On Deregulation, Transformation and the Nigerian Nation

Tonight, Nigeria’s President, Dr. Goodluck Ebele Jonathan, GCFR, attempted – again (as has now become his daily duty) – to convince Nigerians to buy into his sudden realisation of Nigeria’s pending doom because of fuel subsidies. At best, the president comes across as a man selling a product he’s bent on forcing down the throat of citizens, and I’m sure he already knows that the government does not have the permission of the majority to go ahead. We’ve been here before, the numbers don’t look right and the “transformation team” is working towards the laziest answer to Nigeria’s socio-economic sustainability. The more Abuja says, the more it exposes the fundamental weakness of the self-taught remove-subsidy-and-transform-Nigeria argument.

What is going on in Nigeria today was aptly described by Prof. Chinua Achebe in his popular book, “The Trouble with Nigeria,” where he said that “The Nigerian problem is the unwillingness of its leaders to rise to the challenge of personal example…” As much as Abuja talks about transforming Nigeria, it all ends as dropped words because the actions of the current administration have not shown any difference from those of the occupiers of our political space who simply feed fat on our ignorance, apathy and resilience. How does a government that preaches sacrifice budget N2.5 million (over $15,000) for its daily feeding? Cassava bread, which the president promised to feed on until his exit in 2015, must be very expensive.

This government is afraid of doing the needful! At various events, and even during the Presidential Media Chat, the president and government officials confess to the existence of chronic corruption in the management of fuel subsidies. However, when asked about bringing the culprits to book, the quick (often shaky) response is that “there is no cabal, really, they are just business people”. The president even went as far as comparing fuel marketers to MTN, and that is a new argument that “Team Transformation” is trying out. Mr. President, please don’t compare telecommunications deregulation with the plans in the Oil & Gas sector. And I will explain. At the time when Nigeria moved towards complete deregulation of telecommunications in Nigeria, the situation was so bad that most people didn’t even know the joy of telecommunications. Only 450,000 (way less than 1%) relied on the services, so the 99% only saw benefits after the complete deregulation. That was well-timed and contextual, and it is not the same with a product that determines the cost of livelihood for 99% of the population.

Abuja has also argued that aviation was terrible before deregulation. Again, I ask: what percentage of Nigerians relied on Nigerian Airways for their travel from, say, Lagos to Benin? I’ve also heard the argument that Nigerians accepted the deregulation in the power sector, so they should embrace fuel subsidy removal as part of the deregulation requirements for the Oil & Gas sector. The same telecom/aviation principle applies here: Nigerians knew no power before now, and basically provided their own alternatives, so not many people will protest attempts to reform and make it better. It is not the same for the fuel subsidy debate, so please search your books for another argument. Wise counsel has been given by the likes of EnoughisEnough Nigeria, Prof. Pat Utomi and others: cut the cost of government first, and show Nigerians that you are a responsible government, instead of asking us to sacrifice based on the number of banquets you host to force an idea down our throats.

The sustainability of Nigeria, which the president often speaks of, is NOT even a conversation about fuel subsidy removal; it is a wholesome conversation about the welfare of citizens, cost of government and the quality of governance. At the heart of the ongoing debate is an ongoing show of disrespect for the feedback from citizens. When the president makes statements such as, “there’s no going back on subsidy removal,” what is the point in asking the Coordinating Minister for the Economy to keep saying that the president is still discussing with Nigerians and he will make up his mind based on feedback? Governments should be afraid of their people, but Abuja is not. Many have said that Nigerians deserve the kind of government we get and that we are too resilient to successfully protest anything, but I will advise Abuja not to assume that this is the permanent temperament of the citizenry.

The welfare of citizens is the primary responsibility of government, and this must shine through every policy stance or program of a self-named Transformation Government. In a case where citizen welfare will be threatened, the palace cannot continue in selfish display of waste while the people are asked to cut more pounds of flesh in honour of the existence of the “commonwealth”. The 99% in Nigeria is not responsible for the outrageous expense at which government is run today, so why punish a people by making them suffer for a crime they didn’t commit? Cut the cost of government. Remove that shameful N2.5 million “banquet allowance”, cut Security Vote, reduce the number of ministries (some are close to mirror images of each other, and why do we have Ministers of State?), and ask the other arms of government (hello, legislators) to do the same. When cost is down, improve the quality of governance. After you’ve done that, and you earn the trust of the people, come back to the table for a debate about how fuel subsidy removal can bring about overnight transformation.

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