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Celebrating the Death of Reason in Protests and Imprisonment of the Intellect in Nigeria

--Cutting-Edge Analytics--

By: Franklin Otorofani
 Published January 15th, 2012

Powered by the intoxicating energy of fuel subsidy, opportunism is walking naked in its underwear on all fours on the streets of major towns and cities in Nigeria. And good old reason, which directs all logical and rational actions, has fled from the land into exile. In times like these voices of reason would always be drowned out by cacophonous effusions of rabble rousers and political demagogues parading themselves as messianic leaders.  Yet the true voices of reason neither quit nor allow themselves to be drowned out by idle charter and populist pontifications by those seeking to be on the “good” side of the “masses”, regardless of the economics of the issue and the larger question of economic health of the nation that should be paramount in the minds of all patriots.

Oh, that despised word again—patriotism! But wait a minute: Did I hear the NLC leaders calling their strike patriotic? It makes me want to fall over with laughter. Is that a new definition of the word or what?  Grounding the nation’s economy because you want free gas that you don’t produce but must import from other nations is a patriotic duty? Some jokes can be silly and downright right sick, too. But what has that word got to do with Nigerians, anyway? It has long disappeared from the Nigerian lexicon—promptly replaced by the word opportunism. NLC is about opportunism, pure and simple, not patriotism. It is, in fact, incapable of patriotism concerned as it is only with its parochial interests rather than the larger interests of the nation, which is the proper province of the government in power. Please don’t say the word again, because it means nothing in those parts where crass opportunists are hailed as Messiahs, Lords, and Saviors of the masses. Does anybody believe in patriotism in Nigeria? Does anyone in that crowd really want Nigeria to become the next big story in the global competition? Does anyone in that maddening assemblage want the Nigerian energy sector to truly grow up like its counterparts in other parts of the oil producing world? Does anybody in that rabble understand that it takes profit motive to bring investors into the energy sector? Does anybody care or even understand the real issues at stake other than what he or she stand to gain individually from the subsidy?  Does anybody care at all about the big picture?

President Barack Obama is urging his countrymen and women to put in their fair share to help save the United States from economic distress by way of increased taxation for the rich as poor American workers have been maxed out in taxes and can pay no more. And majority of Americans agree with that according to the polls numbers. On his part, President Goodluck Jonathan has proposed 25% cut in the salaries of all public office holders to help the Nigerian economy.  All Jonathan is doing is not imposing taxes, which only few Nigerians pay, but to remove subsidized gas consumption. What is the reaction of the political class? Nigerian lawmakers rushed back from their vacation in a futile attempt to stop Jonathan from moving forward with the plan. They are back to protect their behinds from getting hurt. Personal gain is what is driving this madness. And NLC hailed their action as “patriotic”. Interesting, but I’ll tell NLC what patriotism means. It means sacrificing for your country rather than your country sacrificing for you. It means, in the immortal words of President John F Kennedy, what you can do your country and not what your country can do for you. In other words, it means giving to your country and not about receiving from her. Does that make sense to NLC and the rambling crowd out there in the streets of Abuja and Lagos? If it doesn’t that is what is wrong with Nigeria, not subsidy removal. That no politician is prepared to say this publicly is what is wrong with Nigeria. That everyone is lining up behind NLC rather than face the bitter truth and deal with it is what is wrong with Nigeria. Crass opportunism is what is wrong with Nigeria.

Fuel subsidy means different things to different people, groups, and organizations, including the various governments at different levels. To the government it's about revenue optimization in a nation with a caricature of taxation regime unlike what obtains in both developed and developing countries whose citizens are taxed to their bones, including, I might add, by the way, gas tax, to fund development and social programs that Nigerians so much envy and would want their government to simply copy and paste in the mistaken belief that they are obtained freely with no one paying for them in those countries. To the average Nigerian, however, fuel subsidy is the only benefit he or she thinks he/she enjoys from the blessings of crude oil whether or not it is a fact or fiction or something in between. However, these individuals who are ready to lay down their lives for the sake of subsidy are not in the least interested in the plight of the people where the oil subsidy itself is actually coming from, or, for that matter, the ecological devastation it has wrought on oil bearing communities across the Niger Delta.

