A nation with visionary blind men

 By Casmir Igbokwe

 Published: Sunday, 8 Mar 2009

MY chat with Dr. Douglas Anele the other day was not specifically on Nigeria‘s problems. But somehow, we found ourselves discussing them. We bemoaned the fate of many Nigerians who now contend with Lassa fever, meningitis, and other physical and national ailments. “The heat these days is such that my generator runs till daybreak,” I lamented. Anele hissed and complained of a few other things. My consolation, I told him, was in Vision 20:2020, which would catapult us from a poor nation to one of the 20 industrialised nations in the world. “Can a blind man have vision?” was how Anele summarised the discussion.

I’m tempted to ask the same question, especially now that we are talking of deregulation in the oil industry. Government functionaries and their supporters have argued that the removal of fuel subsidy does not necessarily mean an increase in the prices of petroleum products. Indeed, they say, the price could even come down depending on international market forces.

Over the years, we have continued to hear this type of argument. Chief Olusegun Obasanjo tried spiritedly to enforce full deregulation, but there were strong forces against the move. He embarked on a piecemeal removal, coming up with different excuses each time he increased fuel prices. For instance, in 2002, he increased the price of petrol from N22 a litre to N26 to, according to him, stop illegal bunkering and smuggling of the product. By 2004, the price had climbed to N45 a litre “to ensure constant supply of the product.” In May 2007, Obasanjo increased it again to N75 a litre. But President Umaru Yar‘Adua was forced to bring it down to N70 soon after he assumed office.

When the government reduced the price to N65 a litre last January, organised labour and civil society groups smelt a rat. They felt it was a ploy to engage the full deregulation gear. Now, the whole agenda is becoming clearer.

I’m not totally against deregulation. Subsidy removal, they say, will clip the wings of an oil cartel taking advantage of our poor citizens. Ultimately, we hear, ordinary Nigerians will benefit more and the money realised from the removal of the subsidy would be channelled into developmental projects that would be of benefit to the common man.

This is wonderful. But I ask: When has it become the tradition of our rulers to embark on projects that will benefit the generality of the people? When crude oil was selling above $140 in the international market, what did they do with the proceeds? What have they done with the so-called huge external reserves that appear to be going down now? What have they done to cushion the effects of the global financial crisis on both ordinary and non-ordinary Nigerians?

Elsewhere, governments are reducing taxes, cutting interest rates and empowering the citizens to withstand the shock associated with recession. In Japan, for instance, the parliament just passed legislation to give a cash hand-out to every resident. Under the $20bn plan, most people will reportedly get a minimum of ¥12,000 ($121). Children under 18 and adults over 65 will receive ¥20,000. This is to encourage the citizens to spend and revive the economy.

In the United States, President Barack Obama has also signed into law an economic stimulus plan worth about $787bn. The plan involves a number of measures aimed at boosting the US economy. Some of them are tax cuts and additional spending on infrastructure. Some money were also mapped out to help states with budget deficits so they won’t lay off their employees and to also pay some benefits to the less privileged.

For us in Nigeria, the reverse is the case. Rather than a tax cut, what citizens and companies experience here is an increase in taxation. Rather than a reduction in interest rates (which is as low as 0.5 per cent in a country like the US), what we see here is an increase of over 20 per cent.

The result is that the rate of unemployment has continued to soar, as about 40 million Nigerians slug it out in the job market. Poverty level in the country is also on the rise. In spite of the law banning begging on the streets of Lagos, the phenomenon has not abated.

Right now, Lassa fever, meningitis and other poverty-induced illnesses are ravaging our people. Official estimate puts the number of meningitis cases so far at 5,323. About 333 people have already died. Public hospitals and other health institutions are not adequately equipped to deal with the situation.

Rather than think of how to alleviate the sufferings of the people, the government is planning to increase the sufferings the more. I pity Yar‘Adua because he did not entirely cause the rot in the system. But being the incumbent President, he has to bear the social upheaval that will likely follow the unpopular decisions of the current government.

As it is now, the major social welfare, if not the only one Nigerians enjoy from their government, is the so-called fuel subsidy. The government could remove it only when it has found answers to the questions Nigerians have continued to ask about our comatose refineries. Obasanjo had alleged in 2000 that the previous governments had awarded the Turn Around Maintenance of Kaduna and Port Harcourt refineries to incompetent firms. His solution was to sell those refineries to a company called Bluestar Oil Services Ltd. for $500m. The company withdrew when Nigerians protested the sale.

Nigerians will support this deregulation when they see sincere efforts by the government to improve their lot; when they see potable water flowing from their taps; when they don‘t have to fly to London to attend to their health needs; when their children are sure of getting qualitative education; when good roads occasion a fall in the rate of road accidents; and when the majority of youths are able to get gainful employment.

Until these are done, any attempt to justify fuel subsidy removal will amount to a blind man claiming to have vision.

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