In the face of the revelations that have attended the National Assembly’s investigation of the nation’s oil and gas industry, we are called upon to reflect anew on a number of “unsettled issues”. Questions are often useful places to begin any such reflection. One question that easily lends itself to interrogation, in this particular instance, is this: “How much of the debate, at the beginning of the year, over the removal of the putative subsidy on local petrol prices was properly an economic argument?” One cannot but recall the passion with which government fought its corner on this matter. The promises of impending national doom if this economic incubus were not removed presto. All of this, bettered only by the enthusiasm with which the phalanx of pro-government economists tried hard to persuade of the many distortions that subsidies of all sorts introduce into the scarcity and choice mechanism.
Then following ludicrous revelations (including the one recently made by the government of Liberia on how its order for 10,000 barrels of petrol from Nigeria was fulfilled by the agencies responsible to the tune of a million barrels) and suddenly the dreaded N1.3 trillion naira was no longer the annual amount of the subsidy on petrol for fiscal 2011. But now includes arrears from previous years, and some unstated kerosene-related subsidy. On to the second question: “Was the OccupyNigeria movement right to have insisted, as its contribution to the oil subsidy debate, on governance issues over and above spurious economics?” Apparently, if government’s response to the post-subsidy removal situation is anything to go by. We have seen in the last two weeks, a proliferation of committees designed to address governance failures in the oil and gas sector.
Third poser: “Are these governance failures the result of corruption in the various ministries, departments and agencies associated with the oil and gas sector, or the result of incompetent leadership as the Liberian debacle seems to suggest?” A “yes” or “no” response to this question is irrelevant to the extent that we agree that one of the biggest problems with our polity is the way we have organised domestic incentives. Our challenge as a people, since flag-independence it seems, has been to ensure that behaviour inconsistent with the best interests of the commonweal are punished and seen to be punished. And that conduct, which improve the commonweal’s welfare are not only rewarded, but are seen to be.
On this reading, it is hard to understand the utility of the many committees set up by government to address failures along the oil and gas sector’s value chain. Would it not have been more appropriate to hold those managing these institutions responsible? And where these are demonstrably unwilling to resign in order that we might have a new broom sweep these institutions clean, then to sack them? This order of things would clearly be consistent with the need to send signals to the polity on a new commitment to a proper set of incentives.
Interestingly, the “committee as an instrument of public policy formulation” not only increases the polity’s noise-to-signal ratio, it also touches upon another aspect of our development task. “What is the nature of our democracy?” The one argument in favour of a democratic arrangement, is that (as with market economies, where the free exercise of individual consumer choices results in signals to the economy as to the best allocation of scarce resources) it allows voters to choose, and thus to send clear signals to the political market place of the electorate’s preferred means of allocating authoritative values. If this choice must be meaningful, it includes in the definition of a democracy, a thriving opposition to the government in power. Essentially, the point is that having campaigned for political office and lost, the opposition holds the incumbent administration’s feet to the fire by constantly reminding the electorate of why its choice may have been in error. This way, government is forced to stick to policies that make political and economic sense, and to do this as transparently as possible.
Unfortunately, the incumbent administration missed this point when it failed to understand that the opposition was perfectly within its rights/duties to have sought to profit from government’s cack-handed handling of the protests that followed the attempted deregulation of petrol prices. But if this administration’s alarums and excursions over the opposition’s role during the fuel subsidy protest followed from a misconception of democracy, we face an even bigger threat to our democracy when leading members of the opposition cross-over to join government’s many committees. Contrary to the modish definitions of the national interest, for a political party in opposition, the bigger national interest is to keep the electorate’s choices open. And as the Liberal Democrats are demonstrating in the United Kingdom, it is hard for the opposition to do this when its leading lights canoodle with the government of the day.