But how would you want to lay down your life for what does not belong to you in the first place? What business has a New Yorker or Chicagoan with Texan or Alaskan oil other than to gas up and roll off the gas station? There were times when Americans were paying over $4.00 per gallon for gas including gas tax and even more in Europe, and it was hurting their pockets really bad. But we didn’t see any protests in the streets calling for the removal of the gas tax. When people depend too much on government this is what happens. Somebody is going to jump in here and claim that Americans enjoy subsidies, other than oil. I challenge that individual to name them. Welfare benefits, you say? They are not for everybody. But you’ve got higher education subsidy already in Nigeria. You want proof? Just compare the cost of private and public university education in Nigeria and you will know the difference, or, for that matter compare the cost of higher education abroad to that in Nigeria.  I would much rather we had subsidies in higher education that would drive the nation’s development than having it in gas consumption.

Even if we concede that Europeans and Americans enjoy more social benefits than Nigerians, you would be out of your mind to compare much wealthier nations to a poor, struggling African country like Nigeria. It’s like comparing apples with oranges. Those nations could afford it when they did but the story is moving in the other direction in Europe at this moment with their economies going south.  It’s not much better in the US, either. Welfare benefits are on the chopping block across the Atlantic because they are simply unsustainable in the same way fuel subsidy is unsustainable. So let’s not even go there. I pay my income taxes and Nigerians living abroad pay their income taxes as well as and when due without question. Citizens of developed and developing nations who enjoy any measure of social benefits deserve them because they pay their taxes as and when due. Those benefits are coming from their taxes not from the government as freebies as some would have us believe. It is sheer ignorance, therefore, to imagine that the government is printing money to fund social benefits. That money comes from citizens’ taxes.

I, therefore, have serious issues with a people who don’t pay taxes at all of any description and still want subsidized gas on top of that from the government. The basis of the citizen/state relationship is taxation.  Except for children and the aged, the state has no responsibility for those who don’t pay taxes when they are in position to do so. Who would fund that? Where would the money come from? Oil from Niger Delta? Is somebody kidding us? How many of those in the crowds have discharged their civic responsibilities to the Nigerian state? If you thought that those cretins running around in Abuja carrying slogans and making pious speeches care a hoot about children dying of cholera and diarrhea diseases or pregnant women exposed to the ravages of disease infested creeks and streams poisoned  by crude oil spillages you would be mistaken. If you thought they care about the destruction of the lives and economies of Niger Delta people you are living on Planet Ignorant. They are not concerned about the enormous resources needed to not only make whole those communities if that is still a possibility given the permanency of certain of the damages already done, but to give them some semblance of development. They want the gains and not the pains. The pain of oil production belongs to Niger Deltans but the gains belong to the masses? It doesn’t exactly work that way, people. Fair is square.

All they are interested in is subsidy for the masses as if that would somehow give them jobs, educate their children, provide them quality health care and sound education; put food on their tables and give them the good life that they so cherish but fundamentally unattainable whether or not the entire three-trillion plus federal budget is summarily converted to fuel subsidy budget to placate the gods of labor. It would not make a dent in the living conditions of Nigerians hankering after what they perceive as free lunch. But nothing is free at the end of the day. As the Americans would put: “there ain't no free lunch.” What we think we gain in fuel subsidy, whatever it may be, whether free gas or cheap transportation, has what economists call “opportunity costs” somewhere in the system. And even if the entire budget were to be given out as free lunch in the name of fuel subsidy it would not prevent Nigerians either from complaining bitterly about bad roads, epileptic power supply, poor health services, unemployment, falling standards of education, and all the other social ills that plague the nation that need to be addressed not in piecemeal but massively in a transformative fashion.

