The Nigerian Harmattan?

by zunguzungu

In the New York Times, Jeffrey Sachs thinks Nigeria has a historic opportunity… to do more or less what he has been telling countries like Nigeria to do for decades now: liberalize their economies, share the pain, and achieve prosperity. Shock Therapy! “I’ve watched nations on the eve of economic takeoff, in Latin America, Eastern Europe and Asia,” he writes. “Optimism is in the air in Abuja, and for good reason”:

“The people feel it. After a sometimes agonizing half-century since independence, Nigeria is on the verge of a takeoff. In my conversations with President Jonathan — who took the oath of office on Sunday — and with government ministers, leading businesspeople and representatives of civil society groups, I felt a firm determination to ensure that this time, in this decade, Nigeria fulfills its potential to become an African economic powerhouse and a member of the world’s leading emerging economies.”

Oh, rapture! Nigeria is finally “taking off,” to throw a decades old cliche on the pile. It can now join the long list of countries that, in some alternate universe, actually benefited from the policies that Sachs and his fellow shock doctors imposed in the 80’s and 90’s. This is an alternate universe Sachs has been living in for some time. Here he is in 1994:

“I really don’t know what’s the matter with the Poles,” the economist, Jeffrey Sachs, said later in a telephone interview. If you listen to Sachs, shock therapy is working in Poland: Its economy is the fastest-growing in Europe, private business is flourishing and life is improving. Yet the Poles, together with their regional neighbors, just keep on complaining.

Those Poles! What a bunch of complainers! I mean, neoliberalism has worked every time, right?

Meanwhile, in Nigeria, optimism in the air:

Can you feel it!? As the “Nigerian Harmattan” gets underway:

“I will not say it is easy, but we are trying to contain it,” said Moses Onireti, a police spokesman in Oyo state, where a dusk-to-dawn curfew was imposed to try to control violence. “These protesters are everywhere, everywhere.”

Gbengba Sesan has great pictures of protests in Lagos in from Day One, Day Two, and Day Three. I find it instructive to compare these photos to the ones in the various photo galleries you’ll find in major newspapers (like the Guardian); they’re powerful photos, but they’re also powerfully shaped and crafted. This one, for instance, was clearly intended to give the impression it gives: scary faceless dudes burning shit.

Anyway, if you want to read commentary from people outside the bubble, I’d suggest you start with Tolu Ogunlesi:

I remember watching Goodluck Jonathan’s speech at the start of his re-election campaign on 18 September, 2010. He promised change: “Let the word go out from this Eagle Square that Jonathan as president in 2011 will herald a new era of transformation of our country.” The canoe-carver’s son who became deputy governor, governor, vice-president and then president, without ever hustling for power, wowed us all with stories of his humble beginnings (a shoeless childhood, studying by the light of kerosene lanterns), his humility, and his seeming accessibility (via Facebook). But that was then.

Today he seems bent on recreating all the obstacles he faced all those decades ago; eager to ensure that as many Nigerians as possible study with lanterns and survive on a single meal a day. How is he doing this? By hurting the most vulnerable using one of the most ubiquitous items in the land: petrol.

And then move on to Okey Ndibe’s “My Vote For Subsidy Removal”:

Did the president expect Nigerians to buy his statement that he “feel[s] the pain that you all feel,” and that he “personally [felt] pained to see the sharp increase in transport fares and the prices of goods and services”? Did even his speechwriter believe that the president shares “the anguish of all persons who had traveled out of their stations, who had to pay more on the return leg of their journeys”?…

Even if there were an excellent case for removing subsidy, what kind of statecraft justified raising fuel prices on the first day of the year? And, with the country still reeling from the Christmas Day bombings that killed and wounded many and shot the nerves of millions, how come Jonathan couldn’t wait for a week or two – even if the case for removing subsidy was unassailable?…

The president and his economic team have never made a strong case for the removal of fuel subsidy. What they’ve done, however, is to brilliantly articulate the necessity to commence a fierce – as opposed to feigned – fight against the monster of corruption and the culture of official waste.

Jonathan and his aides have called the small gang of fuel importers all the terrible names in the dictionary. The presidency has stated that most of these importers have criminally defrauded the rest of us. Nigerians, decimated by these vampires, have no doubt that the cabal steals from them, takes food from their mouths. But then, curiosity of curiosities, Nigerians also know that many of these same leech-importers are friends, allies or associates of the president – and of his aides.

Follow that up with Jeremy Weate’s The Fuel Subsidy Removal Protests for Dummies:

[T]he lived reality of citizens of the Nigerian state is that it provides little or no security, no infrastructure, no education and no employment opportunities (apart from mostly McJobs in the civil service).  Everywhere in Nigeria, the basic elements of civilised existence have to be taken care of house-by-house, compound-by-compound.  You must sink your own borehole for water, buy, install and fuel a generator for power, hire security guards to keep the wolves from the door, pay school fees to ensure your kids get a half-decent education because the public school system is in perpetual meltdown. And to earn enough money to get through the day, you must hustle.

The breakdown of a standard tax and political representation based social contract between citizens and the state in Nigeria is almost entirely a result of the past few decades of the so-called ‘resource curse’.  Earning billions of dollars each year from crude exports, the Nigerian government has no need to rely on tax from individuals or local companies; tax and royalty payments from the international oil companies (as well as historically, loans from international financial institutions) have been sufficient to fund the annual budget at all levels of government.  For the past few decades, cheap fuel has therefore been the only form of social contract between ordinary Nigerians and the state and the principle lever to control inflation during times of rising oil prices.  With most Nigerians subsisting on US$2 or less, subsidised fuel has also been a survival mechanism, making life only just bearable.

