By Bassey Ubong
Mr. Nkanaowo with the esteemed award of Ordinary Citizen of Nigeria (OCN) left home to the nearest filling station and picked up two litres of gasoline at the paltry sum of N1,100. By December 2015 when the Presidential candidate of All Progressives Congress (APC), Alhaji Muhammadu Buhari, told his predecessor to “stop stealing from Nigerians and allow them to enjoy the boom in the international crude oil market,” one litre sold for N97. Perhaps based on the pressure from Citizen Buhari and others the government of Goodluck Jonathan reduced the price of gasoline to N87 per litre. At the ‘high’ cost of N97, Mr. Nkanaowo would have left the station with 12.6 litres which, everything being equal (including functional carburetor), the 12.6 litres would have taken him through the week. Under the current situation, 2015 appears to have existed in the last century.
Mr. Nkanaowo left the station with the fuel indicator on alert. The weather-beaten car took him to his office where he sat for the rest of the day to wait for an electricity supply. It reminded him of the play, “Waiting for Godot” by English playwright, Samuel Beckett. Sleep eluded him despite the need for it to take the place of work. All day, electricity remained a dream, which meant the laptop hibernated and became a piece of furniture. But he knew the end of the month stood close by, and in a week staff of Port Harcourt Electricity Distribution Company would distribute office-generated bills with the new (higher) tariffs for zero supply of electricity. No wonder a social media post showed an irate consumer as he was caught up the ladder of one electricity distribution (zero production) company.
By the time Mr. Nkanaowo left the office with no inflow of funds, he drove his car at 40 kilometres per hour given his understanding of the technical idea that the lower the speed the less the fuel consumption.
But he needed at least two more litres for a less tense ride home as well as two litres for the generator in the house. From 1st June 2023, he cut personal power supply in his residence from two hours a day to one hour. The one-hour pumps water and charges phones enough to last till the next night.
He reviewed the balances in three accounts and transferred bits and pieces to his most reliable account in UBA and headed for the nearest gas station.
The first station went through the motion, but drew blank because of a network glitch. He tried a nearby POS outlet and the operator told him to move further, because UBA network showed red on the terminal. Three more POS outlets and one gas station operator said the same thing, and as night gathered momentum and rain fell, desperation set in. Something occurred to him – no filling station operates a credit sales policy anywhere in Nigeria despite the regularity of purchases of particular customers.
But in the true spirit of the Nigerian, he drove on at 20 kilometres per hour with his heart in his mouth. Trust folks who use Lagos number plates such as ‘nuisance’ of slow motion by a car in front met with horns and abuses. One day we shall know whether people with Lagos number plates go through special driver training schools where impatience, intolerance, and permanent use of horns are built into the curriculum.
When Mr. Nkanaowo turned into the final lap of his tension-soaked ride, he came by a young man who dispensed gasoline in tiny lots to desperate Nigerians like him. The man looked at the ATM card and declared he had no need to attempt, because much of the day, the bank had experienced a network glitch. But he offered as much as six litres of gasoline on credit!
Mr. Nkanaowo coasted home with calm nerves after the turbulence of the day. At home, his mind reminded him of two concepts that played well in his situation – goodwill and social safety net. First, he did a post in 2020 during the lockdown and recirculated it in February 2023 at the height of the greatest public misadventure in Nigerian history – the currency change. Those who faced the hardest times were those who failed to build credibility over time. Several Nigerians bought foodstuff on credit along with several existential items such as medicines. It pays to allow oneself to be trusted in daily affairs for when the hard days arrive, such trust will come in handy.
The second relates to what can be described as a fallback when things move from sweet wine to vinegar. In developed countries, official policies ensure the survival of people who fall into hard times at least on a temporary basis. Few people in most societies experience life on a permanent upward trend. The majority float like weightless matter on the current of a river – up, down, and if an unexpected weight climbs on top, the stuff sinks to the bottom.
When President Barack Obama of the United States entered office on 20th January 2009, the country experienced at least 800,000 job losses per month. Some big banks faced bankruptcy and in general, the gloom and hopelessness made people recall the Great Depression of the 1930s. Few people saw life beyond the next day, which meant the majority lived from day to day in an atmosphere tagged, the Great Recession. Barack Obama, after a rousing Inaugural Address went to work, and with the slogan of “Yes, we can” carried hope and the citizens along. Lifelines arrived in several formats from the short term such as cash for clunkers to the long term by way of deliberate policies on job creation.
In the case of cash for clunkers, folks traded in battered cars for new ones to save maintenance costs, while cash went to car manufacturers to increase production and hire workers. Policies to enhance economic recovery went under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. Congress approved $831 billion in the package to facilitate a turnaround of the battered economy. Big companies such as General Motors and Chrysler were bailed out and the massive loans which the car manufacturers and some banks received were all paid back within two years. And because jobs take second place after security in importance in the US, the American Jobs Act followed in 2010, but within 2009 the job losses had been reversed.
What did the same Presidential system do in Africa’s most populous country which boasts of the largest asset in Africa? The new administration accepted an 184% increase in the price of gasoline with a further increase one month later. It announced plans to replace education subsidies with student loans, increased electricity tariffs, and told dozens of cost centers in the Federal system to generate revenue to run themselves which implies charges to ordinary citizens. These, under normal circumstances, are reasonable but a maligned and traumatized populace should have been given respite because medicines meant to cure do kill when applied in excess and without consideration of timing.
The issue of social safety net has little traction in Nigeria. In the US, the dole (palliatives) and soup kitchens exist to cover citizens in desperate economic situations. Those measures are unavailable in Nigeria and if a Nigerian government can consider the American-type social safety nets the one in power today has like the cockerel showed its gender on the day of being hatched. One can see a deliberate move towards taking from ordinary citizens to give to those who have no need for more (Well, they have justification for the scripture says things will be taken from the have-nots and given to those who have in a manner the poor becomes poorer and the rich richer). There shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth the scripture concluded and the conclusion has become a timeless fact.
But given the indomitable spirit of the Nigerian, they will survive, well, until some politician with a skewed messianic fervor ends the two social safety nets of good neighborliness and being our brothers’ keepers. Researchers abroad say Nigerians are the happiest people in the world. Who knows whether they look at the carved faces of masks with big and permanent smiles on them? We are told wearers of that wooden stuff may not smile the way the masks do. And who knows whether politicians tap into this suspicious research result to take ordinary citizens for granted? Imagine N70 billion approved for new Federal legislators (maybe less than 100), while the OCNs hope, just hope for N8,000 per month. Pigs, as George Orwell said, need apples because they do brain work!
But if the time-tested social safety net experiences the heartless knife of the government, ordinary Citizens of Nigeria may say the handshake has gone beyond the elbow. These days several Nigerians work to generate money to buy fuel or pay higher prices for goods and services which providers have been forced to hike prices. The standard of living of Nigerians has dropped in a remarkable way one reason we have to nurse the known social safety net. By this post, I appeal to Nigerians to sustain their tolerance level to cover their neighbors, friends, and family members. Let the people eat the crumbs together to ensure group survival.
Dr Ubong, a writer and public policy analyst, lives in Uyo.