By Farooq .A. Kperogi
A speculative news story from The Cable about President Bola Ahmed Tinubu considering a temporary restoration of petrol subsidies in light of the current unspeakable adversity that Nigerians are going through trended early this week. If it’s true, it’s commendable, but on Thursday Tinubu doubled down on his decision to remove subsidies, saying his government was rolling out measures to palliate the pain of his policy. Well, that’s not a good sign. Palliatives only temporarily lessen a pain without ever curing it.
Anyone who has followed my writing knows that I’m an uncompromising defender of subsidies (including—in fact, especially— fuel subsidies) and a fierce antagonist of proponents of the elimination of subsidies. It doesn’t matter how much I regard you; I draw the line when you justify cruel governmental irresponsibility deviously euphemized as “removal of subsidies.”
For starters, maybe we should stop using the word “subsidy” since the word’s semantic properties have been hijacked by cold, cruel wretches in and out of government. Subsidy, shorn of all its pretensions, basically means “government assistance.” It isn’t the horrible evil that conservative ideologues want you to think it is.
In a deeply communal society like Nigeria where assisting people less privileged than we are is a core cultural expectation, let’s see how government officials and their flunkies in the media can publicly justify saying “government assistance” in and of itself is bad and should be denied to people who need it because it’s expensive and because people who are tasked with dispensing it are corrupt.
Would a responsible father stop giving assistance to his children—or his relatives— because the people he hired as suppliers of the assistance embezzle some or most of it? No, he would punish the suppliers and then find more foolproof ways to administer the assistance without bankrupting himself.
In any case, how many dodgy oil marketers who ripped off the country have been brought to justice? “Subsidy thieves” whose crookedness has been invoked as a justification for removing fuel subsidies aren’t disembodied spirits from outer space. They are Nigerians who are intimately known to people in government—and whose theft is assisted by people in government. There is always a relationship between increases in the amount of fuel subsidy payments and the approach of general elections.
If governments don’t extend assistance to citizens on whose behalf they exist, we might as well live in anarchy. Right now, in Nigeria, the government exists only for the rich and for the powerful. For everyone else, it is unvarnished anarchism.
I talk to people in Nigeria every single day. Because the state is being withdrawn, people are being exposed to the full fury of the elements, and they’re losing the will to live. Their self-esteem and sense of personhood are in tatters—in more ways than has ever been the case.
But all that neoliberal apologists in Nigeria do is regurgitate the racist, impractical, flyblown, ill-digested talking points that the World Bank, the IMF, and American conservative think tanks have fed them with.
They see sobering, indisputable evidence of the abject failure and cruelty of the economic prescriptions their masters in the West have imposed on developing countries but, like preprogrammed robots, all they do is repeat the discredited and unworkable ideological dogmas they have memorized.
They are ideological zombies who have a fixed frame into which they fit everything. If things don’t fit, they force or ignore them. That’s why they come across as unfeeling, sadistic ideologues.
We’re talking here about real, living, breathing human beings in Nigeria who’re dying, who’re being suffocated because of the withdrawal of the state.
America is the belly of the capitalist beast, and I live in it. None of the mantras neoliberal apologists in Nigeria regurgitate on TV work here.
In every functional society, the government helps the poor and the middle class. The United States subsidizes petrol consumption with up to $50 billion per annum. That’s why petrol is cheaper in many parts of America today than it is in Nigeria. With a minimum wage of at least $1,500 a month, Americans are paying less for petrol than Nigeria with a minimum wage of $60 per month.
America also has unemployment benefits for people who lose their jobs; free money for food (called food stamps) for the desperately poor and the unemployable; free money for citizens, permanent residents, and other legal residents during recessions so people can spend money to regenerate the economy; free medical care for the poor and the aged; and so on.
It’s only Third World countries that the IMF and the World Bank recommend soulless, conscienceless, laissez-faire capitalism for and, because our leaders are sadists and mean-spirited and many followers are clueless and ignorant, they embrace their self-immolation with smiles and pride.
I have little patience with people who are insensitive to the suffering of ordinary, vulnerable people in society because I grew up in poverty myself and know what it means to be poor. I know for a fact that if I were to come of age in this time of the removal of subsidies from everything, I would not be where I am today. So many people’s futures are being sacrificed right now.
Tuition fees are being quadrupled across the country from secondary schools to universities at a time when every subsidy is being removed, when new taxes are being introduced, but when salaries remain stagnant. That can’t sit well with me.
I always remember where I come from and won’t ever throw the poor under the bus just because I’m no longer poor. I’ll always fight anyone, no matter who he or she is, who wants to burn the poor— or wants to defend the burning of the poor.
The idea that the government needs to save money from the removal of fuel subsidies to build infrastructure and develop other sectors of the country is a cop-out. Governments in Nigeria have no record of probity in the use of public funds. But, somehow, some Nigerians have been persuaded that money realized from the removal of subsidies will be exempt from the corruption that is the fate of all public money.
Agreeing with the propaganda that subsidies are bad and should be removed to save money for infrastructure is the severest form of self-annihilating mass hypnotism I’ve seen in my life.
The truth is that more people are being sunk into absolute poverty because of the removal of fuel subsidies, and many more will sink even further in the coming months and years. Ignorant Nigerian neoliberal ideologues say they don’t trust the government to efficiently give subsidies to the poor, but they apparently have no problems with the subsidies people in government give to themselves.
In fact, as Tinubu implied when he said he was asked to take his “share” from the subsidy removal windfall, subsidy removal often means no more than taking away from the poor to expand the wealth and luxuries of people in government. The money is never used for anything that benefits the nation. It’s just more money for the elite to steal.
If defenders of anti-people, right-wing economics can devote just half the energy of their anti-subsidy masturbations to also fight the unfair subsidies for the rich, we would get somewhere. But it’s easier to fight the poor because they’re defenseless and there is no risk to that than to attack the privileges of the rich because that might come with risks to the source of livelihood of our new neoliberal evangelists.
No one talks of the drain on the economy that the National Assembly constitutes. No one cares that Nigeria maintains 10 aircraft in the presidential air fleet at the cost of billions of naira in maintenance cost even though Britain, which is far richer than Nigeria, had no dedicated fleet of aircraft for its prime minister until 2016 when a plane was purchased for the office of the Prime Minister (and “other ministers and senior members of the royal family when they travel on official engagements”) at the cost of $15 million.
Note that, according to official records, it cost about $15 million between May and November in 2016 to maintain Nigeria’s presidential air fleet.
Besides, hundreds of billions are allocated every year to finance the feeding, travel, medical bills, brand new cars, and even sewage disposal of people in the presidency.
Now compare that to America, the world’s wealthiest nation. American presidents pay for their own food from their pockets.
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?
Former New York state governor Mario Cuomo once said, “You campaign in poetry. You govern in prose.” In the 2023 election, all the major—and even minor—presidential candidates campaigned in cruelty, not in poetry. They all said they would eliminate government assistance for the poor if they were elected. They got loud ovations from their clueless supporters. Now Tinubu is governing in the same cruelty he campaigned in.
The truth is that if either Atiku or Obi had won, Nigerians would be going through exactly what they’re going through now. This consideration modulates my anger toward Tinubu. Tinubu isn’t the enemy; the enemy is the pernicious neoliberal ideology that has percolated deep into the recesses of Nigeria.
A friend said to me a few days ago that Nigeria should constitutionalize the criminalization of neoliberal economics. I agree. Nigerians are not guinea pigs for racist economic experiments.