Successive administrations in Nigeria start out by apprehending demons, or enigmatic forces, against which they will test their political strength and define the character of their government. Those forces are the factors on which all evil bedevilling the nation must necessarily be blamed. From coup speeches to inauguration addresses, each administration launches itself by stating what the others have done wrong and how they—the new government, that is—will fix it. Hell is always the previous government. For the eight years the last administration spent in power, they had a favourite demon—the whipping boy of their failures. The name they called it was “16 years of the Peoples Democratic Party.”
Apart from diabolising political opponents, former President Muhamadu Buhari, whose selling point to the nation was “anti-corruption,” accused even legitimate businesspeople of wrongdoing. The anti-elitism he elicited in his devoted supporters morphed into anti-enterprise and anti-wealth attitudes. In their talakawa mentality, everyone who was either doing well (or just not towing their path), was “corrupt” and somehow responsible for the pitiable state of Nigeria. I know some people who lost their businesses because their associates got tired of endless scrutiny of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission and folded up the projects they were executing.
Buhari’s populist policies that successfully reduced millions to poverty could not have been implementable without the buy-in of the resentful multitude who thought they were helping him bring down the rich and powerful corrupt.
So, you can understand why Bola Tinubu’s Monday speech where he—finally! —addressed the nation on the direction of his economic agenda piqued my interest. Items three to five of that speech dragged out all the familiar Nigerian demons. He said the money spent on subsidy “was being funnelled into the deep pockets and lavish bank accounts of a select group of individuals. This group had amassed so much wealth and power that they became a serious threat to the fairness of our economy and the integrity of our democratic governance. To be blunt, Nigeria could never become the society it was intended to be as long as such small, powerful yet unelected groups hold enormous influence over our political economy and the institutions that govern it. The whims of the few should never hold dominant sway over the hopes and aspirations of the many.” Then, in item number 10 he added, that “the defects in our economy immensely profited a tiny elite, the elite of the elite you might call them.”
If Tinubu, as the president, cannot identify who these people are, then why did he bring them up for blame? There is no point in giving such information if not followed up with accountability. Even a child born last night already knows that the political class comprises robbers, so what is new? Precisely what stopped Tinubu from either giving us the relevant details of who these people are—plus, their hold over the government and what will become of them now that they are no longer getting stolen money—or leaving it out entirely? Mystifying them suggests an evasion of moral responsibility.
We deserve to know who these “tiny…elites of the elites” whose power not only supersedes that of the current president but every other leader that tried—but failed—to remove the subsidies. Even Tinubu’s chief of staff, Femi Gbajabiamila, contributed some inanity by stating that this mysterious cabal robbing everyone is more powerful than the government and the security agencies. Really? What is the source of their power?
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We have had leaders in this country who were not only controlling enough to oversee massacres, but also stood up defiantly to every western institution that intervened in the name of human rights. If those “strongmen” could not remove fuel subsidy, it must mean that the power that this cabal’s power is beyond political and/or economical but also supernatural! How did they get so powerful that they make a whole president, with all the instruments of near unrestrained administrative power at his disposal, comparably impotent? In fact, Tinubu is still so afraid of them that he can only speak of them like he is a conspiracy theorist: deep pockets, select group, powerful yet unelected, the few, the elite of the elite. He might as well call them “spirits”!
Meanwhile, now that their powers have been clipped enough for the subsidies to have been removed, what will they do for a living? I find it hard to accept that the people who could be so powerful that they held down the nation’s destiny for so long control just that one aspect of the economy. They must be into some other affairs through which they are strengthened against the might of the nation; the end of the fuel subsidies cannot possibly be the end of their power over the nation.
By speaking crookedly, these politicians turn apprehensible political characters into metaphysical forces. The trouble with a government official spiritizing economic problems is that the war they will wage against these unseen and unseeable forces will not stay in the spiritual realms. It will get to the physical. So, watch out. Those invisible “elites of the elites” will supposedly be deprived of fuel subsidies, but guess who will bear the material brunt of policies designed to punish their corruption? You! Yes, you, dear gentle reader. You will be asked to endure the indefinite hardship. Even when your material condition remains unchanged, they will ask you to take some vicarious delight in knowing that some “powerful yet unelected” forces somewhere are also being depreciated. That tactic is also going to be their victory declaration. You still do not have electricity to power your home or cannot pay for the supply? Your salary cannot keep up with reality? Worry not, cosmic justice has come for even the “elites of the elites!” That was the narrative the Buhari administration used to pacify people while he wrecked everywhere.
To be clear, this is not a criticism of the fuel subsidies removal policy. I remain convinced that the fuel subsidies should go. One of the reasons was that the woes they predicted would happen if they were removed did while those subsidies subsisted. I also do not believe that the subsidies were maintained because the government did not want the masses to suffer. Fuel subsidies stayed for as long as they did because they served successive governments. When there was nothing left to plunder and no prospect of a windfall coming, they finally let go. Their choices have nothing to do with the masses. Those deep pockets, select group, powerful yet unelected, the few, the elite of the elite Tinubu identified did not dip their hands into Nigeria’s pockets; they were businesspeople who did shady business with a corrupt government that used legitimate tools to siphon public funds.
Tinubu can speak in all the metaphorical terms he likes, but he cannot convince any reasonable person that the corruption merchants he calls the “elites of the elites” are spectres whose names can only be mentioned in codes. A man who has maintained his hold on power since 1999 and amassed enough political capital to become president has no credible ground to stand on to accuse some “elites” of corruption. He cannot morally distance himself from the vast crime scene Nigeria has become; the changing colours of the chameleon deceive only the foolish.
See, when Tinubu describes the corruption of these elites by saying the money was being funnelled into the deep pockets and lavish bank accounts of a select group of individuals, notice his sly use of the passive voice? Good. Using active voice to construct that sentence would have required identifying a subject who would need to be accused of the heist. Not only would such straightforwardness indict his circle, but it is one more responsibility he cannot afford.
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