By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.
The poor in Nigeria are being denuded of all subsidies that subside their existential pains. This year, it started with petrol, then moved to fertilizer. We don’t know what is next. But I think it’s time we changed the conversation. Let’s turn our gaze to the walloping subsidies that pay for the hedonism of Nigeria’s notoriously self-indulgent elite, shall we?
We are told that subsidies for the poor have to go because Nigeria is broke and because the administration of subsidies is riddled with corruption. (And I thought the reason President Buhari was elected—and former President Jonathan was rejected at the polls— was because Buhari vowed to fight corruption so that it doesn’t interfere with the dispensation of help to people who need it).
Well, if Nigeria is broke why is the construction of a helipad in Daura one of President Buhari’s major projects? No one seems to know precisely how much it would cost to build it (estimates vary from N2 million to tens of millions of naira), but what we do know so far is that N60 million has already been paid as compensation to people whose land will be used for the project, according to the Daily Trust of September 21, 2015 .
Given that the helipad will become useless the moment Buhari’s tenure expires, this doesn’t strike me as a wise investment during this difficult financial time when the poor are stripped of subsidies and called upon to “sacrifice.”
Let’s not even talk of the presidential air fleet that needlessly and avoidably drains our national resources. According to a November 17, 2015 statement from the presidency, there are currently 10 aircraft in the presidential fleet, and they cost the nation more than 2 billion naira to maintain in just 6 months.
America, which is way wealthier than Nigeria and which gives all manner of subsidies to its poor, has only two aircraft in its presidential fleet. The British Prime Minister has no dedicated fleet of aircraft. It was announced only last year that a plane would be bought for the Prime Minister at the cost of $15 million. That’s about how much it cost to maintain Nigeria’s presidential fleet between May and November last year, according to the presidency.
In the new budget President Buhari just signed, nearly 4 billion naira has been allocated for “annual routine maintenance of villa facilities by [Julius Berger Nigeria].” The medical center in the Villa will be maintained with N3.89 billion. But this excludes drugs. Within this budget year, more than N200 million has been allocated to buy drugs for the State House clinic. Never mind that the president actually goes to London for his medical needs.
In February this year when he went to London for a routine medical check-up, he told Nigerians in the UK that he had been using his UK doctors “since 1978 when I was in Petroleum.” So over 4 billion naira has been allocated for a medical facility in the presidential villa that the president may not even use, yet the poor are told to “sacrifice” because the country is “broke.”
But that’s not all. N387 million has been budgeted for “general renovation of the guest house” in the presidential villa, N254million for “renovation work on 8 No. Blocks of 16 No. 2 bedroom flats at State House security quarters, Asokoro,” N115 for “wildlife conservation,” N322,421,971 to link cable to the “driver’s rest room at Villa Admin,” N213,873,953 to link cable “from Guest House No. 9 Generator House to gate,” N114,967,140 for the President’s “food stuff/catering materials supplies,” N16,683,193 for the Vice President’s “food stuff/catering materials supplies,” etc. There are many more puzzlingly wasteful expenditures that I have no space to highlight here. (Follow this link to read the budget for yourself.
Now compare this to America, the world’s wealthiest nation. American presidents pay for their own food from their pocket. As Gary Walters, a former White House Chief of Staff, told the (London) Guardian, “All those things that are personal in nature that we all pay for, the first family pays for.”
“It’s just the tradition that it’s continued on through time that the president will pay for their own food and, I guess, if they needed something for the house that was personal. Toothpaste, cologne or whatever,” William Bushong, a White House historian, told the Guardian.
Wife of President Ronald Reagan was shocked when she discovered that she and her husband had to pay for all of their personal needs. “Nobody had told us that the president and his wife are charged for every meal, as well as for such incidentals as dry cleaning, toothpaste and other toiletries,” she was reported to have said in 1981.
If the world’s wealthiest country doesn’t subsidize the personal expenditures of its first families, why do Nigerian budgets earmark billions for the convenience of the first family but talk of “sacrifice” and being “broke” when it comes to giving subsidies to the poor?
The Presidency isn’t the only usurper of subsidies, of course. The crooked and ineffectual National Assembly got a lump sum of N115 Billion in the current budget. There is no breakdown on how this money will be spent.
A recent Daily Trust investigation also showed that “State governments are spending billions on luxury cars for members of their House of Assemblies” even though several of them haven’t paid salaries to their workers for nearly a year. And we learned that Buhari caved in to petrol price increase because of the pressure that was brought to bear on him by state governors who want more money to steal.
Private sector operators (the second layer of my concentric circle) get their own subsidies, too. Apart from the oil cartel that perennially swindles Nigeria with impunity, a recent Senate investigation has uncovered a N447 billion import waiver scam to private sector fat cats from 2011 to 2015. It's just a tip of the iceberg.
Nigeria’s subsidy regime is a classic case of taking coals to Newcastle, that is, giving assistance to people who don't need it and depriving it of people who desperately need it to survive. But I know there are many poor and not so poor Nigerians who will die defending the subsidies for the rich and opposing subsidies for the poor. Such people deserve our pity.
But let’s say this: If members of the Nigeria political class are serious about “sacrificing,” in light of the fact that the country is “broke,” let’s get rid of everyone’s subsidies. It was Mahatma Gandhi who once said, “The world has enough for everyone's need, but not enough for everyone's greed.” We are broke not because of the need of the poor but because of the greed of the rich.