Teaching Comparative Government and Politics

Monday, January 09, 2012

Imagine there's no public sector, but it's expensive

Jeremy Wheate, writing in Naijablog offers a graphic image of living in urban Nigeria as a motive for striking against the end of fuel subsidies. In effect, he suggests that the fuel subsidy was one of the few ways that government spending directly benefited most people in a rentier state.

The Fuel Subsidy Removal Protests for Dummies
On the first day of the indefinite general strike organised by a coalition between two of the largest unions in Nigeria… some external observers have expressed surprise at the intensity of resistance…

The lived reality of citizens of the Nigerian state is that it provides little or no security, no infrastructure, no education and no employment opportunities (apart from mostly McJobs in the civil service). Everywhere in Nigeria, the basic elements of civilised existence have to be taken care of house-by-house, compound-by-compound. You must sink your own borehole for water, buy, install and fuel a generator for power, hire security guards to keep the wolves from the door, pay school fees to ensure your kids get a half-decent education because the public school system is in perpetual meltdown.

The breakdown of a standard tax and political representation based social contract between citizens and the state in Nigeria is almost entirely a result of the past few decades of the so-called ‘resource curse’. Earning billions of dollars each year from crude exports, the Nigerian government has no need to rely on tax from individuals or local companies; tax and royalty payments from the international oil companies (as well as historically, loans from international financial institutions) have been sufficient to fund the annual budget at all levels of government. For the past few decades, cheap fuel has therefore been the only form of social contract between ordinary Nigerians and the state and the principle lever to control inflation during times of rising oil prices. With most Nigerians subsisting on US$2 or less, subsidised fuel has also been a survival mechanism, making life only just bearable…

[I]f 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% of the Federal overheads budget…

As it is, most Nigerians are poor, and will simply not be able to survive with any comfort on US$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…

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