In our new political climate, two new vulnerabilities have been added to the business of (published) public commentating. First, there is the danger of increasingly sounding like a cracked vinyl album. Each instalment is then akin to that point in the playing of the album, when the stylus sticks in the rut created by the crack. Then, ad nauseam, that section of the album is repeated until a suitably sized shock is delivered to the turntable. The second threat is that this repeating of one message begins to come across, not so much as pig-headed, but downright rude. Isn’t there a point at which one simply shuts up?
Déjà vu? Yes, of a sort. Problem is I am not quite sure whether it is of the nature felt by Tantalus, as daily he tried (fruitlessly) to drink of the pool around him and eat of the fruit tree beneath, which he stood. Or of that felt by Sisyphus, as he endeavoured , to no avail, to roll that large boulder up the hill.
One thing is clear, though. And that is that as with both these ill-starred characters, my current experience of the Nigerian state hurts. Which is strange, for as Fela long argued, we are perambulators. All motion, no movement. Plenty of fire, no heat.
But then the Buhari administration anchored its campaign to unseat the equally ill-starred Jonathan government around the need to square this circle. To change the course of the ship of state, as it were. Therefore, largely, this feeling of ennui is borne of failed expectations.
Nowhere is this more pronounced than at the filling stations. Okay, so the queues associated with the Jonathan administration are back. Correction. The queues associated with every administration in this country since the early 1980s are back. One had hoped that the “change” mantra meant that we had started “thinking outside the box” on all the knotty challenges faced by this 55-year old effort to organise ourselves as a people.
Instead, we find that not only is the incumbent administration cleaving to the route trod by its predecessor, it is also resorting to the very tools deployed over the last 7 years to address the many forks in our path. Therefore, we continue to subsidise petrol at the pump station, paying huge sums thereby to oil marketers, who in turn get first call at subsidised foreign exchange allocations from the central bank. At the bottom of this argument is that such subsidies benefit the poor and the vulnerable; who it seems drive fuel guzzling sports utility vehicles.
Otherwise, why did the last reduction in the pump-station price of petrol from N97/litre to N87/litre not result in significant decreases in fares for public commute across the country? It did however drop by 10.31% the fuel expenses of vehicle owners. Alternatively, to take another example, if indeed it is to the vulnerabilities of the poor that we wish to address our immense problem-solving skills, why is the subsidy not directed at kerosene — the poor man’s fuel of choice?
As if all these were not onerous enough, the incumbent administration has turned an economic problem (the excess of demand over supply because of administered prices set below the market-clearing rate) into a law and order challenge. Both the Department of State Services (DSS) and the anti-graft agency (the EFCC) have been mandated to police the economy for oil marketers selling petrol above the recommended retail price. In addition, it has banned and resurrected old restrictions creating new crimes that an already heavily laden local police force must now take account of.
At this point the salience of Albert Einstein’s now clichéd observation about “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results” hits one squarely on the bridge of the nose.
My “insane” moment was last Saturday afternoon, when the fuel attendant would not sell fuel to me in a jerry can. The government had apparently remembered an Abacha-era ban on these containers and commenced enforcement. Under that well-intended dictator (as with our current lot) the ban was meant to put the kybosh on black market transactions in fuel.
From the prohibition era in the United States through Nixon’s foray into price control measures down to the Soviet Union’s 5-year development plans, anyone who understands basic economics knows that you do not address the challenges posed by access to a scarce resource by price controls and bans. All such restrictions achieve is build up queues and a black market (ask the Bolivarian Revolutionaries in Venezuela).
In our own case, there is an even more perverse (unintended?) consequence.
Most of us generate most of our electricity through different sized devices — most petrol-powered. Until Saturday, I bought the fuel for my generator in jerry cans which I then decanted back home. On making this point to the attendant at the filling station, it was suggested that I bring the generator to the filling station for this purpose, going forward.
I am not sure that my back will stand such stress. Worse, I wonder at the mindset that conceived of such as response to the fuel challenge confronting us!
Besides, if we must decree anything at all (against the “laws” of economics) it should be either a ban on poverty, or a law improving the general welfare.