There is an ideological similarity between the Tea Party and the protests in Nigeria, but it is not in terms of ignorantly protecting the rich. If anything, Occupy Nigeria is in part a reaction to those who have fed fat of the corruption that the government has allowed. The similarity is in terms of advocating for smaller government at all levels. Nigeria’s 2012 budget is the sort that will make even those who can tolerate larger government choke.
That is where it ends, thankfully. There are no ‘well-financed special interests’ in this case, and there is a growing awareness that the protests of the last one week are about more than petrol subsidies. It is about reviewing the social contract between the Nigerian government and its people. Paul Collier calls the Goodluck Jonathan administration as the most legitimate in our history, and the 22 million people who voted for that government – along with millions who didn’t – want the corruption that has overtaken our nation to be confronted. They want a vastly smaller government. They want electricity, which will make them less reliant on petrol for generators.
In a nation without a lot of basic infrastructure, the classic argument that subsidies disproportionately benefit the rich is less convincing. A lot of people like barbers, tailors and owners of small shops, to mention just a few, use petrol in productive activity. There are also transport costs, which doubled in the days after January 1st. The SURE programme, which the government is trying to ramp up support for is vague, and largely a duplication of other capital expenditure. There is no mention of the effects of sharply higher petrol costs on Small and Medium Scale enterprises, which is a surprisingly neglected group in all this debate.
Economic theories do not and can not exist in a vacuum. People are not cells in a spreadsheet. Removal of petrol subsidies will be painful whenever they are implemented, but there must be measurable evidence that government is moving from promises to action. Since 1999, Nigeria probably has more promises per capita than any other, but desperately little to show for it. The message is clear: No more promissory notes. You cannot talk about ‘responsibility to the younger generation’ while spending $1m to water a garden, taking delegations of several dozen on foreign trips and paying out outrageous allowances to under-performing public officials.
There has been an attempt to tag protesters as a mindless lot who are puppets on strings, but nothing could be further from the truth. A lot of young professionals are out there, and they have made it their business to educate everyone else on the issues. A lot of interest has been generated in the process of petrol importation, the oil industry as a whole, and the cost and structure of government.
The message about going ‘beyond subsidy’ has spread horizontally, among the people on the streets protesting, and vertically, to those who have the ears of this administration. In an interview a couple of days ago, Atedo Peterside, one of Nigeria’s top bankers said: ‘This is not just about fuel price. They want good governance. Don’t insult the intelligence of protesters’. This is exactly what Professor Collier’s article does, perhaps unintentionally. The assumption that those who oppose subsidy removal have been ‘tricked into lobbying against their own interests’ by ‘political opportunists’ is a dangerous inaccuracy, and for the avoidance of doubt, let me state that most people agree that subsidy removal sounds good in theory, but when confronted with a corrupt and wasteful leadership, it amounts to pouring water into a basket.
Collier has long insisted that bad governance is most to blame for global poverty, and that is the same thing wrong with Nigeria, whether under democratic or military rule. From a protest over removal of subsidy, it has become a protest over the cost and quality of governance, as well as accountability at all levels. Seen in that light, yes, Nigeria should be ruled by the street.