We should not dwell heavily on the cause of our woes. We should not bellyache over the corrupt doings of the Jonathan years overmuch. We should not carp on the wasted opportunities with the Naira and our foreign reserves. The Naira, now fallen, preened on sunnier days and our foreign reserves rolled in buxom times.
But we cannot escape it when we say that elections have consequences. That Jonathan mattered and now matters. When we vote, we do it on sentiments. Sentiments, as Oscar Wilde says, propel us more than reason. But we voted a man for his so-called humble looks and his backwaters roots. We are now in the backwaters of inflation, joblessness, hunger and desperation.
Democracy is not always about wise decisions. It can be foolish. The Algerians and, recently, Egyptians voted in a set of brooding fanatics into power and had to fret until they were ousted. Novelist Mark Twain once said that “if voting made a difference, they wouldn’t let us do it.” We are now suffering the maelstrom of electoral delirium.
Today, the price of fuel is N145 because we erred. We can blame Jonathan all we want. But we must be careful not to wash ourselves clean.
Now that we have to face the task of bringing our economy to a softer place, we must also keep vigil. We have to watch out for profiteers and cynics. But more importantly, we must understand where we are and how we ought to move from here.
As the fuel price was raised, a few issues hit the nation’s jugular. One, it came as a surprise. Fuel stations had become limp lines of vehicular frustrations. Some were buying fuel at whatever price when they could afford it. They just wanted fuel. Whether at N180 or N120 per litre, they gulped the rare fluid. Others had no choice. They borrowed Job’s virtue and lingered on fuel stations for interminable hours. Some of them were not rewarded when the fuel stations dried up and they had to try their lucks elsewhere.
The announcement of the fuel price hike was greeted with revulsion, and then many discovered that they no longer had to queue. They had relief, not joy. Relief can be more potent than happiness. To escape a doom may soothe the soul more than enjoying a boon. Many of us could not fill our tanks, but we had enough fuel to move around and hustle until we could afford another time at the fuel station.
Nigerians understood the desperation, hence the call for strike had no emotional following. But the other snag was that the fuel was suddenly available. What does that tell us of the fuel marketers? They won. They browbeat the government to raise the price of fuel.
Or shall we say they had to browbeat the federal government to do what they had to do. The federal government was spending over 70 percent of its foreign exchange to import fuel. It had about $800 million a month of forex, but spent about $600 million to import fuel. What was left for other urgent matters of state? Mere pittance.
So, the marketers did not win, but they were crooked. I think the Buhari administration should have taken this decision long ago, very early in its administration. But something critical was lacking: communication skills. The President lamented very early on that the Jonathan administration wrecked our purse and we had nothing. I wrote in this column that it was not his job to lament but to take action. We would have gotten over this matter of fuel adjustment long ago.
The other issue is that the fuel price hike came with disconnects on a number of levels. There was little communication between the government and the people, between the government and labour and between labour and the Nigerian workers. This slew of disconnects reflected in the past week. Some asserted that the palliatives already existed in the budget, so was the hike premeditated? Why did the administration not dare into the fray rather than do it sneakily?
The problem, I think, is that the government should not have used the term palliatives. Minister Lai Mohammed struggled to convey the logic in his rounds in the media because some coordination did not take place. He did not use the word palliatives and he, in fact, noted that it was not about palliatives but a decision the government was compelled to take in the light of a battered foreign reserve.
The government already had a welfare plan in its budget, and it could have easily argued that the welfare package was in itself prescient because the administration anticipated the hurly-burly of the economy. The administration should have buoyed the fuel hike news with figures of how much it had saved and how the money saved would be ploughed into the economy. That is the definition of a psychological palliative. It’s like having a baby and losing one on the same day. It is expected, however, that President Buhari will unveil he figures in his May 29 broadcast.
One of the headaches of the past year has been the budget delay and absence of implementation of government projects.
Buhari should have deployed the administration’s bellwether Babatunde Fashola (SAN) into the fray. His ministry holds a critical key. It will do the works. That’s how economies come back to life. With projects unleashed, lots of money flow into the system, and many get jobs because many contracts are awarded. Franklyn Roosevelt did it in the Great Depression on the inspiration of the genius of economist John Maynard Keynes. Big works pull demands and fill them. It can happen here. Fashola has spent some of the past year articulating his plans on power and infrastructure, but absence of money has allowed a sort of ennui to creep into the Buhari mainstream. Other ministers, like Rotimi Amaechi, whose rail projects will open dams of money could have helped.
Times of economic woes are not about actions alone, but also about inspired rhetoric. Roosevelt said during America’s worst economic times: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” It injected a tonic into the American psychological bloodstream. That is what we expect at this time. The Jonathan damage cannot be cured overnight. We voted him, so, we voted for our woes. We should be ready for the consequences. But, the Buhari administration must learn to embrace us and soothe us with not only steps of concrete action but also words that inspire. Good words are like medicine, says David in the Proverbs.
John F. Kennedy did this in his time. He said: “The Chinese use two brush strokes to write the word ‘crisis.’ One brush stroke stands for danger; the other for opportunity. In a crisis, be aware of the danger—but recognise the opportunity.” Words like these brought America from crisis to catharsis. We need them now.