By Bassey Ubong
Mr. Raymond Ekpu (Ray Ekpu), one of the most notable journalists in Nigerian history, turned 75 on 6th August 2023. Mr. Ekpu served as editor in the Chronicle in South Eastern State of Nigeria, but the road to the status of legend began when he edited the Sunday Times, Nigeria’s premiere Sunday Newspaper and with the other famous three – Dele Giwa, Dan Agbese, and Yakubu Muhammed – operated a weekly which changed the history of newsmagazine publishing in Nigeria. New swatch, I have heard, continues to be on newsstands, but those of us who regarded a week as incomplete without Newswatch know the difference.
The Uyo Book Club celebrated the landmark birthday with readings and tributes, one of which highlighted Ray’s article in Newswatch magazine on the use and abuse of statistics. It set off a trend of thought on the palliatives brouhaha, which the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) has latched on to enable the officers save face. The NLC and other apologists have, with convenience, ignored the level of deceit hidden under the policy of palliatives, which the World Bank has recommended under the term “compensatory cash transfers.”
The President Bola Ahmed Tinubu (PBAT) government ‘inherited’ a contrived act of the outgone administration. But the new President, through his inaugural Address, without hesitation said, “The era of fuel subsidy is gone.” Gasoline prices went up by 184% the day after the new President took his Oath of Office to superintend over new-age the welfare of Nigerians. As preachers would say, ‘nothing has been the same again.’ While the convoys of two Presidents – Nigeria’s and the Senate’s – run into dozens of cars, ordinary citizens of Nigeria engage in forced physical exercise via road walk wherever they go. Majority of Nigerians struggle for one flat meal a day, while micro and small businesses which struggled to return after the currency crisis have shut down a second time in six months. The governments of some states have reduced the number of days their public servants should be in the office, while Colleges of Education Academic Staff Union (COEASU) has directed its members to appear for work twice a week.
Because we run a country where numbers are useful only in census for sharing of national revenue and offices, no one has to date bothered to conceptualise the loss to Nigeria’s economy if the states and workers follow the reduced work days directive. Will productivity plummet to the point whatever removal of subsidy generates will be wiped out? In the United States of America (USA), the National Budget Office, a federal agency with absolute independence from the paymaster, would by now have crunched out comparative figures to ascertain whether the subsidy removal will generate positive or negative outcomes. The World Bank says about N2 trillion will be saved by 2024 and N11 trillion in five years, although it worries about the use of the money.
Nigerians know from experience or hindsight how the savings will be used. Much of it will be deployed to buy new SUVs for the new masters, pay the 114% increase in salaries to ‘certain’ public office holders without recourse to amendment of the 2014 Act, pay subsidiary allowances to National Assembly members, and settle 2023 election and postelection expenses. Did any of above include allocation for job creation activities or agricultural development or anything to benefit ordinary citizens of Nigeria? Unimportant, except as subject for laughter on the floor of the Senate to “allow the poor to breathe.”
This piece seeks to draw attention of citizens to the much-touted Palliatives, which, as planned, has taken attention away from the desperation of ordinary Nigerians.
The Federal Government announced it intended to pay N8,000 a month to 12,000 families to ‘cushion’ the effect of removal of subsidy. In the first instance this implies acknowledgement by the government of the pain the policy has caused to citizens. Government apologists including the World Bank, all of them in cozy-lifestyle territory tell Nigerians to look at the long term benefits of the savings which will arise from the removal of subsidy on petroleum products. The apologists, in disguised ignorance, forget people have to be alive to enjoy future benefits, a realization of which famous British economist John Maynard Keynes once issued the famous cliche, “in the long run we are all dead.” When millions begin to drop on the streets like flies the policy apologists will without hesitation provide reasons, in fact blame ordinary citizens for the unintended deadly consequences. They will say Nigerians blocked the government’s excellent intentions, after all the poor are expected to have no elastic limit to their tolerance of hunger and disease. The families of the haves they will say have no need for government effort and why did the recipients of the N8,000 fail to make savings or invest part of the windfall?
Last week for the first time in 422322 years of being a car owner my car stopped on the road when the tank went empty. From 1st June 2023 till date the highest quantity of gasoline the car has seen has been ten liters at a ‘paltry’ sum of N6,400.00, an amount which would have graced the tank with 33 liters on 29th May 2023.
It may help if we look at the statistics which NLC appears to be excited about. Government says (and we are aware the National Assembly has allowed ordinary citizens “to breath” with an 22 multiplied by 12,000 families means 72,000 Nigerians!