Suppose then we stop for a moment, put on our thinking caps, and pose this simple question to ourselves: Do the oil bearing communities whose lands, air, water and entire economies have been destroyed by oil exploration activities deserve rehabilitation, regeneration and development? Put abstractly thus reasonable people would answer in the affirmative. Yet it is not entirely clear to this writer that there are a whole lot of reasonable people out there in the streets chanting the slogan, “On fuel subsidy we stand!”  Reason has been put to flight, deserting the nation. Emotion is the absence of reason. If we grant that these communities deserve these things as indicated above, someone somewhere owes the nation an explanation as to why should the government continue to fritter away a trillion naira annually till the oil dries out on fuel subsidy rather than using proceeds from oil to rehabilitate and develop oil bearing communities?

Why would the man or woman in Sokoto, Zungeru, or Oshogbo, far removed from the curses of oil in Niger Delta be the one to demand the blessings of oil for him or herself rather than the man or woman in Niger Delta? It took BP close to $20 billion to clean up oil spillage in the Gulf of Mexico, USA, in 2010. And that, not including the settlement of class action lawsuits by fishermen and tourist businesses affected, which almost bankrupted the British oil giant. But oil spillages are regular fares in Niger Delta that no one cares about that are decimating oil communities. How many fishermen have been rehabilitated or compensated?  And how many towns and villages have been made whole again in Niger Delta whose inhabitants are still using pit toilets in the 21st century? Somebody has got to provide answers to those questions. This is not about protests. It's about justice. It is in the light of the foregoing that these protests are apt to be seen as being calculated and orchestrated to deny Niger Delta development since part of the savings from the subsidy is earmarked for development projects in the region as it should. Some people think that “Molue” and “Danfo” drivers are better entitled to oil proceeds, who would pass the presumably cheaper cost of motor spirits to them with lower fares than Niger Delta indigenes who are bearing the full brunt of oil exploration activities. This is, of course, is unacceptable proposition and it is not a surprise that Niger Delta leaders are opposed to these utterly misguided and wholly opportunistic, so-called subsidy protests.

But let's leave Niger Delta out of it for a moment and talk about the country as a whole on the basis that the blessings of oil need not be limited to their source per-se but spread throughout the nation so long as Nigeria remains one nation and a going concern even if its curses are highly localized. It does not make a whole lot of sense to me that a thinking, reasonable, and sensible people anywhere on the face of the earth would prefer the subsidization of fuel consumption to the development of good transportation infrastructures in land, sea and air, including rail; sound educational and healthcare facilities, as well as stable power supply. As the economists would readily tell us economics is the study of choices and every economic decision is a choice between or among alternatives. Therefore, when we go out there in the streets chanting “subsidy!” we are making the choice to forgo these alternatives in preference for fuel subsidy. We cannot have it both ways, because we simply cannot eat our cake and have it back. One would think that even a ten-year old would readily appreciate this basic truth. In a world of finite resources, which ipso facto obligates us to make choices between alternatives, opting for fuel subsidy rather than the other alternatives listed above is a grotesquely poor choice indeed. No sane individual would go for subsidy if presented with those stark choices as indicated above. It would take a complete buffoon or a plain lunatic to do otherwise. Or, alternatively, one would have to assume that we could have the subsidy and still have all the other alternatives added to it to make such advocacy a plausible and reasonable proposition. Here again, it would take a delusional soul to imagine such scenario in the first place.

If there can be found one individual out there in the maddening crowd thinking that we could still build first class transportation infrastructure comparable to those seen even in some developing countries like Malaysia, Singapore, Brazil or South Korea; sound educational and healthcare facilities; and massive power plants to power our homes, and offices uninterrupted; and all other incidents of modernity and development with the fuel subsidy in place draining out more than a trillion naira from our national budget with the remainder going for personal emoluments, such an individual should be encouraged to have his head examined for traces of insanity. Enough of this national madness cutting our faces to spite our noses!


Franklin Otorofani is an attorney and public affairs analyst


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