Monday, October 24, 2011

The Second Comming of Ngozinomics: Balancing the Books on the Back of the Poor

“The definition of the alternatives is the supreme instrument of power”
- E.E. Schattschneider “The Semisovereign People” (1960)

Most economists agrees that many factors contribute to economic growth, ranging from the productivity of the work force, shares of private savings available for private investment, increased public expenditures that help spurs growth during recession, reduced tax burdens that will encouraged private investment and spending by the large swath of the population, to list just a few. Sadly none of these matters in Nigeria, since the current ruling class in Nigeria is fixated on one thing and one thing only: Petroleum subsidy. Every government in Nigeria including the most profligate and corrupt almost inevitably look at the supposed petroleum subsidy as the anti-dote to all Nigeria economic woes. It was never about the structure that makes the world fifth exporter of crude oil, one of the biggest importers of refined petroleum oil. Never about the poverty of ideas that have rendered the manufacturing sector of the economy comatose due to the high cost of nonexistent electricity.

And now we are back to the beats again, thanks largely to President Goodluck Ebele Jonathan’s “unconstitutional prime minister”: Ngozi Okonjo Iweala. The last time she was in the saddle as minister of finance she pushed for the removal of the same subsidy. At that time she promised that she is doing it for own good and it will be the last time. She promised it will fix our economy and spurred economic growth. Well, if anything was spurred it was the bank account of the politicians. She also successfully negotiated some of Nigeria debt and got kudos for her effort. All of these in turn spurred Ms. Iweala’s personal profile with World Bank and IMF, her erstwhile boss, who in turn promoted her as managing director.

Now, she is back with the same gambit, she believes she can fix Nigeria’s economic woes by removing all petroleum subsidy. Everyone in government believes this is the right thing to do. What do they care? They do not shop where ordinary Nigeria buys food. What is more, their kids do not attend the failing schools they promised to fund at the end of the last exercise; and when they or their progenitors fall sick they simply fly to the best hospitals in US, UK or South Africa; while the poor and the dispossessed get to deal with the attendant ripple effects of the removal of subsidy at home in Nigeria. To adopt a popular refrain from political science, one can conclude that the flaw in Nigeria’s ruling class petroleum subsidy mantra is that their heavenly chorus sings with a strong upper-class accent. Evidence shows that every time politicians ginned up this excuse, prices of foodstuffs and household goods rises steeply. The attendant inflation is a self fulfilling prophecy. The funny thing is that their excuses get irritating and embarrassing each time they bring it up. They claim the subsidy encourages illicit export of subsidized products: and my answer to that is whose job is it to guard the porous border? The poor farmer in Kafachan? They also claim that prices in some part of the country are different from others: again my answer is whatever happens to price control unit commission? And why are there no prosecutions of erring fuel stations owners? Are they too powerful?

There is no doubt, that the ruling class in Nigeria is populated with “fanatics” who have a fetish attachment to removal of subsidy. They dismiss logic, knowledge, morality and intellectual integrity in favor of this “sacred fixation” with removal of petroleum subsidy. To the ruling class in Nigeria, removal of petroleum subsidy is “sine qua non” for economic growth. It does not matter if it flies in the face of every logic. No effort to explore any other alternatives. As Upton Sinclair wrote in 1935, "It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it." “Ngozinomics” is back again, we are in trouble. Who will save us from our politicians masquerading as economist?