Nigeria and the petrol subsidy wahala--the relevance of religion?

Mojúbàolú Olúfúnké Okome, Ph.D.
Professor of Political Science
Brooklyn College, CUNY

I have been engrossed in grading papers and shepherding a thesis to completion. So, I have been bogged down by what I call end of the semester blues—grading, computing, submitting said grades--all routine tasks that I don’t enjoy. This year, these things were made even more difficult because they had to be done around the first anniversary of my mother’s death. I am a Nigerian in the diaspora, but other than my husband, children, and a few cousins, my entire family is in Nigeria. And although this might surprise most Americans, they do not want to leave wholesale and relocate to the US. Some have even been put off so much by the contortions it requires to obtain a US visa that they choose not to travel to this country. But I am in touch. I study Nigerian political economy. I go back several times a year to visit,research, and sometimes participate in conferences. When I do, I continue to feel more at home than in the U.S., where I have lived for 31 years (this February). I return energized and have a spring in my step, a glint in my eye and much joy in my heart. Is this because Nigeria is a heaven on earth? Hardly. Nigeria constantly breaks my heart, being a country with much promise and potential that remains stuck in mediocrity. It has many enterprising, intelligent,exuberant people, but its economy is in the problematic state of superficially showing significant growth, particularly in light of the World Economic Meltdown, while also manifesting significant inequality that keeps majority of its 165 million people in an extremely miserable condition.

I grew up in a Nigeria where there was more tolerance for religious difference. My extended family still has adherents and devotees of many of the Yoruba people’s gods, Christianity, Islam, even some Asian religions like Ekancar/Third Eye. Although we are numerous, we have never bothered to take a census. We celebrate with one another and although we quarrel, it is not about religion. We have resolved to live peaceably with one another, because we are family. This is how it was for most Nigerians when I was growing up.

Today, amidst the great explosion of religious intolerance has taken over. Sectarian and other kinds of religious conflict flare up with increasing regularity. Boko Haram, with its penchant for suicide bombing has made Nigeria famous for many who only pay attention to Africa when a catastrophe is announced. Boko Haram struck again around Christmas. Among other targets, were churches where people were mowed down amidst rejoicing and celebrating the birth of Christ. The crisis was compounded by the bizarre government response. How on God’s green earth is anyone to have confidence in a government that confesses its inability to understand what to do? President Goodluck Jonathan’s statement that Boko Haram is everywhere, even in his cabinet not only does not inspire confidence, it is shocking. As though this was insufficient to demoralize people at the end of one year and the beginning of another, the government fast-tracked its removal of the petrol subsidy.

Nigerians have been described as the happiest people on earth. It’s been affirmed that this conclusion is a result of research. Despite the grueling and enduring economic crisis that beset the country from themid-1980s, there was a spirit of optimism and hopefulness that was puzzling. Many embraced spirituality and religiosity. Others continued to party as though there were no tomorrow. No one paid serious attention to the grinding poverty of the majority. Even the prosperity gospel pastors boldly proclaimed that if anyone is poor, it’s because they are sinners. And in any case, the arrogant noveau riche believed this in the first place. So on went life. Everyone who had any common sense was on the take. Even some of the most ardent believers. Many of the Christians in this fold having bought into the problematic logic of prosperity gospel, became convinced that it’s OK to embezzle and misappropriate funds as long as one tithes. The pastors not only received the ill gotten gains quickly, publicly, and in a manner designed to encourage further shenanigans, they tried assiduously to get anyone that sits on the fence on this issue to take sides and “plant seeds”, i.e. give money to their church, in return for God’s blessings. Sort of reminds one of the selling of indulgences by the early catholic church before there formation.

Now came the petrol subsidy removal at the beginning of anew year. No doubt one of the casualties will be the churches. Whatever people are wont to give will be reduced by the fuel subsidy. Thus far, I may seem to have gone off on a tangent. I said this piece would be about the petrol subsidy, and I’m taking so much time to discuss religion. Mea culpa, but with valid reasons. If Nigerians are so mired in religiosity as to appear to be enthralled, the religious is relevant to even the matter of the fuel subsidy. To demonstrate this, I will not only quote the Catholic Church and the Christian Association of Nigeria, I will begin with a quote from an email sent me by my cousin who lives and works in Lagos, Nigeria. He’s an engineer who owns his own company. He is Baptist just like me. He is a Bible-believing Christian. He’s been sending me analyses and reportage on the petrol subsidy removal. Yesterday, January 12, he sent me one that ended with the following:


Nigerians will not die in this situation. We will survive it. God will uproot all the people that are oppressing us in Nigeria. The lost glory of Nigeria shall be restored in Jesus’ Name. Let us continue to intensify our prayer for our Beloved Country. I can assure you that all will be well in Jesus’ Name.

I remain yours sincerely in Christ,

The piece was signed by an evangelist, and for me, is indicative that there are some who are cognizant of Christ’s message, and the need for a liberation theology in Nigeria. But more men and women of God need to stand up and be counted. They need to speak up and they need to resist the inequity that has permeated every aspect of the Nigerian body politic and its economic system.

Nigeria has a structural problem. Its federal system is not functioning as it ought to given the overwhelming power of the center and its control of almost all revenue. The system needs to be re-designed to function more efficiently and effectively.

I also have to say that I am terribly disappointed that the Nigerian government cares so little for the Nigerian people, majority of whom are poor, that it imposed this ruinous petrol subsidy removal. Judging from the heterodox responses of western countries to their ongoing economic crisis, neoliberal measures of which the subsidy removal is a variety are being regarded as delegitimized. They're also not politically sustainable, and these are societies with welfare states where there are all kinds of safety nets that do not exist in Nigeria. With our minimum wage of 18,000 naira a month, how are ordinary Nigerians expected to survive? Even a 50% pay cut for the cabinet is insufficient. Most of their perks should be eliminated. The legislators should also have a cut in pay and perks. Besides this, there must be serious work done on developing Nigerian infrastructure, providing quality and affordable medical care, and education. We don't have public water or electricity. A tremendous amount of money is required to ensure regular supply of these necessities. How does the fuel subsidy removal address these things?

If for the sake of argument, we accept the spurious claim that the FGN subsidized petrol, and the question is one of some rent seeking venal elites benefiting at the expense of the general public, why not rehabilitate, repair and upgrade the refineries in the country?

Also, if subsidies are an integral part of the crony capitalist systems of the world, which is a conclusion that would not be unreasonable given the evidence of subsidies from the US government to its oil companies, wouldn't the removal of one set of subsidies simply be replaced by others?

It is a happy new year because the Nigerian people have spoken up and are out en masse to resist this irrational state policy. To be continued...


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