One argument being pushed by the Federal Government (via Osinbajo et al) and supporters of fuel subsidy removal (appropriate pricing, deregulation, downstreaming, market remedy – they have called the beast so many names my head is spinning) borders on the idea of the impenetrable darkness which always looms before the glorious light at the end of the tunnel. This is a very seductive argument, supported by the great spiritual and literary texts of the world. It is a powerful motif in literature, a recurrent theme in myths and legends: great difficulties, pitch darkness, then, light!
In the great literary mythologies, from the Greeks to the Romans, via Ananse in Ghanaian folk tales and the Tortoise in Yoruba folktales, pitch darkness and the light that follows it at the end of the tunnel are always moderated by one inescapable element: sacrifice. So here is the basic plot of one of the greatest motifs in human imagination: darkness + sacrifice = light. The emphasis is on sacrifice.
I have watched in bemusement and amusement as the Federal government and the supporters of the current move have been mobilizing this narrative to remind the nation that it will get worse before it gets better and that sacrifice is the building block of change. It is a familiar narrative. You cannot make omelettes without breaking eggs. Naturally, everybody is conveniently forgetting one important part of the nomenclature of sacrifice in this narrative.
Wherever it has worked in history as in mythology, sacrifice has always been democratic and collective and the first to sacrifice for the collective good has always been the leadership. This is how the leadership comes to acquire the symbolic validity to preach sacrifice to the people and to mobilize the theme of the darkness just before the light at the end of the tunnel as a valid pathway to national redemption.
Those who are sending this narrative on errands on behalf of the Federal government today fall into two categories. On the one hand are those who are too young to have experienced the long history of the mobilization of the theme of sacrifice by the Nigerian state. Born mostly in the 80s and the 90s and marked by a distinct spirit of incuriosity or indifference to history and what happened in Nigeria before they came into maturity, they are the most strident merchants of the theme of sacrifice on behalf of the Federal government just because they believe that they exercise a monopoly over how to support a President on whose behalf the narrative of patience and sacrifice is being mobilized today. They can be forgiven their youthful exuberance and hostility to what Google can offer them about the history of how the Nigerian state has handled the theme of sacrifice since independence.
On the other hand are those who are old enough to have experienced Nigeria’s tragic handling of the theme of sacrifice and who are somehow convinced that we are now in the one moment when this theme can be mobilized in support of a move by the Nigerian state which requires sacrifice. They are in full awareness of Nigeria’s lack of democratic credentials in the arena of sacrifice but are persuaded that President Buhari’s integrity and sincerity of purpose are enough to have earned his administration the right to retail the narrative of sacrifice to Nigerians. I disagree. I subscribe to the President’s integrity but I do not believe that he has done enough with it in one year to earn the right to mobilize the people for the sort of sacrifice which the removal of subsidy entails. I will return to this question presently.
What do I mean by the democracy of sacrifice? Why have I posited that in mythology and in history, only a leadership that has invested in the democracy of sacrifice has ever earned the validity to retail sacrifice to the people? Why am I submitting that the Nigerian state, having consistently and abysmally failed to democratize sacrifice throughout her entire postcolonial history, is in no position to call the people to sacrifice – not even under President Buhari and, especially, not under him?
Come with me.
A people’s journey to the mountain top, so powerfully dramatized in Exodus, is always marked by trials and tribulations, suffering and difficulty. Not all people ever reach the mountain top but time and again in their history, trial, tribulations, suffering, and difficulty require of them enormous sacrifice. Such sacrifice starts with self-deprivation. Where a leadership takes the lead and adapts her material needs and tastes to the imperative of sacrifice, she acquires the legitimacy to inspire the people to sacrifice. Sacrifice becomes democratic when the effects of hardship are equally felt. Sacrifice becomes inspiring when a people’s leadership is the first to take the plunge by adapting her taste to the imperatives of the moment.
