Nigerians have expressed their displeasure with the government of Muhammadu Buhari in the last few days following sudden increases in the pump price of petrol and electricity tariffs. Food is costly and hard to come by. Even the increase in the cost of subscription of cable television has been traced back to the increase in VAT which is also the outcome of government action. We might be back to the pre-SAP, pre-SFEM days of the mid-1980s when inflation sat on a horse’s saddle as it gallops into the horizon. We are beginning to see the early effects of the recent loans that Nigeria has been taking from Western and Chinese institutions.
Theirs is the Devil’s bargain: you give them your economy and they demand its soul. Labour unions are threatening to go on strike: the Nigeria Labour Congress is said to be mobilising its forces to fight the incubus of increments while the Academic Staff Union of Universities that is, in an armchair fashion, getting better every day at highlighting what is bad in the system without proffering solutions to them (witness its argument that the universities are not ready for reopening because of inadequate measures they have in place to combat COVID-19 even when it is not telling us what could be practically done to reopen the schools as we cannot remain under permanent lockdown) is equally screaming itself hoarse that a showdown is in order. The National Association of Nigerian Students is calling for a boycott in its usual infantile bombast.
Things are bad, no doubt. But it is interesting that in some quarters the latest criticisms of Abuja have taken the form of nostalgia for the government of Goodluck Jonathan. These critics want us all to admit that life was better for Nigerians during the Jonathan administration and they point, rather too quickly, to the relatively lower prices of goods and services. The pump price of fuel was considerably lower at N65 per litre during the Jonathan years than the N160 that Nigerians are currently paying for it under Muhammadu Buhari. A 50kg bag of rice was variously sold for N6,000 and then N9, 000 as things got bad when Goodluck Jonathan presided over the affairs of this country. A long list of different items is being drawn up by creatively critical Nigerians against the backdrop of their cost during the pre-Buhari years and compared to what they are now, two years into the president’s second term. There is no doubt that inflation has done incalculable damage to the bank balance of Nigerians and reduced them to near-destitute levels. All of these claims and even more are true.
These same critics launched attacks at pro-democracy activists that spearheaded the #Occupy Nigeria protest of 2012. They derive particular pleasure in hauling invectives at the likes of Femi Falana, Tunde Bakare, and, not unexpectedly, Wole Soyinka, who at just four years shy of his ninetieth birthday, is being expected to be on the street, at the vanguard of the burgeoning anti-fuel price increase sentiment. All of this while our ‘lazy youth’ loiter before live television watching young adults like themselves making love under bedclothes in so-called reality shows. They invite these mostly senior citizens to go to the street to organise a 2020 version of what many of these critics in a revisionist temper now call a ‘political’ demonstration. As if the #Occupy Nigeria protest was supposed to be apolitical. Or, worse yet, as if anyone is stopping them from organising their own ‘political’ protests to register their displeasure with the recent increments which, make no mistakes about it, could not have been more wrongly timed. The argument of the Jonathanians, especially as it pertains to a romanticisation of the feckless administration headed by the amiable ex-president, is problematic on many fronts.
The most obvious of which is that it can work both ways- for and against their man, Goodluck Jonathan. And here I make a distinction between Jonathan the man and Jonathan the president. When these critics say that the pump price of fuel was N65 under Jonathan, they forget to add that it was much lesser under Jonathan’s predecessors and that Umar Musa Yar’Adua did slash it down from what it was under Obasanjo only for Jonathan to raise it by more than 100 per cent, and thereafter drop it to between N97 and N87 per litre as at the time he left office. Even more importantly, they fail to add that a barrel of fuel sold at a much higher price in the international market during the Jonathan years than it did and still does now that Buhari is in charge. All of this, let me be clear, is not to justify the recent increment or indeed offer an alibi for Buhari.
For how much was a barrel of fuel selling in the international market by the time Nigeria went into recession between 2016 and 2017? How much was it before that time and how much of what was made was invested in the welfare of Nigerians? How did we get into the recession territory? How much was squandered during the administration that was in place pre-May 2015? It’s simply poor thinking to wish Nigeria goes back to an era that arguably contributed in no small measure to the sorry situation in which we now squirm. We didn’t get here just this morning and something led us to this point. Which is not the same thing as saying we should always keep our eyes permanently locked to the past. To attempt to critique the present government of the day without looking at where we were coming from or to talk as if one bygone era that is now being perfumed and romanticised could be transplanted wholesale to replace another is just beer parlour talk.
We cannot and should not in the face of the mounting problems of these times wish we were still in the Jonathan period. Some of us entertained palpable fear that this country could just implode given the level of corruption. Others could argue that things are hardly different now and they would be within logical limits but they should not on the basis of that claim that Nigeria was better off in the past that in the main gave birth to the present anomie.
What we should as Nigerians do now is to hold Buhari accountable for what he promised to do. We may ask if this was why Nigerians rejected Jonathan and voted for him. Clearly, he like most politicians campaigned in poetry but is now ruling in prose. Let us find out why and not look to an ignoble past or demand nonagenarians lead protests.