By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.
Language is a powerful tool often used by the ruling elite to control narratives and to structure and constrain the thought-process of subordinate groups in the society. When Italian theorist Antonio Gramsci theorized the concept of hegemony as the way the ruling classes perpetrate their dominance by making their values seem “natural” and “common sense,” which encourages oppressed people to identify with their oppressors, he didn’t contend with the power of language to achieve this goal.
The Nigerian ruling elite, primitive and backward as they are, have been successful in manipulating language in the unending fuel subsidy removal debacles. They have stripped “deregulation” of any meaning, succeeded in making “subsidy” a bad word, deflected attention from their rank incompetence and greed, and encouraged oppressed people to authorize and consent to their own dehumanization. Some of the loudest defenders of the removal of fuel subsidies for the poor and the preservation of unearned subsidies for the rich are people who are barely surviving, people who are on the edge of existence.
It is either that the Nigerian elite are incredibly artful masters of hegemonic narrative construction or that Nigerians are some of the dumbest, most malleable people on earth. It is difficult to say which is the case, but the average IQ in Nigeria is 67, which is considered mental retardation in other parts of the world. I regret to say that the quality of thought of the people who have become complicit in their own fleecing by this government leaves little doubt that there is an epidemic of mental retardation in Nigeria, which is a topic for another day.
So the Nigerian ruling elite probably don’t deserve much credit for artful hegemonic manipulation through language after all. When you have a bunch of mentally retarded people who have a deeply emotional, cult-like investment in a political figure, and ignore, even excuse, his oppression of them, they are drawn to their own self-annihilation like a moth to a flame. That means they are easy to brainwash.
Nevertheless, there are a few smart (but well-off) people who seem genuinely seduced by the trickery and propaganda that the Buhari government has invoked to justify the shirking of its basic responsibility to care for its citizen through the unjustified and irresponsible hike in petrol prices. I will unpack some of this today.
George Orwell is probably the best-known author to call attention to the strategies of deception deployed in political language by people in government. In his famous 1946 essay titled “Politics and the English Language,” Orwell said, “In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of the political parties.
“Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenseless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements. Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them.”
You would think Orwell was describing Ibe Kachikwu’s convoluted defense of the fuel price increase during a recent appearance on Channel TV’s Sunrise program. "I try not to get into the semantics of deregulation or no deregulation but the reality is that we are liberalizing, we are freeing up the economy, and we are freeing up the business,” he said. "I hear people want to have an argument about whether it is full deregulation or partial deregulation but at the end of the day, the objective is what was achieved with diesel or AGO, which is that the government will have less control over the business and individuals will be free to compete so that Nigerians will have the advantage of that competition."
You are either deregulating or you are not. There is no in-between. And the semantics of it is crucial. Kachikwi is deflecting debates about exactly what the hell this government is doing because the government and its agents have no earthly clue what they are doing. Deregulation means freedom from government regulations. Yet, the government fixes the price of petrol and says it will enforce compliance with its price regulation. That’s insane. In a deregulated petrol price regime, the first government agency that should be disbanded is the fraudulent Petroleum Products Pricing Regulatory Agency (PPPRA), which is paradoxically invested with the task of monitoring compliance with government’s “deregulation” policy. A self-described “regulatory” agency is now monitoring deregulation. Unbelievable! When governmental deceit reaches its apogee, words and meaning soon part company. That's why Kachikwu doesn't want to get caught up in the "semantics," i.e., meaning of the fraud he is defending.
Now, “subsidy” has been made to look like a dirty word in Nigeria. There has been a remarkable shift in the attitude of Nigerians toward subsidy. From the 1970s up to the early and mid-2000s, people demanded for it as a matter of right, as government’s part of the bargain in the contract between the rulers and the ruled. Now, even people who oppose the current increase in petrol prices preface their opposition by saying that subsidy is bad and unsustainable in the long run, but that the “timing” of its withdrawal is the issue. Wow! Government has so succeeded in inflicting emotional violence on its citizen through sustained manipulative and deceitful language that everyone, or almost everyone, now feels guilty about expecting subsidy from government.
Well, like I said in one of my Facebook status updates, subsidy isn’t just a moral imperative; it’s also an existential and economic necessity. If people are left to grapple with the smoldering violence of unchecked capitalism, they will either die off (if they are stupid and docile) or revolt against the source of their misery (if they are smart and active).
Every responsible government in the world subsidizes the products its citizens use to survive. State governments in America collectively spend $10 billion to subsidize the fuel consumption of their citizens. (Read my Saturday column for details). The American government also spends $20 billion every year to subsidize agriculture in what is called "farm income stabilization." That’s why food is dirt cheap here. And we are talking of the world’s wealthiest country.
Interestingly, nobody talks about the subsidy the Nigerian elite enjoy without the slightest tinge of guilt. A way bigger waste than the “waste” of petrol subsidy is the humongous amounts we expend monthly to subsidize the obscene opulence that Nigeria’s political elite—from the president down to a councilor—luxuriate in. Nigerian political elite are the most remunerated elites in the world. They even earn more perks than their American counterparts. But no one is talking about this subsidy. Only the comparatively miserly “subsidy” that makes life just a little easier for the common people is subject to scrutiny.
While the Nigerian treasury subsidizes the epicurean pleasures of the political elite, Ibe Kachikwu and other clueless, out-of-touch, self-important bureaucrats, talk of “palliatives” for the common people. They apparently don’t have a clue what “palliative” means or they won’t use it. A palliative is a remedy that merely lessens a pain without ever curing it.
Well, let me leave the reader with these stats I shared with my Facebook friends and followers in order to get a sense of the naked injustice the Buhari government is struggling to clothe with deceitful language.
Among OPEC countries, Nigerians pay the most for petrol. In Saudi Arabia a gallon (i.e. 4 litres) of petrol goes for $0.64. In Venezuela it is $0.38. In Russia it is $0.63. In Algeria, Angola, Ecuador, Iran, Iraq, and Kuwait, it costs less than $1. In Qatar it is $1.26. In the United Arab Emirates it is $1.77. In Canada it is $2. In Nigeria it is $3, which is sure to increase with the impending devaluation of the naira.
Now, look at this: the minimum wage in Algeria is $170 per month; in Venezuela it is $89 per month; in Saudi Arabia it is $720 per month; in Angola it is $90.53 per month; in Russia it is $95 per month; in Ecuador, it is $427 per month; In Iran it is $215; in Iraq it is $214 per month; In Kuwait it is $3,650 per month, and their Congress has proposed to raise it to $5,300 per month; etc. Qatar and UAE have no official minimum wage but they live really well. At the official exchange 199 to a dollar, Nigeria’s monthly minimum wage is $90. Go figure.