At the height of the widespread protests against the removal of subsidy on petroleum products by the federal government last January, I wrote, but did not publish, an article pointing out the limitations of a tropical version of so-called “Arab Spring.” I shelved the piece because I did not wish to undermine what appeared to be a genuine, almost spontaneous expression of radical hope by the masses of Nigerians. The following paragraph should give a good idea of the overall tone of the article:
“Without claiming exceptionalism for Nigeria, however, I think that there are several ways in which the widespread industrial and popular actions across the country in the past several days are in a class, and cannot be thought of as a sub-Saharan instance of the revolutions to the north. In a country where petty thieves are routinely lynched in public, where policemen brazenly shoot innocent citizens to death in broad daylight, where, since the 2008 disturbances in Jos, over ten thousands citizens have been killed with impunity, and not one single individual has been transparently investigated and punished for any of these killings, how can the sight of a corpse in the street ignite a nationwide demonstration? Following the Bouaziz self-immolation that jump-started the Tunisian unrest, the novelist Chimamanda Adichie published an opinion essay in which she doubted that a Nigerian would ever feel so wronged as to kill himself. To me, the issue was not whether a Nigerian would have the heart to do it, but whether Nigerians as a people would be moved into collective action by such an act of self-sacrifice. Nigerians have an inhuman capacity to take it on the chin and move on.”
I figured that the article might come across as reactionary, and chose to second-guess myself, even though I was convinced of my analysis. Somehow, I knew that it would not be long before the opportunity to re-state the argument presented itself again. And here we are, seven months, later: beside the reverberations of the Boko Haram onslaught, no single topic has defined political discussions in the country this year more than the issue of petroleum subsidy. We haven’t really left Square One on the matter.
First, the decision by the Nigerian Labor Congress and the Trade Unions Coalition to end the strike came after President Goodluck Jonathan announced the reduction of the price-per-liter of gasoline to 97 naira from the unacceptable 116 naira. We learnt that “a deal was struck” between the NLC/TUC and the government. What were the details of the “deal”? What would happen to the excess amount (the balance of 32 naira—the pre-January price-per-liter being 65 naira)? How do the concerned pressure groups ensure that the mythical beast of petroleum pricing, which had menaced the polity since the late 1980s, was definitively slain, ostracized, or pacified?
Obviously, these were idealistic questions, the sorts to trouble those who truly want to see a change. From the point of view of those who held the bridle (the government agencies, the committee of the National Assembly, the oil companies), no such change would come.
Second, the early signs, like the utopian halo of Occupy Nigeria, suggested otherwise. Remember the patriotic zeal with which committee headed by Hon. Farouk Lawan held public hearings on the subsidy issue. For a truly hopeful moment, many of the critical mass began to view the assemblyman as a Biblical Daniel. Here was an unusual display of probity on Judgment Day, thank goodness. The truth, as we have since discovered, was depressing in its ordinariness: the committee chairman came to, or left, the table of equity with soiled hands. The widely reported allegations of bribery between Zenon Oil, one of the companies involved in the subsidy “arrange”, and the committee chairman were characterized in the media as the spill-over of a “sting operation.” They were nothing of the sort. The prober and the probed were two sides of the coin that no more than enabled a transaction. Add to this the staggering scandal of subsidy fund scammers, currently being tried by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, and you see some of the whole picture.
How can we square these with the public-spirited hope that motivated and animated the “Occupy Nigeria” protests of January 2012? What’s going on? It is clear that Nigerians in public office and high-stake private business have mastered a peculiar trick, the sanctimonious observation of rule, the need to be seen to observe formality. It does not matter if the process has a positive outcome; in fact, all concerned know at the outset that it will not. What matters is the public display of form. It is a peculiarly Nigerian invention: the elaborate, formal display of probity in the service of the institution of corruption.
*This is the first of a three-part article on the theme of “false formality”.