Expect Trouble Over Nigeria’s Removal Of Fuel Subsidies

Fortunately Boko Haram never made good on their threat to bomb Lagos, which had the authorities send hoardes of security personnel onto the streets and our security department sending telling us to stay out of nightclubs on New Year’s Eve.

This, however, is expected to affect us severely:

The Nigerian authorities have announced the start of a controversial plan to scrap fuel subsidies – which is expected to push up petrol prices.

The government has spent more than $8bn (£5.2bn) on the subsidies in the past year and says it will use some of the money to improve infrastructure.

Labour unions have called for “mass protests”.

Many Nigerians regard cheap fuel as the only benefit they get from the nation’s oil wealth.

Now most people would stop here and derive a formula by which plenty of crude equals cheap petrol, as is the case in Kuwait, for example.  But they’d be wrong, for reasons the BBC points out:

Nigeria is Africa’s biggest oil producer but most of the available 2 million barrels per day are exported in an unrefined state.

The country lacks refineries and infrastructure so has to import refined products such as petrol, which is expensive.

What the BBC hasn’t pointed out is that successive Nigerian governments, or at least the individuals that comprise them, have deliberately let the country’s refineries slip into disrepair and failed to upgrade them because the importation of fuel provides a vehicle by which money from the state coffers can be transferred to individuals.  These scams can be complex, but often they are no more sophisticated than mis-stating the cargo on a bill of lading.  An importer exaggerates what he has brought in on the paperwork, collects the subsidy from the government, and that paid on the fictional volume is pure profit.  Nice work if you can get it, and sadly for Nigeria’s finances it looks as though an awful lot of people can.  It isn’t just one or two individuals getting in on the action here, it is likely to be hundreds of departments, authorities, or plain criminal gangs and thousands of individuals benefit.  At a cost to 170m Nigerians, of course.

But that’s not all.

Nigerians are heavy users of fuel, not just for cars but to power generators that many households and businesses use to cope with the country’s erratic electricity supply.

The other thing the BBC does not tell us is that successive Nigerian governments, or at least the individuals that comprise them, have deliberately let the country’s power stations slip into disrepair and failed to upgrade them (do you see a pattern here?) because forcing the entire population to buy an (imported) generator run on imported fuel from which a hefty profit is drawn makes those same individuals very rich.  Okay, 170m ordinary Nigerians suffer as a consequence, but who are they to deny functionaries with handy family connections the opportunity to cruise the streets of Lagos in a Porsche Cayenne?

Nigeria’s two main labour organisations, the Trades Union Congress and the Nigerian Labour Congress, issued a joint statement condemning the move.

“We alert the populace to begin immediate mobilisation towards the D-Day for the commencement of strikes, street demonstrations and mass protests across the country,” the statement said.

“This promises to be a long drawn battle; we know it is beginning, but we do not know its end or when it will end.”

“We are confident the Nigerian people will triumph,” it said.

No, I am quite confident that whatever happens the Nigerian people will get shafted, as usual.  Now subsidising a staple product to keep a population happy is a stupid policy, be it for petrol, bread, rice, domestic gas, or anything else.  It distorts the market, generates perverse incentives, is inefficient, and costs the government an increasing amount each year which eventually becomes unaffordable.  Then when they try to remove the subsidy, they’re faced with a revolution.  It was the removal of bread subsidies in Egypt and elsewhere that was partly responsible for the Arab Spring in 2011.  What starts off as a bung to keep a population content soon becomes a permanent entitlement, and too few of the recipients are comfortable enough around the pages of an economics textbook to understand that it was a rotten idea from the beginning.

But I can see the Unions’ point here, even though I believe their concern for the common Nigerian is about as sincere as that professed by Nigeria’s politicians, or politicians of any nationality for that matter.  Far too many of Nigeria’s multiple layers of government are run for the benefit of the individuals which comprise them, and as a result – or perhaps as part of the same disease? – the rest of the country expects their share of the loot as well.  Thus any policy, initiative, project, or scam which transfers government resources into the pockets of individuals is seen as fair game by all, and the objective is to maximise the stream of revenues or benefits which flows in your direction.  The idea that government revenues are a limited resource to be divided carefully amongst competing interests and spent wisely for the good of the whole country is as alien to Nigeria as okadas are to Oslo.

The truth is that the ordinary Nigerian is going to be clobbered by the inevitable jump in fuel prices, whilst the myriad other scams and fraudulent schemes perpertuated by those in power continue unabated.  Even though the Nigerian government is doing the right thing in removing the subsidy, it needs to come as part of a package of far more serious reforms.  Otherwise, the people, fired up and driven on by the Unions, are not going to be a happy bunch.

This could well get serious.

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2 Responses to Expect Trouble Over Nigeria’s Removal Of Fuel Subsidies

  1. Jon says:

    Nigeria is a federal state, I think – any chance it could tear itself to pieces over this?

    I did manage to buy a cargo of fueloil out of Nigeria. Once. I was offered dozens of the damn things, but only once when I said “payment 10 days after bill of lading date” did someone say “OK.” He delivered and then disappeared off the face of the Earth.

  2. Hopper says:

    You weren’t kidding about the trouble: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-16425111
    Out of curiosity, where does the subsidy money go now? Will it actually go into infrastructure (roads, electrical power etc.) or does ‘infrastructure’ actually mean ‘projects ideally suited to huge overbilling and lax supervision’?

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