Before light made dawn, the heavens opened and touched earth. Abuja earth, that is. It was May 29. From my hotel windows, flashes and furies of rainfall obliterated distance. Cracks of thunder released contours of fiery lights but they were not bright enough to pierce walls of downfall from the sky. To quote Conrad’s preface to his novel, The Secret Agent, “there was a lot of light. But not much to see.” The weather crackled and caked the eye that morning.
The rain, I said, was to wash away an era, debris and all. It would soon peter out, no pun intended. By 8am, the Abuja air was quiet. Birds returned to their morning chirps. Tree boughs nodded in wait. Pedestrian footfalls yielded to the whirs of cars on the streets. Crisp with soft light, Abuja weather set the scene of a new era, a new president. Away from the prophets who saw witches and wizards their angels could not repel. Those who said he would not sit on his presidential chair. Who said the army would whisk him away at the Eagle Square. As this essayist quoted last week, “though there be prophesies, they shall fail.” Now, like Paul said, their tongues shall cease. It was also the end of fantasy.
One week has passed, a few things embossed on the calendar. He met with economic officers, including Mefi. He met with top military brass. He appointed Femi Gbajabiamilla as chief of staff and George Akume as secretary to the government of the federation. But it was a week of audacity that began with the phrase, “fuel subsidy is gone.” I had appeared on the popular radio-tv show, Berekete Family, to which I was invited to talk on the new president and his speech. My first take on his speech was its call to unity, as a nation of the brother’s keeper. The theme was haunted by the Lincoln quote, “with malice towards none, with charity for all.” President Bola Tinubu said, without working as one country, we could not tackle the huge problems bedeviling us.
No sooner had the day ended than the labour upstarts started to stoke the flame. They forget that the Buhari government had said so before. Marketers, with an eye to profiteering, were hiking pump prices of fuel already subsidized. They were making a harvest from scarcity.
NLC president Joe Ajaero saw blood and growled like a bush cat. This was the same fellow who hobnobbed with the Labour Party candidate, who is asking for a pre-determined outcome in the presidential cases in the court, who made love to Labour Party. He probably lost his ears when his candidate said he would abolish the subsidy as the first thing at swearing in, if in his fantasy, he won the polls. Suddenly, Ajaero is giving us a taste of his pugnacious hypocrisy. He has acted without a sense of the cooperative unity Tinubu asked for. Ajaero ran away from NLC because he lost out in his presidential bid and formed a parallel body he did not know how to organize. He exposed himself as the project ended up in smoke. It is like his anaemic career as a journalist. He should learn from the history of labour and its interactions with politics. The movements do not follow the coattail of political parties. The labour movement is about workers, and once a political party emerges and even bears the name of a party, it divorces itself from that movement. There can only be marriages in ideas, not in mechanics of operation, not in its hierarchies. British workers voted for conservative Margaret Thatcher and kept her as their prime minister for a decade.
Labour does not have to anoint a Labour party. After all, the Labour Party in Nigeria has been a nest of prostitutes, labouring for the highest bidder. It takes anyone who can pay its way. We have seen all kinds until this Elupee era. This Elupee is a marriage of tribe and church, of yes daddy and accents, not of work. After all, how many times did their candidate visit workers in the course of his campaign?
His call for strike is a call for partisan revolt. It is a strike for a pharisee. Anyway, the president’s abolition of the subsidy is the boldest move in the country in this republic. Maybe, Ajaero and his coven did not want to remove it. Maybe that was what his LP candidate told him. If that is the case, they are not only liars, but cowards. Removing subsidies is bound to, in the words of Vice President Kashim Shettima, come with “the consequences of the unveiling of a masquerade.” It is those masquerades labour should zero in on. Masquerades of cheats, of round-trippers, of vampiric profiteers, of shibboleth and saboteurs. He should look askance at those who make us pay for fuel around the West African sub-region and stretching all the way to Sudan. It costs us close to N400 billion a month. Instead, he is fighting with his liberator. This is the kind of policy that exposes how much excess we buy and how much we need. He reminds of the line from the poet Lord Byron, “he had no objection to true liberty, except that it will set them free.” What Tinubu has done modifies and stylises the echoes from the sometimes ambiguous words of Rousseau: “Force them to be free.” So, Ajaero and company have become an unforeseen masquerade unveiled in their monstrous cruelty.
