Given today’s state of the nation, it is likely that both Alhaji Atiku Abubakar and Mr Peter Obi are thanking their stars that they were not the ones declared as our elected president on March 1, 2023. If they were, each of them would have done what Bola Tinubu did with petrol subsidy with consequences beyond their capacity. They would have done it – they all promised to do it. But, if it was Obi in particular who withdrew fuel subsidy, the North and the West would have exploded in flames of protests. His ethnic base would have defended him with very solid silence. That is the character and structure of protests in Nigeria. Today, everyone is in pain but there is calm everywhere, and that is because the traditional protesters are the ones in government – officially and unofficially.
You notice that your neighbourhood is very quiet throughout the night. NEPA keeps doing its best, transmitting darkness. Super-expensive petrol has choked generators into a coma; noise pollution is gone. The roads are free too. The street offers a free-of-charge gym; trek and sweat away your hunger. Aye ti dara de – life has become so good and cool. Grand old Juju musician, Ebenezer Obey, warned the world years ago: Eda to mo’se okunkun, ko dakun ma ma d’osupa loro…(man who knows the way of darkness should please not be heartless to the moon…). But the heart of darkness would hear that song and sneer. Darkness has a distinctive taste of goodness which only killers of light can explain. Promoters of the night over the day would insist it is therapeutic. They push us to health experts to hear the counsel that if you want to sleep in peace, kill the light around you. It is not part of their knowledge that life and light predate death and darkness. They profess that we must enter the darkness of the night for the day to break; we must die in order to live. That is their logic; morbid.
Defenders of all government actions, I call them phlegm eaters; they existed in Old Oyo as Aj’ito oba. With their mouths, they collected the king’s excess saliva and phlegm and swallowed everything with uncommon relish. Yoruba storyteller and author, T.A.A. Ladele, in ‘Igbi Aye Nyi’ salutes them as ‘aj’ito oba ma p’ofolo’ (men who eat the king’s saliva/phlegm without getting nauseous). A friend calls them the king’s horsemen (awon olokun esin). They do more than tending the king’s stallions; they are ab’obaku, they drink and die with the king. Because they dine, or hope to dine with the state, they hawk the regime’s bitter, poisonous pills from street to street, online and offline. They ignore 21st century’s strides in medical practice with its noninvasive painless procedures and keep pushing the narrative of compulsory pain as a cure: “The times are hard but there can’t be a cure without pain.” I hear that very often now from tribal sour sayers and I wonder if all medicines must have the super-bitter chemical compound of denatonium benzoate to work. It is not as if regime defenders are not in pain too; they are, but they grumble under their wives’ hungry beds; they parallel the pain in town with that of childbirth. Yet, every woman who has been in and out of the labour room knows that unduly prolonged childbirth pain kills. I hope the regime and those who excuse its errors know, and agree in time, that interminable labour pangs incubate stillbirths and mortality of mothers. If you are close to the president and his men, please tell them the sky is blood-red; they should come outside and see for themselves. Unless something positive is done very quickly, businesses will die in thousands, jobs will be lost in millions, life will enter fully the final phase of anomie. It is nasty now, it will be brutish soon.
I have a book by my side here; its title is ‘Democracy Kills.’ Our infirmary appears to have carelessly placed a life-and-death scalpel in the hands of a medical fetus. A man whose manifesto spoke about “phased subsidy withdrawal” and whose inaugural speech text was in concord with what was promised, went off the cuff and plunged the bus into Majidun waters. He was to later tell a bemused world: “When I got to the podium, I was possessed with courage, and I said subsidy is gone.” Just like that! Even Tortoise who took that plunge from the skies is forever nursing the wounds, and that was despite having enough presence of mind to arrange a soft landing for himself. Tinubu’s seventeen ‘words of courage’ represent the very meaning of whim and fancy. No captain does that without crashing his craft. These hardships will define his entire presidency just as the 2012 subsidy crisis mortally wounded Goodluck Jonathan. If a doctor did what Tinubu did, the patient would be in trouble, his own practice would be in trouble too. Whimsically, the man said “subsidy is gone” and it was gone. I hope the president knows that what went down with petrol subsidy was more than the unwanted tree branch: poor, nestling birds also lost their homes and all their toil; their kids are in the rains wondering like Ken Saro Wiwa did at the gallows: “Why are you people treating (us) like this? What kind of country is this?”
