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Nigeria’s Savaged Poor By Okey Ndibe

May 19, 2016

Before the 2015 presidential election, Candidate Muhammadu Buhari essentially advertised himself as a magician. Even though oil prices were tumbling, Mr. Buhari promised to pay N5000 a month to unemployed youth, make the country more secure, fix the perennial electric power crisis, root out corruption, strengthen the naira against the dollar, and reduce the price per liter of fuel.

Once elected, Mr. Buhari began a serial retreat from his promises. Nigeria’s hapless youth have received no cash. Boko Haram may have been weakened in the northeast, but heavily armed herdsmen have maimed and killed and ramped up Nigeria’s violence quotient. And—thanks to the administration’s hectoring tone and strong-arm tactics—the southeast and oil-rich Niger Delta have become highly volatile. Power outages are as bad as ever, and arguably worse. The war against corruption has targeted some well-known persons, among them Senate President Bukola Saraki, former National Security Adviser Sambo Dasuki, and the spokesman of the opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), Olisa Metuh. Even so, the war appears imperiled in several ways. 

One is Mr. Buhari’s failure to device a fresh, innovative approach to combating corruption. The cases currently in court are making plodding progress—and are likely to drag on. Given the sheer number of suspects out there, the lesson is that the prosecutorial route is not particularly promising. Besides, as I suggested shortly after his inauguration, Mr. Buhari is mired in an ethical bind: as some of the financiers of his campaign are perceived as plunderers of public funds. More troubling still is that the president has paid scant attention to ways of plugging the loopholes that permit public officials and their cohorts to loot funds. What we have, then, is a policy of patching a system that demands an overhaul.

Mr. Buhari’s economic policy, running the gamut from protectionism to an orientation towards China and Saudi Arabia, sends opaque or confusing signals. For months, the president had adamantly refused to contemplate the devaluation of the naira. Yet, there were media speculations last week that he’d made a volte-face on the matter. 

Last week, President Buhari made a significant renunciation of his campaign pledge when his administration announced a sharp increase in fuel price—from N86.5 a liter to N145 per liter. That’s a whooping 67 percent increase. 

That increase came despite a global trend of falling fuel prices. It placed an untenable burden on the poorest segment of the Nigerian population—low-earning workers, the unemployed and farmers. In signing off on it, Mr. Buhari showed himself to be no different from his indifferent predecessors in office. Were the president attentive to the plight of economically devastated Nigerians, he would have demonstrated restraint on the matter.  

Why is it that those who run Nigeria never contemplate making any real sacrifice, but hasten to demand that the least fortunate of Nigerians take on more suffering? President Buhari and his aides drum Nigeria’s dwindling resources. Yet, the president has not entertained the idea of selling off any of the jets on the presidential fleet. He has not sent any bills to the National Assembly to revise the obscene allowances pocketed by under-performing public officials. Even if a sound case could be made for poor Nigerians making more sacrifice—a prospect I find forbidding—it behooves the Buhari administration to look first at ways of inviting members of the looting class to lead, for once, by example. From local government councilors through state and national legislators to state governors and the president, Nigeria’s public officials are in the front ranks when it comes to salaries, allowances and other perks and preferment. 

Millions of Nigerians take home the N18, 000 spittle called minimum wage. Many earn even less. To ask any human being to live on that ludicrous amount is an example of what Americans would call cruel and unusual punishment. Where’s the logic or humanity of asking anemic Nigerian minimum wage earners to bleed more blood when the men or women who “eat” in their name in state capitals and Abuja bask in opulent splendor? 

Before hoisting more weight on the bent back of Nigerians, President Buhari should have put forward a bold proposal for identifying and recovering stolen funds. Instead, like former Presidents Olusegun Obasanjo, Umaru Yar’Adua and Goodluck Jonathan, he’s content to heap more and more weight on Nigerians’ battered backs. 

In January 2012, Mr. Jonathan drew the ire of Nigerians by announcing the removal of fuel subsidies. As Nigerians protested within and outside their country, the then president gave a national broadcast. In it, he stated—a la Bill Clinton—to “feel the pain that you all feel.” He even made the implausible claim of feeling “personally pained to see the sharp increase in transport fares and the prices of goods and services” and sharing “the anguish of all persons who had traveled out of their stations, who had to pay more on the return leg of their journeys.”

In a column that responded to Mr. Jonathan, I argued, “Mr. Jonathan’s defense reeked of platitudes that rang false and rhetoric that came across as cheap and unfelt.” That’s my exact response to President Buhari’s somersault in raising fuel prices in the midst of even bleaker times for the majority of Nigerians. It is nothing short of callous. 

I wrote about Jonathan’s move what I now assert about Mr. Buhari. The current president is far removed from the pain and anguish of the vast majority of Nigerians. In fact, he might as well inhabit a different planet from the rest of us. Even if the price of fuel rose to N10, 000 a liter, the Nigerian president won’t feel a pinch of it. We, the people of Nigeria, buy all the fuel he and other top officials of his government and family use. 

It appears that the luxurious quarters of Aso Rock have a way of giving Nigeria’s presidents an illusory sense of the lives led by the millions of victims of persistent misrule and visionless leadership. Ensconced in the island of luxury that is Aso Rock, I suggest that the Nigerian president has no real access to the grim desperation that defines the lives of millions of Nigerians. Were Mr. Buhari’s powers of empathy engaged, he would not have proposed a higher price on fuel without first slashing his own (and his coterie’s) perks and privileges.
At any rate, what ever happened to Mr. Buhari’s claims that he was a guru of the petroleum sector, possessed of the magic wand to fix the refineries, boost local production, and bring fuel prices down? How does a president break a central plank of his electioneering promise without batting an eyelid—or taking the pains to unburden himself to the people he misled? 

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