It was therefore highly surprising to Nigerians to find out that the fuel subsidy had been removed on January 1st and that the price regulating body under the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) – the PPPRA – had more than doubled the price of petrol overnight.  No one had been given warning.  The expectation was that the subsidy would be removed at the earliest in April.  The strong suspicion is that following on from Christine Lagarde’s visit to Nigeria in late December, the government had accelerated its plans.  From the views of key government figures, it’s easy to see how Nigeria acceded to IMF pressure with little or no resistance.  The Finance Minister, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, has repeatedly stated that removing the fuel subsidy would only hurt the affluent car-owning population, forgetting how central the price of fuel is to almost every basic aspect of life here.   Meanwhile, the Governor of the Central Bank, Sanusi Lamido Sanusi, has stated that removal of the subsidy would only have a short-term inflationary effect.  With opinions like this, the IMF was walking into an open door.

And then Gbengba Sesan:

Don’t forget, an object will continue in a state of rest, or constant uniform motion, unless otherwise acted upon by a force. I think the ongoing set of peaceful, unbelievably unifying, surprisingly action-based and increasingly focused #OccupyNigeria protests provide an opportunity to use the Nigerian reset button. The future I desire for the 2 children Temi and I will raise is much more like We Don Win, where citizens can trust government even when life happens, but let me avoid spoilers. Watch, and tell me if you’re not motivated to join the peaceful protests that were triggered by the ill-advised (and now terribly managed) removal of fuel subsidy on January 1, 2011.

The issues are bigger than subsidy (or deregulation as Abuja now suddenly prefers), it is an opportune moment in Nigeria’s history when all stakeholders can work towards the Nigeria of our dreams. In a democracy, the people matter, and the people are now saying that it’s time to cut government waste, fight corruption and improve the quality of governance, before toying with the only delicate chord that represents the nearly non-existent citizen-government social contract. This is the message I have heard ringing through the various social media reports from the #OccupyNigeria protests across Nigeria, and it’s time for Abuja to lead by example by hitting thereset button first. The best future can only come with huge respect for people power!

As Nicholas Ibekwe, an organizer of an Occupy Nigeria protest in London puts it:

Most organisers of the protest believe that removal of subsidy is not a bad thing. And I share that sentiment as well. However, the removal of subsidy in Nigeria is not about economics, it is mostly about trust, corruption and timing. The Nigerian government has not given the ordinary Nigerian reason to trust it. The same argument that the present government is propagating is what previous governments have given and what we have found is that the money accrued through subsidy ends up in private pockets rather than being used for the benefit of the people. This government particularly, has shown by its wasteful nature that it cannot be trusted with money.

Let me give you some statistics: The President and Vice president have budgeted N1 billion for feeding this year. What that translates to is they spend more than N2.7 million naira for food everyday. And you are asking the people to suffer? That is not just unfair, it is evil. Can you honestly trust a President who earmarks 300M for kitchen utensils and removes fuel subsidy under the story that he is saving money for Nigeria? This same government has emptied the the treasury since it came into office and they want us to trust them with money again? No. Nigerians are not fools. Let the government start by cutting its frivolous spending drastically then it can talk to Nigerian about subsidy removal.

The government should block the leakages at its end first. Why take away 1.3trillion fuel subsidy from 160 million Nigerians when 469 legislators take 1.12trillion annually as salary and allowance! It must be brave to fight corruption. The so-called Cabal should be kicked out. Nigerians should not be made to finance the illegal activities of a corrupt few. The timing is also wrong. This was an ambush on the Nigerian people. Many people are stranded in their villages after the holiday because they cannot afford to come back home after transport fare went up by more that 200%.

Finally, Famous Nigerian Writers (“Three Survivors of the Pioneering Writer/Teacher Generation of a half-century, post-Independence Nigeria, in her continuous struggle for a viable Nation-Being”), wrote a statement in support:

We call upon the government to re-think this measure. We warn the Security forces to recall that their primary duty is to protect all citizens, and most especially those in opposition to government policies, in the exercise of their democratic rights. We cannot turn a blind eye to the killing of our fellow citizens even before the earliest manifestation of popular discontent gets under way. The first single Security notch on the gun is always the signal for a countdown towards two, then three, moving to four figure statistics in the struggle for human dignity. Syria is our current cautionary instance. We know how Libya ended.

The Security arms of government should recognise where their urgent and immediate capabilities and competence are needed, where the greatest threat to nationhood since the Nigerian Civil War has been gloatingly launched, and with a daily toll of casualties of the innocent. We call upon the Nigerian government to intensify its obligations to protect the citizenry it claims to govern. The basic professional strategy of preventive policing, which appears no longer in fashion, must be re-activated. Security may appear less glamorous than the moral imposition that is articulated in appeals such as this, but it is nonetheless a crucial partner in the very existence of civil existence and the preservation of civic dignity. Necessary measures to curb the activities of a homicidal few, no matter under what name, faceless or disguised, whose minds have been warped beyond recovery, must be taken, and without flinching. Public evidence of the effectiveness of such measures makes our call for restraint meaningful. It reduces the stress placed daily on a people’s aspirations to a visionary fortitude, and reinforces the resolve for an engagement under forbearance in the ultimate pursuit of social justice as the foundation of peaceful co-existence.