To the best of my knowledge, no nation has ever succeeded in which the leadership summons the people to sacrifice while bluntly refusing to forego even the most minimal fragment of her own privileges according to the exigencies of the moment. No leadership has ever successfully mobilized the people to sacrifice while nestled in obscene comfort, ostentation, debauchery, and carnivalesque. Only sacrifice which is democratic is legitimate. Only sacrifice which is democratic should be morally and ethically supported. Only sacrifice which is democratic can mobilize the people.
We need not stray too far into Nigeria’s history to get a handle on the postcolonial biography of sacrifice in our country. We need go no farther than the Second Republic and President Shehu Shagari’s antics with IMF-induced austerity measures. As the effects of austerity measures began to bite and decimate the people, the Federal government did what it does best: call the people to sacrifice and endure suffering because the light was just at the end of the dark tunnel. Of course, there was no attempt by President Shagari and his government to lead by example; no attempt to mobilize the people via a democracy of sacrifice. There was the usual talk about “cushioning the adverse effects of austerity measures on the people.”
Two of President Shagari’s Ministers best exemplify the Nigerian state’s model of national sacrifice: Umaru Dikko and Adisa Akinloye. As poverty overtook the land and Nigerians groaned, Umaru Dikko, nestled in Federal opulence, boasted that he would be persuaded of the existence of hardship only when he saw Nigerians feeding from the garbage bin. Adisa Akinloye? Well, the Ibadan Chief responded to austerity measures by having a special brand of champagne named after himself. The Nigerian state has never departed from this model of undemocratic sacrifice in which the leadership consolidates her privileges while calling on the people to endure more suffering in the name of national sacrifice. More than thirty years after Adisa Akinloye’s champagne, the corrupt, degenerate, and irresponsible Senator Dino Melaye would have a brand of red wine named after himself in the middle of the 17th century poverty of his Okun constituents. But I am jumping ahead of myself.
It is true that the Buhari/Idiagbon regime resisted the IMF but the austerity measures of the Shagari administration largely survived. And the paradigm of sacrifice exclusively by the people was not fundamentally altered, although it was crowded out by the populist discourses of the regime. Also, the idea of the cosmetic cushioning of the effects of sacrifice on the people, which had been a hallmark of President Shagari’s idea of exclusive sacrifice by the people, was retained by the Buhari/Idiagbon regime. It was under them that the distribution of essential commodities – essenco – made a rude appearance into the life of the Nigerian middle class. I still remember Baba Adesanmi and Mama Adesanmi bringing home their own share of government-subsidised rice, beans, salt, palm oil and ororo.
As he prepared to institutionalize corruption, destroy the middle class, create an irreparable gulf between the super rich and the super poor, create a culture of wealthy but indolent Army Generals and their civilian accomplices, Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida heightened the discourse of national sacrifice – a sacrifice to be undertaken exclusively by the people. He embraced the IMF via SAP, democratized wealth and privilege in the upper rungs of society by making sure that connected civilians were “settled”. He created MAMSER (Google it) for the soporific purpose of brainwashing the people to accept the idea of “tightening their belt” and “embracing sacrifice” for the greater good.
If the “essenco” palliative had a modicum of dignity under the previous regime, it became a pointer to indigence and indignity under the Babangida regime. Those queuing up for essenco were now no longer civil servants having a rough patch but an impoverished populace that had experienced a complete wipe out of the middle class. Some of these 1980s and 1990s kids screaming on social media about sacrifice and things getting worse before they get better should be sent to their parents to ask questions about the same promises that the Nigerian state made to their parents when they were being born. They suffer from not knowing how the rain began to beat them.
As the people got poorer and the wealthier consolidated, Ibrahim Babangida never altered the script of calling the people to more sacrifice and promising more palliatives and more “cushioning” of the effects of suffering. That paradigm of sacrifice only by the people was inherited by Obasanjo in 1999. He also created “poverty alleviation programmes” while stealing billions and consolidating the wealth of his class. He also called for sacrifice by the people. He also told them that it would get worse before it got better. It got worse for the people. It got better and better for Obasanjo and his ilk. Only the people were making the sacrifice of self-deprivation and adjusting to material lack for the sake of Nigeria. The leadership wallowed in excess and lucre while promising palliatives. This model was reproduced by Yar’Adua and elevated to the level of a national religion by Goodluck Jonathan.
