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Why Nigerians are in an 'occupy' mood (+video)

It would be unacceptable to citizens anywhere if the price of gasoline doubled overnight without warning, argues guest blogger Jeremy Weate.

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The defense offered by the Finance Minister during that same debate is that the savings from removal of the subsidy would be spent on a palliative capital-spending program – the Subsidy Re-investment and Empowerment Programme (SURE). Nigerians have raised a number of critical objections to this proposal.  
 
Firstly, given the glut of money in state coffers in the past few years and the lack of any successful infrastructural development (for instance in power and transport), there is little guarantee that the SURE program would be implemented or successful, rather than go the way of all initiatives in the past. The government of Nigeria has not been able to significantly raise the amount of power generated, nor has it been able to achieve the low-tech objective of revamping the dilapidated railway network, still less has it been able to improve standards in public education and healthcare. What then would be different about the SURE program?
 
Secondly, while most Nigerians are probably not ideologically opposed to subsidy removal (and targeting the corrupt "cabal" of fuel importers who benefit from the subsidy), they are utterly opposed to the timing, given the insecurity in the land raised by Islamic militancy in the North and the potential for renewed militancy in response in the Niger Delta. A phased subsidy withdrawal, as has happened elsewhere, would have been much more preferable approach.  
 
Thirdly, the idea that removing the subsidy equates to "deregulation" and the equivalent private sector boom as witnessed in the past decade in the telecoms sector is highly suspect to most. For the downstream oil sector to be deregulated, there has to be new legislation in place. The Petroleum Industry Bill, which separates the functions of a national oil company, regulation and policy-making, would need to become law. We have been waiting since the previous minister of petroleum for the PIB to be passed. At present, the NNPC is the epicentre of corruption in the oil sector in Nigeria, and has to broken up into its constituent parts for the private sector to be given space to grow its role. In addition, Nigerians would want to see a much higher percentage of crude oil refined locally, rather than the current reliance on imported fuel, to ensure a favorable local pricing policy that does not depend on state subsidy. Without any of these key deregulatory building blocks in place, removal of the "subsidy" now is simply terrible timing and does not inspire confidence among a people who long ago lost their faith in government.
 
Finally, if savings are urgently required from the annual government budget, most Nigerians would argue that the first place to cut costs is that of the price of running government itself. As the Governor of the Central Bank pointed out last year, the National Assembly consumes 25 percent of the Federal overheads budget; the cost of running the president’s office has been widely publicized in recent weeks (including a billion naira food bill). It is rare to see a member of the executive - down to director-generals of government agencies most Nigerians have never heard of - travelling without a sizeable convoy of expensive cars.  Nigerian government delegations to international conferences and gatherings are often by far the largest, with a supersized retinue of special advisors, assistants and staff for the first-wife in attendance, there to collect their allowance and have access to shopping opportunities overseas.

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As it is, most Nigerians are poor, and will simply not be able to survive with any comfort on $2 a day and a doubling of living costs. That the government of Nigeria didn’t foresee the massive level of resistance happening today is quite bewildering. It shows a complete disconnect and disregard for Nigerians. However, where there is greatest danger, there is greatest hope. Nigerians have never been so united in years – in the newly unofficially renamed Liberation Square, Christians guarded the space as their Muslim co-protestors prayed. In return, last Sunday, Muslims guarded churches as others prayed inside.  What we are witnessing with Occupy Nigeria is a generational shift, as young, social-media enabled activists gradually take over the baton from unionist stalwarts.

In the short term, following on from the next few days of protest and shut-down, it’s hard to imagine anything other than a policy reversal, and a planned withdrawal being announced, in step with a clear program of projects that must be delivered before any further withdrawal of subsidy is implemented (citizens monitoring a re-drafted SURE programme for instance).  Underlying this is a deeper shift: a new generation of Nigerians demanding that the terms of the social contract are re-written, in favor of increased accountability of political leadership.

-Jeremy Weate blogs at Naijablog

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