Hardship Phase 4 and sundry issues

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It all started one day in May when the president proclaimed that “Fuel subsidy is gone.” If that sounds like the beginning of a story, maybe it is. Don’t blame me. I have just come off teaching a fiction writing workshop at the Kaduna Arts and Book Festival (KABAFEST) which will be taking place from today. Now I am back to the reality of writing non-fiction. And like any other story, it has to begin somewhere.

Except for the phase of hardship we are facing in Nigeria now, the fourth phase, I think, did not begin on May 29, 2023. It began a long time back, and you could take it as far back as you want and have all sorts of justification for it.

Some might say it began with Buhari. And they would be right. Others would say, no, it began with Jonathan. They too would be right. Others would go as far back as 1993 when June 12 was truncated or all the way to 1966, when that unfortunate thing called a “revolution” happened and failed. Others will go all the way to 1914 when Mr Lugard amalgamated the areas around the Niger into a country of many nations, many tongues, and disparate aspirations. The truth is that it began when it began for you. That is a debate for historians and analysts who have the fuel to power their generators to write academic papers debating each claim.

Today, the country finds itself in yet another difficult situation. Yet another fuel crisis that we have no business having as a country at this stage of our development. For days now, there has been a steady build-up of scarcity. Coupled with the abominable price when found, it has paralysed more than half the country’s workforce and crippled a lot of other business and social engagements as well.

Whining about how bad the situation is for the average Nigerian would be re-enacting previous lamentations. It would just be cut and paste. So just imagine the last lamentation and crank up the volume and you will get the idea.

In a previous column, I suggested that the word hardship might be the Nigerian media word of the year. So far, it is still on course for that laurel. But how is this phase four? What does that even mean?

Well, it would seem the hardship that Nigerians have had to endure for most of their lives now is a cyclical trap that continues to revolve like the phases of the moon. Exactly a year ago, the first phase of the hardship, at least in this era, began with the removal of petroleum subsidy. Phase two was the fall in the value of the naira and then hyperinflation. Now we are at a different phase of the hardship. In this one, as overpriced as petroleum products are, even with your money, it is hard to find and buy. That is a new low for the country.

At this point, the head-butting between the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) and the Federal Government has been running longer than The Guiding Light, the longest-running TV show in the world. That has been going on for 72 years. The original lead characters might have done their time and exited left, literarily and figuratively, but the show has gone on. Except with this show playing out in Nigeria, the conflict is always predictable and the resolution is always the same. Like the two Koreas, there is never any peace but a truce, an understanding to “suspend” hostilities until the next time. The worst thing in this case is that no steps are taken with sincerity to end future stalemates and eruptions. So, the circle continues.

On the eve of May Day, the president announced a 25-35 per cent salary increment to help civil servants—not all Nigerians—cope with the hardship. Backdating the start date to January 2024 might excite some civil servants. As expected, the NLC through its president, Joe Ajaero, has dismissed the announcement as “mischievous.” His argument for a “living wage” might resonate with many Nigerians for whom their salaries, increment included, would not be enough to sustain them and their families, considering that Nigeria has one of the highest dependency ratios in the world.

Added to this, we are confronted with the ultimatum to accept the hike in electricity tariff or face a total blackout. That is not the kind of ultimatum you would want to be receiving from your government or its minister, especially considering that that country has pumped billions into rejigging the power architecture in the country and will apparently need to dole out another 10 billion dollars annually for the next 10 years for the sector to be “revived.”

Now hold on a minute! The government’s solution to this is to demand higher payment from Nigerians for the service that will still be unreliable for the next decade because that is an easier option than pursuing the public officials who looted the billions that have been allocated to revive this sector over the years!

So, who is paying for the crime that successive governments allowed to be committed under their watch? The Nigerians who did not loot the money, who is hustling for what to eat and fuel to run their generator. The language of that ultimatum made it sound like a holdup. That sort of “your money or your life” kind of situation. Like scenarios that play out in one-chance cabs every day.

So, in the next 10 years, the government is proposing to spend $100 billion to revive the power sector. When considered that is about 80 per cent of the amount allegedly looted by former aviation minister Hadi Sirika, who was recently detained by the EFCC. Coincidentally, that is also about 80 per cent of the amount former governor Yahaya Bello of Kogi State allegedly looted and for which he is being hounded by the EFCC.

I know people have been laughing at the ex-governor’s decision to evade answering the EFCC’s invitation and typically seeking a court injunction to restrain the commission from arresting and investigating him. I know people have laughed at how it was atypical of the governor’s usually boisterous attitude and kpa-kpa-kpa politics and very not typical of a lion, red or white. But the sad reality is that for the long-suffering people of Kogi State, whose state remains massively underdeveloped, and whose workforce is still being owed backlogs of salaries, this is no laughing matter.

These amounts being bandied about as allegedly having gone missing under the likes of Sirika and Bello and the dozens of other dodgy politicians in the country, if recovered, would have gone a long way in reviving the power sector, repaying salaries and generally giving Nigerians a better living condition.

But we have all seen what happened to the billions of the Abacha loot recovered from foreign accounts and the billions that were returned to the Buhari administration by fearful looters before they realised they had had a free pass. Those funds disappeared down other pockets and now every Nigerian is paying for it. This may be through an electricity tariff hike or subsidy removal because we have badly mismanaged our funds and someone has to pay for it. Just not the people who did the looting or the mismanagement. In the final analysis, this is what it boils down to.

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