Pius Isiekwene examines the implications of a revolt by citizens who are made guinea pigs for President Tinubu’s policy experiments.
The huge support for the organized labour’s peaceful protest, the students’ notice of mass protest over increases in school fees and the chaotic eruption in Adamawa State are signs that the Nigerian people may have come to the elastic limit of their endurance.
With an estimated population of 220 million people spanning the widest spectrum of socio-economic indices, Nigeria is a perfect human laboratory. The human specimens or guinea pigs range from the very poor to the super rich, from the toddler to the aged, from the uneducated stark illiterate to the most learned. There is no shortage of specimens. No shortage of experiments.
President Bola Tinubu apparently forgot an important factor in forcing citizens to become guinea pigs for his public policy experiments. What he may have forgotten is that, typically, the classical laboratory situation is controlled for the determination of the impact of a new variable. In less-controlled socio-economic experiments, empiricism is sacrificed for generalizations. In other situations, they could become a case of comparing apples with oranges in providing justifications for pre-determined ends. This is the case with the recent comparison of the cost per litre of premium motor spirit (petrol) in Nigeria vis-a-vis the United Kingdom, the United States and elsewhere without a corresponding reference to the average income of the motorist or commuter.
A harvest of experiments
There have been multiple experiments in recent weeks just as there have been multiple hypotheses on the impact of free market forces on the economy and the people. The emerging socio-economic model has had to contend with the petrol subsidy, the exchange rate, and cost of education in government–run institutions. The implied hypotheses are interesting and troubling.
Firstly, the controversial petrol subsidy; “Can Nigerians pay any price for petrol so long as it is available?” The powers that be answered their own question in the affirmative. The cost per litre went from N185 to N488-N500 within 24 hours of the new President’s maiden address to the nation on 29 May 2023 and N578 – N617 as at the end of July 2023. There was scant or no thought at all about the multiplier effects of the wholesale removal of a subsidy in one fell swoop, the value of which has been the subject of persistent debate.
The seeming success with the removal of petrol subsidy and low public resistance led to the floating of the Naira. The hypothesis: “Can the floating of the Naira against major global currencies with the attendant massive devaluation stem the demand for foreign exchange and trigger the inflow of foreign remittances and new investments.?” Again, the President and his advisers answered their own question in the affirmative. The foreign exchange markets were unified into a single market, seeing the dollar leap from an estimated weighted average of N550 to N765 upon the announcement of the policy. By the first week of August, the dollar had climbed to about N800 and the Pound Sterling to over N1,000.
Under the new policy, a student whose family income falls within a certain bracket would be allowed to borrow from the fund and commence repayment two years after the National Youth Service. The policy does not, understandably, guarantee employment post NYSC. But through the contrivance of the loans scheme, the government apparently hoped to transfer the burden of funding tertiary education to the debtor-student.
Not done with the two major experiments on petrol subsidy and exchange rate, the government floated a grandious idea on education financing. It revived the old student loans policy. Under the new policy, a student whose family income falls within a certain bracket would be allowed to borrow from the fund and commence repayment two years after the National Youth Service. The policy does not, understandably, guarantee employment post NYSC. But through the contrivance of the loans scheme, the government apparently hoped to transfer the burden of funding tertiary education to the debtor-student. Shortly after the announcement, many Federal Universities and Unity Colleges reeled out a new set of fees with between 100 and 300 percent increases. The threat of protests by students has led the government to clarify that tuition remained free and that the increases announced by some institutions only had to do with such services as accommodation, library, registration and medicals. The students have adopted a wait-and-see attitude prior to their scheduled resumptions in late September or early October.
But for the one-day protest by organized labour led by the Nigerian Labour Congress (NLC) and the Trade Union Congress (TUC)on August 2, 2023, there have been no widespread protests. The students have deferred their protest to a later date, depending on how things eventually turn out. A few professional unions, including the National Association of Resident Doctors, have also embarked on quiet protests against government’s failure to keep its promises. The brand of protest in Adamawa State took a totally different turn. Angry and starving citizens spewed out unto the streets, breaking into stores and whare houses to cart away whatever they could. The governor was compelled to impose a curfew.
The huge support for the organized labour’s peaceful protest, the students’ notice of mass protest over increases in school fees and the chaotic eruption in Adamawa State are signs that the Nigerian people may have come to the elastic limit of their endurance. The hunger and anger are palpable. The pain is deep. The guinea pigs have had enough. If nothing is done to redress the cost of the corruption in the petroleum sector now transferred to the citizens, cut down on the cost of governance, and improve the funding of the forex market, the protests are bound to take on a louder and more stringent tempo. It would be the mother of all protests; the revolt of the guinea pigs.
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