Without any empirical evidence that President Buhari, Vice President Osinbajo, Ministers, the National Assembly, State Governors, etc, are even prepared to modify this chequered national paradigm of undemocratic sacrifice, retailers of the “it will get worse before it gets better” theory are selling narratives invented by President Shehu Shagari more than thirty years ago. May 29, 2015 was when preparation for this sort of rationalization for the removal of fuel subsidy ought to have started. That is the day when ten of Nigeria’s twelve Presidential jets ought to have been sold as a symbolic starting message of sacrifice by the new President for it is immoral, amoral and utterly irresponsible of a country like Nigeria to maintain such a huge harem of Presidential jets. That is the day when the gargantuan material privileges of Aso Rock Villa ought to have been reduced by at least 70%.
Instead, the overall cost of maintaining the perks and privileges of the Nigerian Presidency, the cabinet, the National Assembly, and state governors is ballooning to stratospheric levels. Folks are buying jeeps at the drop of a hat. The total cost of President Buhari’s foreign trips in one year is sufficient to take care of the unpaid salaries of workers in some states. When we questioned the necessity of the purchase of new cars and limousines for the Presidency in the 2016 budget, the response was a reduction in the number of cars and not an outright cancellation of that purchase item. I can go on retailing these details but you get my point: at all levels, the Nigerian state is still largely consolidating the wealth and privilege of the 1% running that state while asking the people to be the only ones to sacrifice for Nigeria by enduring more poverty.
In the middle of all these, without having fundamentally altered the idea of undemocratic sacrifice inaugurated in the Shagari era, you remove subsidy while employing language that the people have heard from the Nigerian state for forty something years: it will get better before it gets worse; you need to sacrifice; we will cushion the effects of removing subsidy, etc. Well, Goodluck Jonathan bought SURE-P buses to cushion effects. We are still looking for those buses.
If I hear the word, cushion, one more time from any of this 1980s/1990s kids retailing the discourse of palliatives on behalf of a President they are fetishizing at the expense of Nigeria, I will slap his or her yeye face before sending them to their parents to ask questions. I made this statement in my earlier extended treatise condemning President Buhari’s removal of fuel subsidy and it bears repeating: you cannot say that the subsidy regime has failed when we have absolutely zero experience in practicing it in the absence of corruption. Let’s fight the oil cabal first. Quite frankly, I want to see people tied to the stakes and shot. But because we are not China, I can accept fair trial and extended jail time. I cannot accept the fact that the oil cabal has defeated the Nigerian state. I cannot be asked to accept the fact that the Nigerian state has conceded defeat by corruption.
I have seen a rash of chest-beating proclamations of support for the President by woolly-headed personality cultists over-reaching themselves to outdo the personality cultists they condemned in the Jonathan dispensation. Good for you. Your right to support the President by fetishizing his persona as an end unto itself stops where my right to support him by taking my koboko after him for the sake of Nigeria begins. Just remember that as you were busy asking the people for sacrifice not shared by the leadership, Lai Mohammed was busy milking an agency under him for a N13 million loan for a jamboree to China. When asked by Sahara Reporters for details of how he plans to spend tax payer’s money, he blurted out that the people, these same people you are asking to make all the sacrifice, have no right to know.
Deal with the arrogance of this irresponsible Information Minister of change before you exhort the people to sacrifice. Part of the content of change ought to be a fundamental altering of the biography of sacrifice in the Nigerian experience. Sacrifice has always meant the people bearing the brunt of the stupidity of the Nigerian state. Change ought to start with a democratization of sacrifice. You can support the President by fighting him to a standstill till you begin to concretely see this new idea of sacrifice on display all around you. This is what you voted for. It is not your role to start preaching sacrifice that is not shared by the leadership to the people.
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Pius Adesanmi is the director of Carleton University’s Institute of African Studies, Ottawa, Canada. In 2010, he was awarded the inaugural Penguin Prize for African Writing. A widely-cited commentator on Nigerian and African affairs, he has lectured in African, European, and North American universities, and also regularly addresses non-academic audiences across Africa.