The petroleum industry is not the only sector where our successive governments’ aversion for subsidy has manifested. Education is another area where services have been subsidised from the beginning. Apart from the free education contemplated by the Universal Basic Education (UBE) programme, tertiary education has been heavily subsidised with the government paying workers’ salaries and doing other interventions through TETFund, Needs Assessment and other schemes that have funded research and yielded infrastructure and staff development.
But then one observes that government over the years (just like seen with fuel subsidy) has been pushing a particular narrative that tends to delegitimise subsidy in education by repeatedly reminding Nigerians that in other countries tertiary education is not cheap, and that it is the tradition elsewhere that funding of tertiary education is a collective responsibility of the government and the citizens who benefit from education. One fact conveniently overlooked by proponents of this argument is that whatever money spent by government on free or subsidised education comes from nowhere but collectively owned wealth and that education given to citizens is ultimately to the benefit of the nation as a whole. This is the compelling philosophy that undergirds state welfarism in its various forms. To reason otherwise is to run into the insufferable contradiction of severing citizens’ welfare from state welfare, and making it seem as if government is doing the people a favour by attending to their well-being.
Since the days of Obasanjo as democratic president, this narrative that seeks to delegitimise education subsidy has been gaining momentum. It is the desire of the federal government to have the governing councils of universities introduce high fees in order to shift a large part of the funding expenses hitherto borne by government to parents and students. This has been one of the points of the disagreement between the government and ASUU over the years.
My problem with the government’s position has been the fact that it is based on only incomplete truths. First, while the claim by government that citizens pay highly for education in some other countries is valid, it is also true that there are other countries such as Finland and Norway where university education is free. Our vision as a country is not to make our citizens pay through their nose to attend school but to subsidise it to be affordable for most persons and to ultimately make it free at all levels (see Constitution of the Federal Republic Nigeria 1999 section 18). At what point then in our national journey did we abandon this welfarist philosophy to pursue pure state capitalism? My answer is that we abandoned it, not because it has proven a bad policy in the countries that have practised same, rather we jetissoned it when our profligacy and recklessness began to render us broke, and as usual, the poor citizenry must bear the brunt.
Back to the fuel subsidy issue, it is, therefore, my thesis that the policy of having the citizenry pay the market price for petroleum products and the accompanying narrative that seeks to discredit doing otherwise is, in the strict sense, not informed by any intrinsic demerit of subsidy, but is. rather an emergency, knee-jerk response to a self-inflicted trouble; a final desperate escape route from the quagmire which our inefficient and morally bankrupt leadership has thrown us into. Fuel subsidy is a reality in some other countries including the United States. Hence, our failure so far to implement it efficiently cannot be down to any inherent defectiveness in the policy.
A similar scenario can be seen in how as a nation we have been on an endless merry-go-round of adopting, jettisoning and readopting political arrangements with none seeming to work for us, even when all have worked elsewhere. We started with the parliamentary system that has for centuries worked perfectly in UK only to abandon it for the presidential system that has also failed to work for us despite working for America and others whom we copied from. Today some persons are pushing the idea for a return to parliamentarism as a way of reversing the fortune of our nation. Similarly, we started with a federal structure that granted a reasonable degree of autonomy to the federating units only to soon embrace a unitary system in the name of preserving our unity (America is highly heterogeneous and yet has excelled with federalism), and today we have a system that is neither exactly federali nor unitary and many people have been clamouring for the so-called restructure to return to where we started in 1960. (This is notwithstanding that the unitary system has worked excellently for UK, Japan and other countries).
The fact that nothing works for us is a strong indication that our problem does not lie in the kind of political or economic system we practice but on the efficiency and moral health of the process that drives whatever system we have settled for. We merely adopt systems without having the institutional efficacy and governance discipline to properly steer it. This explains the fact that such system or ideology is soon jettisoned for another without solving the underlying problem that keeps us failing. Another hard-hitting example will be found in the power sector where we started with a highly efficient government-run electricity generation and distribution system inherited from the colonial masters, then ran it to almost comatose before opting for a privatised arrangement; and having tasted privatisation in the last eight years, not a few have called for a return to the old system!
It is based on the foregoing that I remain doubtful as to the ultimate destination of our current policy voyage in the direction of deregulation. Experience does not encourage one to believe that freeing up more revenues for our government through fuel subsidy removal will translate straightforward to more development. On the contrary, one justifiably fears that it will only further nurture the greed of state officials in the same way the oil boom turned humans here into rapacious vultures that have over the years eaten up our common wealth. If we cannot strengthen the institutions to tame greed and inefficiency, will it not be better to let subsidy be and protect the poor from suffering in vain? This is a big question the Tinubu government must answer.
Henry Chigozie Duru, PhD, teaches journalism and mass communication at Nnamdi Azikiwe University Awka.