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An Open Letter To President Goodluck Ebele Jonathan From A Group Of Nigerian Writers Living In Austria

Dear Mr. President : We follow the developments in Nigeria regularly because, in addition to Nigeria being our home, we also have a vested interest in the country and its progress. Over the years, the lack of tangible progress in the country has not ceased to appall. The Boko Haram terrors and the fuel subsidy imbroglio since the beginning of the New Year, are a case in point.

Dear Mr. President : We follow the developments in Nigeria regularly because, in addition to Nigeria being our home, we also have a vested interest in the country and its progress. Over the years, the lack of tangible progress in the country has not ceased to appall. The Boko Haram terrors and the fuel subsidy imbroglio since the beginning of the New Year, are a case in point.

Four remarkable aspects of these crises are (1) the lack of decisive response by you and your government to the consistent and blatant carnage unleashed by the terrorist group, Boko Haram, on innocent, unsuspecting, and law-abiding compatriots and foreigners alike, (2) the ill-considered, ill-advised, and abundantly insensitive removal on January 1, 2012,  of the fuel subsidy that more than doubled the pump price of gasoline from N65 to N141 per litre overnight, (3) the unilateral partial reversal on 16 January 2012, of the price of gasoline to N97 per litre, and (4) the deployment of armed troops and tanks on the streets to forestall peaceful and popular protests.

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Mr. President, your decision to remove the fuel subsidy, the abrupt manner by which you removed it, the lack of adequate preparations for the removal, and the magnitude of the impact of the removal all amounted to adding insult to injury; the injury being that Nigerians were/are already suffering inestimable hardship, living for the most part on less than an already miserable $2 a day! And now, your most recent actions---the unilateral, partial reversal of the fuel price policy, and the deployment of armed troops and tanks to intimidate your peaceful compatriots---make it all look as if removing the subsidy in the first place was, for you, an end in itself rather than a means to a more equitable and sustainable growth. But, growth will be difficult to sustain with the level of inflation and hardship the subsidy removal has caused, not even after the partial reinstatement of the subsidy.

Development, Mr. President, requires the transformation of society. With its perennial lack of any meaningful web of useful infrastructures, with its endemic corruption, with its unenviable state of gross insecurity accentuated by Boko Haram, Nigeria is not yet a transformed society by any measure. 

Experience all over the world, especially in developing countries of Africa, has shown repeatedly that, especially in untransformed societies, one should not privatize quickly because the privatization process itself invariably creates a vested interest – with the potential to monopolize the market – because of the accrued financial windfall. So does abrupt, unsequenced deregulation. And just as the monopolies spawned by instant privatization undermine competition, the political process, and the original objectives, deregulation-generated monopolies also precipitate similar outcomes. It seems to us that if Nigeria must deregulate it should do so in sequences. A country like Nigeria should not deregulate too quickly unless it can guarantee that powerful vested interests cannot immediately entrench themselves thereby.

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Your first address to the nation on the present crisis did not convey such a guarantee. Earmarking a colossal amount of money to combat the side effects of the removal of fuel subsidy does not necessarily provide such a guarantee. Your second address on 16 January 2012 to the nation on the crisis did not convey such a guarantee either. The governance practices of past administrations in Nigeria have not suggested the possibility of such a guarantee. 

If the prevailing climate of insecurity in the country contributes to making such a guarantee less possible then you certainly need to work harder on your security policy. As “rent-seeking” is profitable under conditions of insecurity, the corrupt are likely to continue with business-as-usual. Meanwhile and judging from experience, whatever windfall might accrue from removing the subsidy --- partially or totally --- is unlikely to be better appropriated.  

There is an unspoken assumption underlying your policy of fuel subsidy removal. This assumption, deriving from economic theory, is that markets will quickly spring up to meet the needs --- such as providing insurance against the attendant risks, of which there are quite a few --- created by the sudden hike in fuel and commodity prices. But we know that Nigeria does not have a social security system or an unemployment insurance scheme. 

We also know that Nigeria’s private sector, which is not providing these services, is not about to begin to provide them in a country that is yet untransformed. So, the social cost of the fuel subsidy removal in terms of urban and civil unrest, industrial action, unemployment, increased financial burden on those who are lucky to remain employed, increased remittances from the diaspora, anxiety, loss of buying power, reduced consumption and production, etc., is quite considerable and will endure for long.

It is for these reasons that we consider the four policies (or lack thereof) mentioned above as failures. Listening and reading through opinions on both sides of the divide one cannot but come away with the impression that Nigerians, by and large, are not necessarily against the subsidy removal, but that what they needed was a more pragmatic, a more sensitive approach to the removal. Mr. President, Nigerians are not mere statistics; we are, 150 million of us, people, vulnerable people of flesh and blood.

The failure of your administration to reckon with and anticipate the protests and outbursts your subsidy policy precipitated speaks volumes. There is no question that your partial revision of the subsidy policy was a result of the protests and outbursts of Nigerians. While revising the policy partially might have been welcome, doing so unilaterally on your own terms was certainly not. And what is completely unacceptable is your latest handling of the situation: the deployment of armed soldiers and tanks in the streets to intimidate peaceful, non-violent demonstrators exercising nothing other than their fundamental rights of expression. 

There is something utterly repugnant in the sense of proportion and purpose implied by the lack, on the one hand, of a decisive response to the continued carnage unleashed on Nigerian society by the fully armed Boko Haram terrorists, and your decisive, quick deployment, on the other hand, of armed soldiers and tanks in the streets to contain unarmed civilian compatriots peacefully expressing their legitimate rights to disagree.

As concerned Nigerians abroad, we humbly urge your Excellency to seriously rethink, and seriously consider embarking on the following four measures:

1. The immediate removal of the soldiers and their vicious equipments from the midst of civil society;

2. Continued dialogue with the unions until both sides arrive at a mutually acceptable compromise;

3. Outlining a program for a phased implementation of the subsidy removal policy; and 

4. Taking decisive steps to stem the prevailing security threats in the country, and prevent their reoccurrence in the future. 

Chibo Onyeji

Babátólá Alóba

Obiora C-IK Ofoedu

Sarah Udoh-Grossfurthner


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