Odoh Diego Okenyodo
In the wake of the fuel subsidy removal protests in 2012, many names were created to reflect the rave of the historical moment which was the protests against the hike in prices. One of those names was Subsideen which was a play on the Yoruba Muslim name Shamsudeen. At the time, the trigger for the protests was an increment in fuel price from 67 Naira per litre; now in 2023, civil society leaders are prefacing their protests with a demand for a reversal to the price of 167 Naira per litre. Times have changed. Whoever the child was that got named Subsideen, in memory of that unforgettable protest, that child deserves an apology.
A child named that way in 2012 is likely to be 11 years old now (if they survived all that Nigeria has thrown their way) and should have already asked what their name means or the origin and supposed nobility of the name. Unsettled, parents would have told the child that the name came as a result of protests over a purported removal of subsidy. Many subsidy removals later we are still crying for reverting to prices higher than we fought against. So why is this happening? And, should this be happening?
Subsidy removal itself is not the subject of our collective misgivings because we have been subsidising many citizens (and even non-citizens like Americans, Chinese, Europeans, and any non-Black people, or even bleached ones) who don’t deserve a subsidy. Many of these other subsidy beneficiaries make the laws and conjure up the policies and regulations around the laws. Often those people have a built-in app for holding the mass of Nigerians in contempt. We also subsidise the very many middle-class Nigerians who do nothing but write highfalutin English on the pages of the newspapers or speak them on the television too. Like me! (You reading this, you think you pay as much for policing as the young person in your neighbourhood who has an iPhone and wears dreadlocks? Check in the detention centres of the nearest police station to find out.)
If subsidy were such a bad thing, why are we subsidising the ostentatious lifestyles of individuals in government? We buy them cars they could never dream of buying nor fueling, and they are not monitoring officers inspecting projects in the field. Why are we subsidising their greed? I do not understand this point. We do know that many people want to live large; they want to go on holidays or they want to go abroad for medical treatment, and they cannot afford it. They are government officials. They are political office holders. They are relatives of these afore-named people. When did we decide that so long as you are a government official or related to them Nigeria can afford to subsidise this luxury? We never did. And we have to have this conversation now.
One of the luxuries we fund is the luxury of owning refineries that account for no drop of crude oil being refined in or consumed in Nigeria. It is the luxury of desiring to employ people and keep the labour unions happy but not being willing to create genuine jobs that can absorb those highly qualified and willing persons. Instead of committing these highly trained staff members of the refineries to another trade or another line of work, we insist on keeping them in paid employment for absolutely doing nothing as far as the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) Limited is concerned because we are not producing anything from the refineries.
Recent newspaper reports show that between 2010 and 2020, we spent on average $10bn on those refineries that refined no drop of crude. That was $1bn every year or N740bn equivalent every year for this. It’s so unthinkable that we are all complicit in this lie about creating jobs through those moribund organisations. Yet these people deserve to be paid because the government cannot afford to create more unemployment.
But since when has the Nigerian government started frowning at unemployment? The figures for that aspect of data are very vibrant with negativity and can win the Olympics for it. Many people have gone to school and are unemployed, 41% of them, according to the National Bureau of Statistics. That high figure is an increase, not a drop. This is from the government agency that is paid to gather data, analyse it, and for the most part, we expect that if there’s any way for them to tone down the bad figures, they would. But the statistics are not palatable. And we see.
Sometimes I’m amazed at how we love lying to ourselves as a country. For instance, President Bola Ahmed Tinubu made an announcement that he had cancelled subsidy and we all have gone on as if this was breaking news. BAT cannot see that he was not the one who removed subsidy? President Muhammadu Buhari and his parliament had removed subsidy by not budgeting for it beyond June 2023. President Bola Tinubu’s pronouncement on May 29 2023 was just a redundant statement of fact. The Appropriation Act 2023 is an extant law of the Federation of Nigeria and it did not make provision for subsidy, thus it had removed subsidy in 2022.
When analysts say as a matter of fact that Tinubu removed the subsidy, they are not acknowledging the fact that if Tinubu wanted subsidy, he was supposed to either repeal/amend the Appropriation Act 2023 and reintroduce a budget line for it, or straight out go for an illegality which is to spend money that was not appropriated. Of course, his predecessor and estranged political mentee did a lot of that. When Nigerian analysts and newspaper columnists say that President Bola Ahmed Tinubu removed subsidy by his May 29 pronouncement, in one corner of my head, I think they are urging him to tread the path of illegality in the sense that he should either use some powers that the constitution does not confer on him or that he should not see himself as someone who is introducing what has been taken out, but he should see himself as someone continuing to do something that has already been discontinued by a previous administration largely. (I’m confused. Apologies for the long-winding sentence, but that is how Nigeria makes you feel.)
But what’s my point coming back to Subsideen, the young boy who should be 11 years old now? I think that because there was euphoria around subsidy, the argument civil society made in 2012 is still valid to this day. (I was central to the creation and management of the blog we created for marshalling our arguments then, and you can still read them here: https://65naira.blogspot.com/). One such argument is that if the subsidy is the most vilified thing it is, should we not remove it on every product and for every stratum of society first of all?
The second point is, What amounts to a subsidy? (Read this piece that asked about it https://65naira.blogspot.com/2012/01/real-cost-of-nigerian-petroleum.html). How much refining was happening from home? How much petroleum products were we consuming? How much did we need to import? But since the last question is always going to be Pandora’s Box because we will never know how much we consume due to the absence of electricity and the absence of sincerity, we have largely agreed that the subsidy should be removed. The only thing the nation has not agreed upon is that subsidy should not be removed on just petroleum products, it should be removed on the lifestyles of government officials; it should be removed on the running style of government.
If the government is interested in creating jobs and being known as an organisation that supported the creation of jobs it should stop being an employer of Labour when it does not need to and put the money in the places where it can support the private sector and provide the things that are of common good so that the private sector can provide employment. However, we differ with many people in what we think that the government should have a hand in: good roads and infrastructure for the common good; steady electricity, good education up to university level, providing potable water, reliable and unsellable justice system and safety and security for citizens, as well as health. But these are exactly the places that have been privatised for those who have been able to steal from the government and provide for themselves as if they are superhumans. Good schools are now either outside of Nigeria or the nearly good ones are for the highest bidders and they are not on the minimum wage salary scale.
The task before us before is to latch onto this opportunity provided by the fuel price hike resulting from Tinubu’s unnecessary pronouncement of subsidy removal to have holistic conversations about the subsidies that we have been granting different segments of society. And then remove them when applicable, and say clearly to Subsideen, the little boy, that his name was not in vain: there was a protest against the removal of subsidy, but it led to the removal of subsidy for all. That would be a worthwhile achievement for the Class of 2012 Subsidy Removal Activists.
To cap the interesting times we live in, imagine that the Governors who went to court over naira swap policy earlier this year because it was causing untold hardship for Nigerians now have gone to town to praise Tinubu for the consequences of his unprovoked wounds being inflicted on all Nigerians. The Nigerian Governors’ Forum (NGF), led by its chairman, AbdulRahman AbdulRazaq of Kwara State, at the State House, expressed happiness with “the President’s subsidy-removal decision, all-inclusive leadership and statesmanship.” This one, I know Subsideen will disagree with. Vehemently.