By Wole Olaoye
The Nigerian camel is strong, resilient, patient but not unbreakable. You may pile kilograms upon kilograms of straw on its back and all appears well until you throw in the last straw. And both load and carrier kiss the dust.
One man whose insight about the last straw appears to speak to the Nigerian situation is blogger Greg Smith. He tells the story of a circus man who did not know when to stop piling straw upon straw until the camel’s back broke.
“Did you hear the story of the man at the circus, near the camel pen? He was seen picking up a strand of hay and walking over to one of the dromedaries. He carefully placed the blade of dried grass on the brown fur of its hump. Nothing happened. The man shrugged and said, ‘Ah, wrong straw!’ and walked off disappointed.
“Obviously, he was looking for the straw that broke the camel’s back. And he missed the point of the old proverb. A straw is a little thing. It really can’t hurt anything. But added together, the little straws make a great heavy burden. And as you put more straws on a camel’s back, theoretically they will become gradually heavier until there will be one last straw that adds the extra fraction of an ounce that exceeds the tensile strength of the vertebrae of that beast of burden. The last straw is not the last straw by itself.”
He could have been writing a metaphor for the Nigerian situation.
The Nigerian people have been at the mercy of a system which makes them poorer anytime the country earns more money through oil sales. Paradox of paradoxes, whenever the international price of crude oil increases and Nigeria earns more money than budgeted, the citizens have to pay more for local consumption. Over the years, government-owned refineries have been run down to the extent that petroleum products are now imported for consumption as if Nigeria was not an oil producing nation. And the sole importer is another government ‘sick baby’ — the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation, NNPC.
Mele Kyari, group managing director of the corporation, recently sent notice to a bewildered nation that more bad news was on the way. “Today, PMS sells across our borders anywhere above N300 at any of our neighbours. And in some places, it is up to N500 and N550 to the litre, he said. He warned that the NNPC will no longer operate a subsidy regime by whatever name called.
Nigerian officials have the habit of comparing cucumber with mango. Which of our neighbours is as blessed as we are? Why do we always select figures out of context to justify the unleashing of more painful programmes on our people? We know that if we were refining our own crude at home, fuel price will be about half of what we are paying now. But we choose to pass on the pain of our corruption and incompetence to the people.
This was the same country where we paid 6k (six kobo) per litre of petrol until 1973 when the Gowon administration increased it to 8.45k. Since then, succeeding administrations have jacked up the price to the present moment where we are being told that government’s inability to refine petroleum at home is our collective fault. Just look at the trajectory: Murtala Mohammed increased the pump price to 9k; Obasanjo took it to 15.3k; Shagari increased it to 20k; in four different instalments, Babangida hiked the price to 39.5k, 42k, 60k and 70k.
Shonekan catapulted the price to N5; Abacha took it to N11; Abubakar hiked it to N20; Obasanjo in his second coming increased the price seven times within eight years, ending at N75; Yar’Adua, in sympathy with the people reduced the price to N65, the only president who did not increase fuel price; Jonathan shot up the price to N141 and, following protests, reduced to N97 and further down to N87; Buhari has now taken the price to N165, depending on where you fuel up. That is the price that NNPC, the agency presiding over the opaque and incompetent system of importing what we should be exporting — wants to further take to the stratosphere.
We recently increased VAT from 5 per cent to 7.5 per cent. We are told that Nigeria has one of the lowest VAT rates in the world when compared to Ghana’s 12.5 per cent, and 15 per cent and 16 per cent in South Africa and Kenya respectively. However, in Ghana, Kenya and South Africa, small businesses are not subject to VAT.
Ghana has a threshold of around N13million annual turnover while Kenya’s is N17million and South Africa’s is N23million. In addition, many incentives are given to companies to employ more people unlike here where all sorts of hurdles are placed in the way of business concerns, forcing some of them to close shop and send more people to the unemployment market.
The increase in price of petroleum products at a time the world is being ravaged by COVID-19, has led to an increase in transport fares by land, sea, and air. This has had a spiralling effect on the cost of goods, notably food and household products. Many more families and skirting the thin line between bare existence and mendicancy.
And now, Nigerian bank customers are being made to bear additional burdens as the Central Bank has directed that they pay N6.98 for using Unstructured Supplementary Service Data (USSD). This, in a country where the banks and telecommunication companies declare profits of hundreds of billions even during recession. Imagine a person who wants to buy N100 airtime having to pay about 7 per cent ‘penalty’ for using USSD. Perhaps the authorities want us to revert to the days of yore when queues in banks rivalled those at the bus stops.
USSD is a game changer in achieving financial inclusion. Sixty percent of the phones in use in Nigeria are feature phones where 3G connectivity only overtook 2G last year. USSD allows users to make financial transactions without bank apps, sans internet. To show how financially inclusive the development is, transactions valued at N390 billion were done with USSD in June 2020 alone.
It seems the people are perceived only as beasts of burden. But for how long can they continue to bear the load before collapsing or fighting back?
We are in a country of one millionaire per one million beggars. In 2018, in an article titled “Give Oil Blocs to States”, I canvassed a departure from the present system where oil blocs that could have helped improve the living standards of our people are routinely gifted to friends of government. I wrote inter alia:
“A 2013 report revealed that Nigeria had a total of 388 oil blocs out of which about 173 had been awarded to individuals and corporations, while 215 blocs were yet to be awarded. Out of the 173 awarded, foreigners owned 83 blocs while Nigerians owned 90. According to the Department of Petroleum Resources (DPR) at the time, the 83 awarded to foreign oil companies accounted for 94 per cent – 2.35 million barrels per day of the total output. Nigerian players took the balance. That state of affairs hasn’t changed much today.
“On the surface, those figures don’t look alarming. But considering the billions of dollars involved, the patronage system of treating oil blocs as birthday gifts to those in whom the tenants of power are well pleased is nothing but iniquitous. It cannot be justified in any law or convention devised by man.”
General Abacha may have been such a ruthless ‘goalkeeper’— to the extent that instalments of his loot are still being repatriated today — but his countertrade system of giving oil in exchange for government’s requirements served in minimising the transfer of more burdens onto the people. In the current system, we own the house but are being compared with children of tenants; we own the oil but must suffer more pains than oil-less countries.
I humbly reiterate my plea that we don’t push the common man beyond the brink. The camel is already laden with a gargantuan mountain of straw. Just one more ‘insignificant’ straw — and something may snap!