The governing of men should not be a deadly trial-and-error farce. What we suffer today is a doctor’s administration of IMF/World Bank poison as medicine. As indigenous people, we are told from infancy never to take kola nuts from strange people. Leopard and dog cannot be friends in equity. Ilorin bard, Odolaye Aremu, tells of Hen that dances to Kite’s friendly beats: Adiye opipi ko tete mo, o nba Awodi s’ore, o ro wipe eye tii ba nii wo’mo ni (beautiful Hen befriends Kite, she does not know in time that Kite is not a bird that assists in nurturing one’s child). I am not sure the president has not realized his error. If he has, congratulations to all of us; if he hasn’t, God save our soul. Unfortunately, he still lacks a team of knowledgeable pro-people economists that can help him pilot the plane out of this turbulence. The labour room of our economy is, at this moment, a bedlam of confusion and rank incompetence; it has a full complement of deceit and guile too. What is the difference between what the 36 state governors offered last week and Bola Tinubu’s offering a week earlier? Distinction without a difference. Tinubu offered to distribute N8,000 each to twelve million households across the country. There was an uproar; he recoiled and announced a “review.” While we scanned his dictionary for the meaning of his “review”, state governors met as the National Economic Council (NEC) and resolved to transfer money to households using their own list. Tinubu was even more open; he told us the value of his offering, the governors withheld their own figure; it is safer for them. Naked traps catch no game. American novelist, Alice Sebold, in ‘The Almost Moon’ notes that “poison and medicine are often the same thing given in different proportions.” She was right.
The more things change, the more they remain the same. Tinubu last week approved what he called Infrastructure Support Fund for the 36 states “to cushion the effect of subsidy removal.” How is Tinubu’s ‘Infrastructure Support Fund’ different from Buhari’s ‘Infrastructure Loans and Refunds Progranmme’ and the General’s various Budget Support Programmes? There is nothing Tinubu has offered as palliative for what he did that Buhari (who did not withdraw subsidy) did not give in his eight years, yet the field was as barren as the Sahara. What I am saying here is that Buhari’s medicine for the eczema of his absent leadership is exactly what hyper-active Tinubu is applying to the self-inflicted leprosy of subsidy withdrawal.
But if the grass becomes wise, what shall the grasscutter eat? Canadian author of many ‘dirty’ books, Stefan Molyneux, is a skeptic. He distrusts politicians and governments. He tells us to know that the state “fails at everything except at increasing its power”; that the state “survives only on propaganda which relies on unquestioning faith.” Applying what he said to Nigeria, I would say the writer is right. He wrote about the paradox of having “an agency that defends your property which also has the right to violate your property rights at will.” He likened having a bumbling government to the scenario of “hiring a bodyguard that you pay to beat you up randomly.” That is the oxymoron in what every hopeful person who voted in the last presidential election did. There was also the Yoruba sultry vote-massing catchphrase: Omo eni ko se’di bebere. I wonder how many waist beads have been lost to the strains of trekking in today’s harsh weather. The cynical argument of Molyneux against putting trust in politicians and expecting them to eradicate poverty, and create wealth for the poor, appears directed at this place – this country: “When poverty declines, the need for government declines, which is why expecting government to solve poverty is like expecting a tobacco company to mount an aggressive anti-smoking campaign.”
A president on a learning curve shouldn’t have used his first act to sink an unsteady needle into the jugular, the ‘terra incognita’ of a country of two hundred million people. Spur-of-the-moment decisions, trial-and-error experimentation with the spine of the economy was too much a plunge. Now, copying and pasting what ruined the past undermines the present and whatever promise it has. Buhari funded his fancies by printing mountains of money- almost N25 trillion. With Tinubu’s Infrastructure Support Fund, how much will be involved and where will the funding come from? Will it come from where Buhari got his, from Ways and Means, a euphemism for currency printing? Buhari printed N25 trillion; Idi Amin Dada of Uganda who pioneered that dark practice in Africa did not do up to that amount. Idi Amin’s was a miserable three million Ugandan Shillings. Will Tinubu go that way or is he there already? We cannot know because even now, we do not have a central bank governor; the president has not been “possessed with courage” to name one.
Ninety-three million, four hundred and sixty thousand Nigerians registered to vote in the last elections; only twenty-five million, two hundred and eighty six thousand, six hundred and sixteen came out to vote. People who voted in the last presidential election all voted to escape Buhari and whatever he represented. They did not vote for pain. Whatever wisdom informed the choice they made, the underlying goal was that they wanted life lived well in abundance of peace. So, why would the man who got the throne throw everyone under the bus in order to get a fishing right in the shark-infested seas of Bretton Woods? The man is even now rolling out Buhari’s ineffectual, expired medicine as placebo – a regimen of dummy drugs. So, where do we go from here? Like characters in Caryl Philip’s novel, ‘The Final Passage’, it should be clear to us now that we can’t escape Nigeria. We are in a turbulence. The sensible thing to do is to keep our belts fastened and ensure that the pilot stops getting high on hubris for our collective safety. More importantly, if you are a phlegm eater in the palace, stop sucking the king’s viscous throat. Stop putting your trust in princes and principalities. Can’t you see that for every plea that they “lighten the burdensome service” of their fathers, their response has been acts that add to the yoke? They withdraw whips and chastise with scorpions. They feast, you yawn. You have no inheritance in the house of their Jesse. Your interest is not their interest. Stop.