One of my favourite passages from the Holy Bible speaks about the inevitability and reality of seasons. ‘For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven…a time to plant…a time to build up…a time to embrace…and a time to sew.’ The verbs from the excerpts of that passage reflect the way I see the times we are in currently. These are tough times for everyone in Nigeria. It seems to me that we reached a consensus that the fuel subsidy had to go. That clarity is however absent with the subject of how as a people we will brave the effects of the removal.
Generally speaking, the implementation of public policies (whether good or bad), brings shocks and unpleasant consequences to the current system before the benefits accrue: call it a sort of gestation period. In Nigeria’s case, there was an apparent consensus subsidy had to go. The real challenge is in having to navigate the tough gestation period before its benefits become apparent and then, sustained. The point when people can say their lives are getting better because of the policy.
Save for the inevitable public discourse around the issue, the government has not done much to educate the people on the inevitable behavioural and attitudinal change necessary to better withstand the pressure and consequences of costlier fuel prices. A friend posted some numbers on twitter recently: someone who usually filled the tank of his SUV with ₦20,000 before the subsidy removal, now spends ₦60,000 for the same amount of fuel. He fills his tank an average of three times in a month, which means that government was subsidising this person’s movement at the monthly rate of ₦120,000/month. That’s a whopping N1.4m or so every year. Bear in mind that most people with such SUVs have other cars. Meanwhile the national minimum wage is ₦360,000 a year. No wonder the poor could hardly breathe under such an unfair distribution of government benefits.
It is difficult for an old dog to learn new tricks. To assume that because a new way is more beneficial, people who are used to doing things differently, even to their own detriment, will make the switch willingly, is naive. Resistance to the removal of fuel subsidy is regardless of the fact that the savings from subsidy is to be ploughed into sectors where the gains will be felt not just today, but for a long time to come. The key to resolving this issue is a massive behavioural change campaign. However, the most difficult behavioural change to orchestrate is one that requires the participation of a mass of people. For it to succeed, the campaign must be designed with tools and measures that will arouse motivation for change, empower the people to make the change happen, and make them see the positive outcomes of that change before they even come to fruition. Removing subsidy before implementing these measures is tantamount to putting the cart before the horse. However, it is not too late.
We have treated the need for mass orientation with kid gloves for far too long. The fuel subsidy removal was a World Cup Final moment for an organisation like the National Orientation Agency (NOA) to shine if not for anything but that those who often wonder what it exists for would find answers in the way which they were made to understand the times and the changes that need to be made to survive it.
The onus remains on the government to engage with the citizenry through direct and indirect means. This is not just about government though. Private organisations must do what they can to ease the effects of the fuel subsidy removal. I have a few suggestions.
Easing the burden of the cost of transportation on workers by exploring Work From Home options at least twice a week, is a good place to start. Covid lockdown has shown that with the right measures, WFH is not synonymous with a decline in productivity. Another incentive could be that those who maintain a certain level of productivity automatically earn the privilege to continue to work from home for a longer period than those who do not.
It is also time to seriously consider increasing salaries. Whilst the federal and state governments navigate the bureaucracy to enable this, private organisations are more flexible and have no such constraints. There are particular sectors where profit is inversely proportional to the value they deliver to the economy. This is a good time to plough some of that money into increased salaries for their staff. Thankfully some banks and other private companies have taken the initiative.
Government officials must exhibit a sensitivity that is regrettably absent in public life. Measures to discourage corruption and wastage must be adopted and the reorientation ought to start at the top. Corruption should attract the same consequences as economic sabotage, which is what it really is. The police and other law enforcement agencies must also adjust their behaviours. This is not the time to push citizens to the wall with oily demands for bribes masquerading as requests for particulars. Any attempt to extort citizens at this time must be considered an offense against the state. Times are already hard, no government official should make it excruciating.
‘Let the poor breath’ has since gone viral, often serving as a joke. Whilst I appreciate the utility of comedy for the maintenance of good mental health, it is important to remember to make life easier for one another. In the absence of state-run social safety nets, there is no better time to set up private interventions. Food banks, soup kitchens, medical outreaches: any and everything to make the poor breathe. Whilst we look out for one another, the government must hasten its rollout of response mechanisms to meet the immediate and remote challenges of the subsidy removal. The relevant agencies need to be alive to their responsibilities. This is not the time to be caught napping.
There is a time for everything, this is the time for everyone, in or out of government, to stand up to be counted.
This piece was published in the THISDAY Newspaper of 28 July, 2023