It has been a long time since anyone witnessed the unprecedented wave of popular uprising that followed the Jonathan Government’s decision to remove fuel subsidies.
The sustained momentum of the protests and the global nature of their expression came as a surprise to the Government. On the streets of Lagos, Port Harcourt, Kaduna, Kano, Abuja, Ibadan and all across Nigeria, men, women, boys and girls stood up to be counted. Nigerians and friends of the Nigerian people in Johannesburg, Sydney, New York, Washington DC, Chicago, Los Angeles and every major world capital joined in the Occupy Nigeria Struggle, picketing Nigerian embassies and government sponsored “Town-Halls” meetings convened to provide international cover for the regime.
The government’s argument for fuel subsidy removal came down to four core points that ranged from the ridiculous to the absolutely absurd. The arguments and the counterpoints to them are worth repeating:
1. Eliminating Subsidies will Reduce smuggling: the government’s case was that subsides encouraged cross border smuggling and subsidized Nigerian fuel was being sold in other African nations. This is an absurd claim. Firstly, the Nigerian government was admitting it had no control over the nation’s borders, a not very reassuring position to take given the links between the current Boko Haram crisis and trans border illegal movements in persons and weapons. Secondly, the idea that an army of Nigerian smugglers are moving Jerry cans of fuel on their heads to Chad, Niger, Benin and Cameroon is simply ludicrous. And if this smuggling is being done not one “Jerry-Can” at a time, but in some more sophisticated manner – via midsized oil tankers using land or sea routes - why should the Nigerian people be made to suffer for the ineptitude of their government and its agencies?
2. Diverting subsidies from the Consumer to the Productive Sector will Provide Economic and Job Growth: This claim, which I first heard articulated by the Minister of State for Foreign Affairs in a “Town-Hall” that was shut down by the “Occupy Nigeria Chicago” group, subsists on the absurd argument that subsidies are an investment in the consumer side of the economy, and that no productive outcomes come out of such investments.
This is the discredited supply side, trickle-down economics nonsense that is the standard fare of the IMF, World Bank and Conservative Politics that caters to the elitist 1% at the expense of the masses. Look at where that philosophy has put the nations that practiced it in the West today? All they have to show for that discredited economic policy model is a lengthy recession, a global economy that continues to wallow in the doldrums and a sluggish path to recovery. More troubling is that argument’s dismissal of the real pain of the Nigerian people, the derisive description of the life-saving role that subsidies provide in a nation where majority get by with less than a dollar a day, where transportation is necessary because the poor have been priced out of the city centers where they work. This argument misses the point that beyond using the subsidies to support transportation costs, the Nigerian masses are also diverting them to productive ends. The Minister obviously has never seen the millions of “I better Pass My Neighbor” petrol generators in Nigeria, chugging along, being used by the Nigerian masses to provide power for charging cellphones, powering computers, providing power to artisans plying their trade late into the night. The idea that subsidy removal will lead to the diversion of funds to policies that fund job creation is also laughable. Where are the jobs created from subsidy removals implemented in the last two decades? They are non-existent, and there is little reason to believe that things will be any different this time.
3. Removing Subsidies will Encourage Investment in the Petroleum Sector: The government claims that subsidies are the main reason why there are no investments in the petroleum sector. This is an outright falsehood. Investors want stability and certainty – and can care less about whether or not a government grants its people subsidies. Unlike the Communications sector, where the Telecommunications Act provides clarity on the sector and spells out the terms of engagement for would-be investors, Nigeria has no similar law for the petroleum sector. It is the inability to pass the Petroleum Industry Bill that has stifled investments in the Oil Sector, not subsidies. Countries like Venezuela that continue to heavily subsidize petroleum products have no issues with investments. So, it is the lack of policy clarity and not fuel subsidies that is stifling investment. The government should muster the political will to pass the Petroleum Industry Bill (PIB) into law, and see whether the sector will not see the type of boom that occurred in the Telecommunications sector.
4. Subsidies encourage Corruption: This is the most insulting argument of all. Subsidies given to the Nigerian people remain the only actual monies that cannot be corruptly embezzled. There might be corruption in the administration of the subsidy program, there might be falsification of imported fuel volumes, and all the other gimmicks that the players in the sector have come up with, but there is often an inevitable paper trail left behind that can be readily accessed by agencies like the EFCC and ICPC. Why should the Nigerian people have to suffer for their government’s inability to tackle corruption?
The protests ultimately were not about trading points and counterpoints.
They were about making a statement. We finally found our voice and tested out new methods for prosecuting the struggle for economic, political and social rights. Twitter, Facebook, Blackberry Messenger, SMS texting and other social media tools were put to use for the first time in a Nigerian struggle, and the results were amazing. In global capitals, Nigerian officials who had travelled down to address sycophantic crowds were shocked to find “Occupy Nigeria” activists turning up at the last minute, aided by social media reports about the events.
A new generation of Nigerian activists have come into their own. It was great to see Femi and Seun Kuti lend their voices to the struggle the same way their father, the great Fela once did. No longer will any Government underestimate the resolve of the Nigerian people. We may suffer and smile, but by “Occupying Nigeria”, we demonstrated that when push comes to shove, when the future of our families is being pilfered away by corrupt politicians and public servants, when our right to life and economic access is being systematically shut down by an insensitive government, we will fight back. By coordinating the local and international struggle, we have finally found a way to give global urgency to the stifled voices of the Nigerian masses. Despite the eventual capitulation of the leadership of labor to the Government, the Nigerian people made their point loud and clear, and we live to fight another day!