No matter how deep, or varied; no matter how sophisticated the options put forward for turning the country around, conversation around these issues inevitably ends by implicating an effete populace in the continuing mismanagement of the country. If only our people are alive to their “rights” and willing to fight for these, so the argument goes, this country would be a much more livable place. By this token, the central task before the economy resembles that which Jerry Gana, as head of MAMSER then, described as in terms of a need to conscientise, sensitise, and then mobilise the people to reach for greater heights.
In the last weekend in April, an elderly friend regaled a meeting I was at with how he had only recently enforced his “right”. At the height of the fuel shortage, he had driven into a filling station ― that had no queue. He asked after the price, and was informed it was N150/litre. After filling his tank, he requested for a receipt for the sale. Of course, he wasn’t going to get one. Government had made so much of retailers selling fuel above the recommended retail price, and how this was some form of economic sabotage, it was unlikely any filling station was going to hand “evidence” of this “infraction” to a patron. So after my friend had set off a huge racket on his “right” to a receipt, he was allowed to drive off without paying.
It didn’t matter, he said, that the ex-depot price for a tanker of fuel was slightly higher during that period than the recommended retail price for the good. He remained persuaded that if every single filling station owner would fight for their rights as he had done, the country would be the better for it.
And what happens if this insistence on “rights” meant that a station owner misses out on his allocation of fuel that day? How is s/he to cover the costs ― salaries, associated overheads, insurance, etc. ― associated with keeping the filling station open? These, I was told, are the type of costs that each one of us must be prepared to bear if we mean genuinely to realign the country.
Did it matter to my raconteur, a Lagos landlord, that when the state government decreed that tenants pay rent for only one year, he had directed would-be tenants to go try their luck at government quarters? He would have nothing short of his usual two-year rent paid up-front and in full. The government had not contributed a dime putting his house together, and he was justified charging whatever the market would take for it.
Evidently, this sense that ties the enforcement of our “rights” with correcting the many ills of the Nigerian state, does not include “duties” that are due from us to each other, and to our respective communities!
And the market?!
No other word elicits as much mixed feelings as this does. Depending on whom you talk to, it is at once a “cure-all”, and the bane of all our problems as a people. And yet, I know of few Nigerians alive today, who cannot point to a parent or grandparent who, at one time or the other, offered a product or service for sale in some market. We are, thus, at heart, a nation of corner-shop owners. And I know of no member of a trader’s family who would have tolerated that they sell their goods for lesser than it cost to get it to the “market”.
In this sense, our “conflicted” response as a people to the market as a solution to our economy’s woes, is as fraudulent as my “rights” raconteur’s moral position was.
There is nothing wrong with the market. However, there is everything wrong with how government has intervened in those product/services markets that it is involved in. Invariably, government’s intervention has ended up organising cartels against the people. These cartels may explain why the arguments about economic solutions collapse into calls for enforcement of “rights”. But that is only because allocative processes across key sectors of the economy have been appropriated by rent-seeking cohorts.
The fuel sector is without doubt the most useful metaphor of our sad encounter with the markets. For, on one hand, it is failing not so much because market forces conspire against the people there, but because cartels growing like algae on the back of government’s uninformed interventions in the space have exacerbated all of the sector’s downsides.
Government’s failure shows up in other ways, too. It takes about 40 litres on most fuel pumps to fill a 25-litre container. Only because government’s weights and measures office is not working any more. The argument, here, as it has always been, is to reinforce government’s regulatory capacity, including through ensuring that all weights and measures are properly calibrated; while the price mechanism allocates resources, especially the scarce ones.
Otherwise, in order that I continue to pay for these inefficiencies, scarcities will be with us for a while yet. It would not matter a jot that we then describe the situation as a challenge to our “rights”. We would simply be proposing political solutions to economic problems.