It is a moment not in austerity but realism. Why should the poor pay for the extravagance of superrich vermin? Those who have five cars, one for wife, one for school commute, one for self, one for servants, et al, will now realise that it is no way to run a culture or economy. Time to clip excess to cling to prosperity. We are pruning the fat. In the United States, most families do not have two cars. The cost is immense. If they have, they don’t use them every day. In the U.S., people carpool and share the cost. We cannot become rich by pretending to be “aje butter” first. We have to work to deserve to be “aje butter.” Even rich countries sweat at it. We have to turn the tide before riding it.
Again, palliatives are good, and Tinubu is working on it. But it is not even a long-term solution. In the two times we removed subsidy, once under Jonathan and the next under Buhari, the palliatives were a paradox. We replaced corruption with corruption. Those who had the palliative contracts, including labour leaders, saw it as opportunities to enrich themselves. So, we expect that the palliatives will work this time. But the main issue is how the saved money is mobilized for economic prosperity.
The two times under the two previous governments, they lacked the imagination and courage to turn the funds into economic expansion and opportunity. Even then, they took the funds piecemeal and it gave us no peace. Hence, many objected with cries in the streets to Jonathan’s try because it was an avenue for corruption. We have to navigate a laissez-faire approach with interventionism, combine the strengths of Fredrich Hayek and Ludwig Von Mises on one hand with Keynes and Galbraith on the other, Hayek’s “minimum state” and Keynes’ demand-pull. It takes a man who knows the nexus of culture and economics to do it.
There is no better person to do this than Tinubu. He is the first literate president in Nigerian history. It is not about who can read and write. This is political economy and culture. That is supreme literacy. He understands commerce, having worked as a technocrat for much of his life. He understands law having been a senator. He knows governance and its intricacies since he was governor and the most consequential one in this republic. He understands culture and he is a consumer of it, from music to his growth among poor. He is both earthy and polished. He is immersed in Nigeria’s history. The story is told of his young days following a minstrel on the back of a truck on a tour of the southwest. He is folksy and has empathy for those who do not sound or worship like him. None of his fellow contenders have this experience. Vice President Shettima with a master’s degree from Ibadan and an elite banker in Lagos, Kano and Borno, and his travels and dynamics of his soul, is the most cosmopolitan vice president we have had in this republic and the most exposed in our history since Ekwueme. He too has a sense for the street having founded what we know today as the Civilian JTF.
With this combo, handling an economy like ours is in good hands. President Tinubu knows, like economists Karl Polanyi and Abraham Rotstein, that the economy is too important a matter to be left to economists. He understands the culture. We are seeing evidence already. Someone said with a whiff of exaggeration that within three days, the president has tackled traffic problems in the cities. The pains are there. But the solution has to come gradually.
In his meeting with service chiefs, he gave marching orders on oil theft. That costs us so much that from it alone we can tackle education and transportation in Nigeria. In a meeting with top Buhari officials, the U.S. treasury secretary Janet Yellen said Nigeria was not poor and that we were tying our money in fuel subsidies to an indolent class.
Rather than focus on strikes, Ajaero should, as a labour man, ask why his favourite party is in turmoil. He should follow the money. The “no shishi” party had a bank that rolled out fantastic profits based on the inflows from outside the country. They would not even pay for materials in the tribunal where their submissions and that of the PDP are colliding and making a mess of their so-called “robust” case as a Sunday columnist called it. That same columnist said Tinubu was not man enough to tackle the country. Yet the man who is “not man enough” has done the bravest thing in the republic. The same writer concluded that he can avail himself of an option to either follow the right path or the wrong. What a contradiction. Maybe he does not know human nature. If he does not know what it takes, why is he saying he has an opportunity? Not many who can write are wise and not many who are wise can write.
– Omatseye is a columnist with The Nation
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