on his behalf.”) – in a country that is one of the world’s top 10 producers of crude oil. Instantly, fuel prices more than doubled, triggering panicky queues at fuel stations and a rise in transport prices. Over the last couple of weeks Mr. Jonathan has been meeting with labour, civil society, and youth groups, ostensibly engaged in a dialogue. In reality, Mr Jonathan has apparently only been buying time for the implementation of a policy he and his advisors had made up their minds about a long time ago.
On 31 December, the President went on national TV to announce the imposition of a state of emergency in parts of the country, as part of the government’s response to the growing menace of terrorist group, Boko Haram. Not a mention of the impending removal of the subsidy. On the afternoon that news of the subsidy removal filtered out – New Year’s Day, and a Sunday – a post appeared on the president’s Facebook page, a list of his achievements in 2011. Again, not a mention of the subsidy.
Nigeria’s “numbers” have always been mind-boggling. Saudi Arabia, with less than twenty percent of our population, currently has a refining capacity of more than 2 million barrels per day, more than ten times Nigeria’s. Billions of dollars have gone into ‘Turn-Around Maintenance’ on our four refineries over the last two decades. Today, none of those refineries operates at up to fifty percent of its full capacity (the actual numbers are much less than that). The government has not demonstrated any willingness to make the refineries work, to end the mind-boggling scenario that sees Africa’s largest producer of crude oil expending several billions of dollars annually on the importation of 85 percent of its fuel needs. This is the same government that is now insisting that it needs to remove subsidies so it can spend the $8bn subsidy payout on providing critical infrastructure.
The Government is outraged by the cost of the subsidy, but not by the corruption responsible, or the fact that we have to depend on imports to meet almost all of our fuel needs. And if all the hundreds of billions of dollars of the last decade (annual budgets of about $25bn) have not improved our roads and schools and hospitals, is it this $8 billion that will bring transformation? At the root of the opposition is a trust deficit. Nigerian governments have not given the citizens any reason to trust them. Since 1999 successive governments have been promising significant improvements in power supply – and pumping government funds into building power plants – but nothing has come of it.
Nigeria’s corruption is in a class by itself. There is corruption, and then there is Nigerian corruption. Nigerians know that the so-called subsidy savings will go the way of its forebears – the road of no return, paved with Swiss Bank cheque book leaves. Now, no realistic Nigerian expects any government to totally wipe out corruption, but to have a government that feigns helplessness in the face of corruption is a bit too much to stomach, even by Nigeria’s very laid-back standards.
The message to President Jonathan and his government is simple: Earn our trust with the trillions you already have in your possession, then we can, and will, wholeheartedly hand over this subsidy trillion to you. Simple logic. But no, logic is not how these ones seek to deal with us. Common sense is a luxury, apparently, the closer one steps to the hallowed corridors of power. Nigeria has no functioning welfare system to cater for its teeming poor. National Health insurance is available only in name. Lagos, a city of 15 million, has no rail system – overground or underground. Nigeria’s hospitals are mostly glorified clinics, often lacking the most basic of supplies. The public school system is a disgrace; the near-total failure rates in national examinations bear eloquent testimony. Maternal mortality rates are some of the highest in Africa, and in the north, polio and cholera still haunt the land with eighteenth century confidence. Governments come and go, doing nothing to alter the communal and national status quo. They make no sacrifices, but are adept at insisting that Nigerians have to make sacrifices in order for their nation to be great. The poorest of the lot always suffer.
President Jonathan is not doing anything unusual, others before him have made similar arguments asking for “sacrifice”. The only thing that ends up getting sacrificed is the future and wellbeing of tens of millions of suffering Nigerians. Life goes on, as always. The President doesn’t think it necessary to earn our trust. But he demands ours. Here’s hoping that this time, Nigerians will see through the charade. And tell him to stuff his exhortations into the nearest pipeline, and do what twenty-two million Nigerians elected him to do, last April: earn their trust, and confidence, by wisely and prudently spending their commonwealth, to make their lives better, in the most tangible of ways: light bulbs that stay on, water taps that do not hiss when turned, hospitals that actually save lives, schools that stay open and add value to their students, policemen who actually protect citizens, and so on and so forth.
Crushing Nigerians underfoot by more than doubling the cost of living, on a New Year’s Day, in a land already gripped by mass suffering, is not the kind of transformation we’ve been waiting for.