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Soaring prices, open wahala

In the year 2000, a Hollywood movie called ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’ was released to much pump and buzz. It won some 40 awards and…

In the year 2000, a Hollywood movie called ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’ was released to much pump and buzz. It won some 40 awards and generated quite a buzz for a Chinese martial arts movie that I was eager to see it. I don’t remember if I watched it to the end, and don’t recall what exactly it is about.

The improbable action sequences, the humans who could fly or tiptoe across the surface of a pond got in the way of my enjoying the movie. I remember vaguely that the movie had something to do with a sword, the twang-twang of steel against steel and mostly a bunch of Chinese actors taking flight by the simple act of pointing their index finger or the tip of their sword skywards. 

Then in 2005, after dramatically winning the Champions League, Liverpool Football Club went and signed the forward Peter Crouch for a staggering £7 million, a significant amount in those days. There were catchy headlines like “Crouching striker, hidden talent” in some publications. Yet 18 games into the season, lanky Crouch simply couldn’t get the ball. It became a running joke at the time. 

This column is neither about the movie nor about the striker. At the same time, it could be about both. The way in which Liverpool overpaid for Peter Crouch is reminiscent of how Nigeria is given to profligacy in both spending and policy application, in buying things that yield little result or sudden implementation of policies that could have been executed better, like the NIMC registration, NIN registration, elections and now subsidy. 

We all know that subsidy had to go because we have been convinced over the years that only a few corrupt Nigerians have been enriched from the scam and the rest of us are being fleeced by it. It is a scam that should not have been condoned for as long as it had been. But the removal of something as delicate as this should not be approached with the callousness of a carpenter extracting a tooth. The same applies to the naira devaluation. 

There was a need for careful planning. There always is. A staggered implementation of the removal would have made sense because the way the Nigerian system is built, it is meant to take pain in small doses.

There is a need to cushion the sharp economic pain that Nigerians are suffering today. The government could have started by taking off 50 per cent for the first three or six months, then 25 per cent and 25 per cent over the next six. This could also have been done over six months but in small doses. That would have allowed some level of stability in the system instead of this upheaval we are faced with today.

But this sudden katakata created by this sudden removal is injurious to Nigerians and their businesses. Those who have managed through thick and thin to cobble together a business in the tough clime that this country has sustained, are suffering.

Those who don’t have businesses are suffering. Let’s not even talk of the Nigerians reliant on the minimum wage. 

However, that for me is not the main issue. We have decided to do away with fuel subsidy and replace it with subsidising poverty. Instead of handing out earth-shattering money to multi-millionaires, we will now be handing out small money to multi-dimensionally poor Nigerians—that is assuming the money actually gets to them. It may mean something to these households at that moment but that money will not get them out of poverty, it will only help them subsist in it.

Not long ago the government handed out similar amounts in the “TraderMoni” scheme. If we are to evaluate the impact of that scheme today, I am sure we will find that it did not raise anybody out of poverty (of course I stand to be corrected.) And that for me is a problem. 

We cannot build a country that is reliant on handouts, first to oil marketers and now to indigent citizens and expect any kind of tangible growth. That is why the removal of subsidy and what it means for the people would have served the country better if there are long and short-term plans to actually lift people out of poverty, create an enabling environment for wealth creation, build sustainable infrastructure that would actually improve the way we live and generate wealth. 

This question of removing subsidy did not start today. It has been 12 years since we started this conversation, first in the passionate grasp of the Occupy Nigeria protests of 2012. Surely, we have not forgotten. That time, the Jonathan administration raised fuel prices from N65 to N141 and Nigerians marched to the streets in a way they have never before done. Some even called for a civil war if the government did not back down. Like everything in this country, that agitation too flattered to deceive and fell flat on its face when Labour went into a nightly congress with the government and emerged in the morning to ask people to go home and take it for Nigeria. 

The expectation was that the government would then go and draft tangible strategies that would smoothen the transition from a subsidy-driven Nigeria to a subsidy-liberated one. It didn’t happen under Jonathan. It didn’t happen in Buhari’s eight years despite all the talks and the fuel price hikes that under any other government, Nigerians would not have tolerated. We knew from 2012 that subsidy had to go, we knew throughout Bubu’s terms that it had to go. The question was what did Nigeria do to prepare the country for it? 

Eleven years after, we are still here and with President Tinubu’s gung-ho approach to subsidy removal, we have found ourselves reliving Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Except in this version, the only things flying and pulling off improbable stunts are prices and poverty. 

The way prices have been soaring, like shrieking, sword-bearing Chinese actors flying without wings is both unrealistic and unsustainable. Earnings are not increasing and this sudden explosion of prices could lead to a total collapse of the system, or what is left of it, as we have seen happen elsewhere; like Zimbabwe. 

That is why the government must act promptly to bring order to this chaos the president unleashed when he went off script in his inauguration speech. Beyond cash handouts, the government must first stabilise the situation and keep prices on the ground—enough kung fu flying already. And then it must come up with far better ideas than palliatives, and provision of mass transit because, in reality, that is a problem for urban settlements with semblance of roads. For someone with no security to go about his business, or electricity to subsist or access to basic healthcare, there simply is more to be done. President Tinubu cannot be like Peter Crouch and go for so long without scoring. We do not have the luxury of time. We have to get it right now. 

 

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