By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.
When I wrote an impassioned article last week about the eye-watering executive extortion of the masses that the recent unwelcome surge in petrol prices represented, I wasn’t under the illusion that my article would inflame the same kind of passions that my 2012 article titled “Fuel Subsidy Removal: Time to Occupy Nigeria” did.
The 2012 article provoked and galvanized the popular mass insurrection that forced the Goodluck Jonathan administration to lower petrol prices. I knew it would be different this year. As I pointed out, “[I] doubt that my appeal will resonate with many people this time around; President Buhari’s tight emotional grip on the northern and southwestern middle class would likely frustrate the formation of the kind of remarkably unexampled pan-Nigerian solidarity that confronted former President Jonathan.”
There were nearly as many people who passionately disagreed with me as there were who agreed with me. Many who disagreed with me privately wrote to say I risked alienating and losing my northern Muslim readers if I continue to come across as opposing President Buhari, who has transmogrified, in the consciousness of many northerners, from a fallible, everyday human to an inerrant, all-knowing demigod.
As I told all such people who expressed this thought to me, it really doesn’t bother me whether or not I have fans. I am not so vain as to so desire the admiration of my readers that I suppress expressing what I am convinced is the truth. My name, Farooq, means one who distinguishes truth from falsehood, a meaning my father never failed to remind me every waking moment of my life when he raised me.
Besides, as Martin Luther King Jr. reminded us, “The saving of our world from pending doom will come, not through the complacent adjustment of the conforming majority, but through the creative maladjustment of a nonconforming minority.” I have never had any anxieties about being in the minority. The history of the progress of ideas tells us that consensus is not always synonymous with the truth.
I have no affiliation with any political figure or any political persuasion. My affiliation is with the truth—and the plight of the poor.
Fortunately for me, the unraveling of the fraud in the recent petrol price hike has already started. I had written an elaborate response to the cornucopia of specious economistic arguments in support of the increase, but Information Minister Lai Mohammed has rendered this unnecessary with his recent confession that the increase was just plain old elite robbery of the poor. “The current problem is not really about subsidy removal,” he said. “It is about the fact that Nigeria is broke. Pure and simple.”
This is the most brutally honest admission I have ever read from a government official in Nigeria’s never-ending petrol price adjustment crisis. As many of us have pointed out in the past, this has never been about “deregulation,” “subsidy removal,” “liberalization,” and such other empty but fancy neo-liberal buzz words whose meanings the utterers themselves obviously don’t even understand.
But we need to dig beyond the surface of Mr. Mohammed’s frank admission. In Nigeria, there is a concentric circle of privilege and subsidy regimes. At the core of this circle are elected and appointed government officials—the president, vice president, ministers, numberless coterie of aides and hangers-on, and so on; members of the National Assembly and their aides; governors, their deputies, commissioners, members of state assemblies, etc.; and local council officials.
At the second layer of the circle are a whole host of private sector intermediaries, including fuel subsidy scammers nicely known as fuel importers, who act in cahoots with key elements (or their representatives) in the core circle to swindle the nation to pay for their privileges. The next layer is composed of middle-class elements of various stripes who are reasonably buffered from the blows of the political and intermediary classes and whose sympathies vacillate between the oppressors and the oppressed depending on their mood. At the peripheral layer of the circle are the masses, the great unwashed, who perpetually writhe in the misery inflicted upon them by people in the first two layers of the circle.
People in the first two layers of the circle have historically been jealously protective of their subsidies. They consume a disproportionate percentage of Nigeria’s resources. Only the remnants get to people at the lower end of the circle. When you hear “Nigeria is broke,” it means the subsidies that finance the inordinately lavish lifestyles of people at the core of the concentric circle of subsidy regime are financially threatened. It means, in essence, that remnants that keep the masses in check in the form of salaries are drying up, which might instigate revolt. So what to do? Tax the poor to pay the poor; rip them off to fund the remnants that keep them in check! That’s why only the poor are called upon to “sacrifice” in moments of economic distress.
This isn’t abstract, conspiratorial theorizing; it’s real. We have all read the leaked memo by Lai Mohammed asking the National Broadcasting Commission to give him a loan of over N13 million naira to go on a junket to China. It was his third such request to an organization that hasn’t paid its security guards for months.
Former Abia State governor Orji Uzor Kalu also recently told newsmen that the terrible state of our economy is a consequence of the irresponsible self-indulgence of state governors. “Most of the governors… don’t even live in their states, honestly. If you look at the books very well, in each trip they make, they will take traveling allowance of N35 million,” he said. Kalu should know. He was one of them.
In less than one week after assuming power, Kogi State governor Yahaya Bello, Premium Times’ recent investigation showed, approved N250 million naira for himself as “security vote” and another N148 million to “furnish” and “renovate” his office, yet Kogi State workers haven’t been paid their salaries for months.
These anecdotes aren’t unique; they are replicated all over Nigeria, including at the federal level. Workers in most states are owed salaries for months on end in spite of federal bailout money they received. Now we are being told states won’t be able to pay salaries if pump price of petrol isn’t jerked up. What salaries?
Well, if by now, you don’t get that the real beneficiaries of subsidies are the political elites and their cronies in the private sector, and that the hike in the pump price of petrol is merely a devious stratagem to rob the poor to pay the poor, you won’t ever get it.
If only the toads ensconced in the inner sanctum of the concentric circle of subsidy regime give up just a little bit of their privileges, there would be no need for the steep fuel price increase being rammed down the throats of people already condemned to the margins of society.