Nigerians, the World Bank in a policy statement in June 2023 said in the first six months of 2023 at least four million more Nigerians went below the poverty line defined as $1.90 (N1, at N800 to $1) per day. This works out at N45,600 per month if as we have been told the foreign exchange markets have been unified. The word ‘more’ means several millions were there before January 2023 when the pair of President Buhari and Central Bank Governor, Godwin Emefiele, came with their cashless abracadabra. How many ‘more’ have joined the army of the very poor from May 29th when the subsidy removal took effect? Mr. President, did your oath of office have a provision for starvation of ordinary Nigerians? What effect will N9.6 million a month (N8,000 x 12,000) have on the millions of underfed and the Nigerian economy in general? Nigerians, N9.6 million works out as just 30% of the take home of one Senator of the Federal Republic in one month less extra payments via Ghana must go!
The World Poverty Clock of World Data Lab, a Vienna-based Non-governmental Organization (NGO) said 71 million Nigerians were in extreme poverty as at June 2023. To provide assistance to 72,000 people should be regarded as smaller than a drop in the bucket. The palliatives plan should at best be regarded as a diversionary tactic or deployment of statistics to make fools of citizens.
We need to look at the follow up issues on the palliatives. In 2010, the government of President Goodluck Jonathan energized the Nigerian Social Insurance Trust Fund (NSITF) to enable the agency take care of the pension of ordinary Nigerians in the private sector. At a stage the Senate looked into alleged misappropriation of N84 billion by the staff and Board members! The scandals, accusations, and counter accusations continue, while the operators eat ten pieces of meat per meal and drop the bones without marrow to long-suffering retired workers. As it happened in NSITF, the managers of the palliatives will share the free money, leave for United Kingdom to rest and recuperate from the toil and trouble of complaints, return to Nigeria when the noise tails off, and merge into the system. And Nigeria will flow on in one direction unperturbed, like Ababa stream in my village.
The palliatives will be managed by a team, because the raw Naira cannot be dropped by aeroplanes. The team will comprise favoured citizens, likely party faithfuls, who will select favoured citizens to be recipients of amounts of convenience to be doled to the favoured few. No one should be surprised if a cheated insider or Board member tells the press 50% of the palliatives has been shared to the President’s party, Board members, consultants, contractors, and loyal public servants. If you want to bet on the obverse, just keep your fingers crossed.
Well, let them share while Almighty looks on, but something should be done which will affect at least half of the very poor. Jeremy Bentham termed such act the greatest good for the greatest number. President BAT can commence the real nationwide palliative with a slight downward review of the price of gasoline. A whole lot of things will go down the price ladder if an announcement of a slash in prices of petroleum products leaves the ornate gates of Aso Rock Villa.
The distribution of the palliatives require attention if Nigerians can hope it will be shared at all (it may go the way of offshore grants which those who have access have locked up in bogus financial institutions). The questions which arise are: how will the beneficiaries be selected? Shall we watch on television (for those who have electricity – I am excluded) and behold certain communities receive the money, while others swallow saliva? During the currency change, some communities in the North received new Naira notes for whatever old currency they had, plus N200 as bonus. No community in Southern Nigeria experienced such privilege from the Federal Government and Central Bank of Nigeria.
Will the 12,000 families continue to receive the windfall throughout the two years, or will the dole be rotated to other families? Nigerians, we are about to generate a new dance, which will be a de facto farce designed to leave the poor poorer and the rich richer.
If policy makers made out time to think, the billions for palliatives would be more useful if distributed as interest-free loans to the poor. Free money in Nigeria end in bars for drinks and pepper soup. In 2009 President Barack Obama concentrated in allocations to productive sectors such as the crippled automobile and finance companies. The world economy overcame the ‘meltdown’ and today continues to experience boom.
Meanwhile, N70 billion has been approved to meet “working conditions” for new legislators in the National Assembly as part of the N819.5 billion Supplementary Appropriation Bill requested by President BAT! We said it!! The subsidy savings will go to National Assembly members, favoured public servants, contractors, party bigwigs, bogus contractors, and the dozens of hangers-on. The masses will continue to mass themselves on the streets to scrimp.
We should ask whether the Supplementary Budget has anything for the masses outside the 72,000 penciled down. Please, refer to the two Houses and Aso Rock Villa. What monumental deceit of a literate people infamous for the characteristic of inelastic patience? As usual, the masses will fill up churches and mosques and declare, “God dey” as they reenact Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot.”
Dr, Ubong, a writer and public policy analyst, lives in Uyo.