Time to stand on our heads, By Dan Agbese

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The Daily Trust cartoon of November 28 went viral, as indeed it should. Because it packs humour and raises issues about the giddy mathematics of managing our economy. Let me recapture it because it bears retelling for its humour and its scorn of a new government policy that appears to confound simple maths. It appears to pass all understanding but not so, really.

In the cartoon, a young girl finds her father standing on his head. Surprised, she exclaims, “Wow! Dad, why are you standing on your head?” Her father responds: “I am trying to understand this government policy.” 

What the man is trying to understand is this news report in the media: “Government to replace N1.8 trillion subsidy with N2.4 trillion palliatives.” Since the man cannot understand the abracadabra standing on his feet, he thinks he can do so by standing on his head. He is right, I think.

Funny, yes. Serious matters are always sources of fun and humour. The late Mrs Kudirat Abiola once said that if something passes your power, you laugh. And if a government policy passes your understanding, you stand on your head. Perhaps, it is therapeutic.

The cartoonist has given us a new and creative way of thinking and making sense of government policies that seem rather awkward to the untutored mind, which, incidentally, refers to most of us outside the wisdom loop where new paradigms of governance are hatched in the petri-dish by experts. In a country where two and two do not often add to four, it always helps for the people to explore creative ways of enhancing their own understanding and appreciation of how they are governed.

Standing on our heads is creative and innovative. What you cannot see standing on your feet, you might see better in your inverted physical structure by standing on your head. Historians looking into this period in our history will discover, I am sure, that we made the leap in our developmental ambition because we stood on our heads while the rest of the world stood on their feet. We have reached the bend in the road of our development where we all need to stand on our heads to understand government policies and be one with the decision makers. 

The light of enlightenment shines too in our inverted natural posture. Do not fear that the rest of the world will laugh at us. Nothing new or creative invites instant multitude of takers. It even invites ridicule. Fear not. If they laugh at us, we will show them that the laugh is on them when, standing on our heads, we throw off our unwanted label as the poverty capital of the world and win the anti-graft war and become the first modern nation where the word corruption is absent from its dictionary. 

If you have problems with knowing why we move in circles, stand on your head. If you cannot fathom why despite so much money in dollars spent to improve our energy resources we are still at the mercy of epileptic power supply, stand on your head. If you have problems with the miracle of education that produces uneducated young people, stand on your head. If you do not know why a large percentage of our fellow citizens do not have potable water, stand on your head. If you wonder why the more money we spend on fixing our roads the worse the roads become, stand on your head. If you wonder why the Nigerian state seems absent from the lives of the people, as in their security, stand on your head. If you do not understand how a country with a deepening rate of poverty and threatened by famine because the farm lands are abandoned by peasant farmers running for their lives, can claim to take millions of people out of poverty, stand on your head.

Standing on our heads, we will know why it is more prudent for the government to save money by removing the subsidy which is less and yet spend more money trying to cushion its effect on 40 million people who are more likely than the rest of us to feel the impact of increased fuel prices. 

I know the rest of the world has not forgotten the political mathematics of less being more, as in 16 being more than 19. This was an enduring political mathematical wisdom left us by the President Goodluck Jonathan administration. But replacing N1.8 trillion with N2.4 trillion as a means of saving money and unburdening the economy less, is  not tantamount to taking our mathematical wizardry too far as a joke. 

We are not just talking about saving money, we are talking more importantly about making the citizens happy; we are talking about putting N5,000 in the tattered pockets of 40 millions of our fellow citizens to help them cope with an economy with a tendency to crush the venerable, courtesy of government policies; we are talking about what is good for the health of our economy; we are talking about the perpetuation of the unquestionable wisdom of throwing money at problems instead of solving the problems. As you know, if one president solves all the problems, no one would seek to become a president. If there are no problems to be solved, politics becomes a sterile enterprise. And a nation might perish.

From what has been happening all these years over the toing and froing on the fuel subsidy regime, this new policy will be the final solution. The long-running debate on how the citizens of an oil-producing nation can best benefit from the wealth of its crude oil will end for ever. And that is a good thing, a very good thing. 

The problem, really for every country and every administration, is what to do with the poor. They are the reasons for everything a nation aspires to achieve. For their sake, governments change or remain the same. The ambitious seek political power to champion their cause, with beguiling promises to lift them out of the marsh of poverty and place them on dry land, as in from Ajegunle to Lekki in Lagos. 

For their sake, the social system gives birth to religious leaders of all hues with a divine mission to champion their cause by collecting their pittance here on earth to build airy mansions for them in heaven. For their sake, governments juggle the economic system to find what can make the poor man replace his bowl of gari without sugar with choice food from say, Sheraton, for dinner. And so, for their sake, we have had this running debate on fuel subsidy. 

The debate centres around caring for the poor. And raises the question: what should be the appropriate petroleum prices that would make the poor enjoy the crude oil wealth of the nation? If you leave the matter to market forces, the poor would sink lower in poverty. So, our government came up with the idea of absorbing the difference between the imported price and the local pump price of fuel. The difference was the subsidy on every litre of fuel bought by the people. The wisdom here was anchored on the belief that if the molue bus driver pays less for fuel, his passengers will pay lower fares; except the wisdom was never proven.

It made both political and economic sense, even if it annoyed the IMF/World Bank experts who sit in their Washington offices and tell developing countries what to do about their economy. We know what to do, thank you. With the new policy, these experts will have no reasons any more to think that the managers of our national economy have consistently failed to rise to the height of their managerial ability. The purpose of governance is the happiness of the people; or, it should be.If you are not in government and are ignorant about certain decisions, you would think that the government did not need to institute the subsidy regime that has benefited the poor less and made instant millionaires and billionaires of the army of fuel importers. You would think that a country with four oil refineries does not need to export its crude oil and import refined fuel for its domestic needs. You may also think that because our country is the largest economy in Africa, it would not need to borrow huge amounts of money from China and other countries to finance its budget and infrastructural development. If you are still wrestling with these anomalies, stand on your head.