A Vote For Removing (Political) Subsidies

It seems fairly settled that the Goodluck Jonathan administration and his cohorts – in the business as well as political sectors – are dead set on removing so-called fuel subsidies in a matter of weeks. Nigeria’s dispossessed majority should, I suggest, serve notice of their determination to resist this heist that’s being cloaked and sold as sound economic policy.

Greed and callousness seem to be at the heart of the crusade to hike the price of fuel products. The argument has been made, at the state and national levels, that fuel subsidies guzzle resources that should be invested to provide absent, much needed infrastructure. This argument would have a measure of traction in a political space run by serious-minded, visionary leaders.

Nigeria is far from being such a space. It is, instead, the fiefdom of the most inveterate gluttons and fraudsters who can’t spell the word vision, much less demonstrate it. Most of Nigeria’s political authorities, whether local government councilors, commissioners, ministers, legislators, governors or the president, are driven by the impulse to put away as much of the nation’s resources that’s within sight as possible. Few, if any, of them spend even a few minutes a day meditating on what it would take to transform their country to the same level of development as obtains in the European, Asian, or North American nations where they relish to luxuriate.

I have always felt that Nigeria is engaged in the wrong subsidy debate. For one, it is not clear at all that what Nigerian officials call fuel subsidy really exists – as opposed to being official hocus pocus, a kind of manipulative game. In fact, it’s been suggested by those who ought to know – including former Minister Tam David-West and economist Sam Aluko – that the nomenclature of fuel subsidies is a cloak for a massive, mindless corrupt scheme. There are anecdotes of mindless fuel importers who collude with venal government officials in multiple tripping scams, whereby each shipment of refined fuel is counted numerous shipments. The game ensures obscene windfalls and levels of profits for unscrupulous bureaucrats and corporate profiteers. There’s something callous about seeking to foist the burden of corruption on Nigeria’s most vulnerable, already deeply pauperized population.

But even if there’s an animal called fuel subsidy, and even if it gobbles up a huge chunk of the nation’s resources, it does not follow that erasing the subsidy is the way to go. Why has the government not focused, first, on building more refineries in the country? Some official apologists are wont to contend that the government is a wretched player in the business arena. And that the more astute private sector investors are wary of the government stipulating what they must charge. If the government’s reported ineptitude constitutes legitimate grounds to avoid investment in new refineries, then why don’t we invoke the same argument to privatize all aspects of the government? After all, Nigerian governments have proved awfully incapable of providing security, healthcare and electric power, running schools, tarring roads, curbing or prosecuting corruption, and holding credible elections.

Besides, why has the current government failed to probe what happened to the billions of naira invested in refurbishing the country’s four refineries? Who pocketed all that cash? Whose collusion enabled the illicit transactions to proceed?

A major plank of the government’s case is that the artificially low price of fuel products foments cross-border smuggling of petroleum. That contention is nothing short of the Nigerian government’s implicit admission to being derelict. If a country that maintains a full complement of security officials as well as customs officials at border posts cannot curtail the smuggling of tanker-loads of fuel, then it is more floundering – even lost – than one ever suspected.

It was only the other day that labor negotiators managed to wrest a minimum wage of N18,000 for Nigerian workers. In fact, many state governments are still holding out, protesting that they lack the funds to implement the minimum wage. And yet, two or three Nigerian friends could enter a restaurant and spend more than N18,000!

One is aware that some critics of the minimum wage are quick to accuse Nigerian workers of indolence, an allergy to assiduous work, and of being notoriously unproductive. You won’t catch me denying any of these charges, or defending them. I’m all for holding the Nigerian worker – by all means – to a much higher level of productivity. I have had occasion to upbraid Nigerian civil servants for slumbering on their jobs, displaying terrible manners towards the public, or adopting an attitude of nonchalance towards their tasks.

Still, the Nigerian worker’s unimpressive work habits pale when juxtaposed against the shoddiness and mediocrity of most Nigerian politicians. Each member of Nigeria’s parliament in Abuja rakes in more income every three months than President Barack Obama makes in a year! Each Nigerian governor’s monthly security vote is enough to pay Mr. Obama’s salary for four years – with cash left to spare!

And therein lies the tragic rub. Nigerian workers, professional groups and opposition forces ought to tweet a clear message to Mr. Jonathan. They should tell him: “Sir, you’re looking at the wrong subsidy!” If the man is in a haste to subtract subsidies, why, he ought to start by plugging the subsidy called official corruption. If he collected even a mere ten percent of the funds stolen by Nigerian public officials, he is bound to have a hefty purse to devote to developmental initiatives.

At any rate, Mr. Jonathan should be told (indeed, forced by a general strike if need be) to push for a drastic reduction in his own privileges as well as those of his cohorts. Nigerians should insist on removing the millions of dollars that each local government chairman, each governor, each minister, and the president squander on themselves whilst doing largely mediocre, if not wretched, work.

Mr. Jonathan and other Nigerian government officials cannot, in one breath, proclaim that Nigeria has no money and, in another, live opulently off of Nigeria.

Nor should Nigerians take seriously the canard that the government must remove fuel subsidies in order to free up funds to enable massive investment in infrastructural development. Former President Olusegun Obasanjo used that disingenuous argument each time he jacked up the price of fuel. Alas, Mr. Obasanjo had no infrastructure to show for it, but Nigerians certainly experienced a spike in their misery index.

It’s time Nigerians stood up and said to Mr. Jonathan, “Not again!”

Ambassador Bianca Ojukwu: Jonathan’s Impropriety

One knows that Mrs. Bianca Ojukwu, lawyer, ex-beauty queen, and the recently bereaved widow of former Biafran leader, Dim Emeka Odumegwu Ojukwu, is highly gifted. Even so, President Jonathan violated all sense of propriety when he announced last week that Mrs. Ojukwu is on his list of nominees for ambassadorships.

Let me stress again that the nominee is eminently qualified for the job. Yet, there’s no excuse for Mr. Jonathan’s haste to reveal her nomination. She had just lost her husband only days before, and his remains have yet to be conveyed back to Nigeria. What was the point, then, of hastening to announce her nomination? Was there not a single person in the president’s circle to caution that the timing of the announcement was in singularly poor taste, that it could be construed as an act calculated to disesteem the memory of Mrs. Ojukwu’s late husband?

Surely, neither the government nor the nominee – nor,

for that matter, the Nigerian people – would have sustained any harm if the announcement of Mrs. Ojukwu’s nomination had been delayed until after her husband’s burial. Until Ikemba Nnewi is committed to earth, it is highly unlikely that Bianca Ojukwu would present herself for senatorial clearance. If she did, she would be seen as trivializing and dishonoring her late husband’s memory, and the outrage would be wide and devastating.

If the administration’s point was to register in tangible terms its sympathy for a grieving wife, then its particular choice of gesture – or, rather, its timing – exemplifies poor judgment. It is deplorable that a government should so thoughtlessly interject a political appointment into what should be a moment reserved for the mourning of the late leader by his wife, family, and admirers.

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