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2015 and the sorcerer’s apprentices, by Segun

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Of Aso Rock Demons and ‘the Other Room’

In his book, “One Hundred Million Dollars in One Day”, Michael Field narrated an incident that happened at the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) meeting in 1973. According to Field, a member of the OPEC delegation had just been bought a small bottle of whisky by the Middle East correspondent of Financial Times when he looked at the content and asked the journalist: “Do you know that this small whisky costs the equivalent of four barrels of crude oil?”

The OPEC man went on to argue that the pricing system was unjust, considering that whisky is made from renewable ingredients while oil is a wasting asset. A few weeks later, a combination of events conspired in OPEC’s favour to wrest control of oil prices. With that also, member-countries began to make billions of dollars from their oil assets and many of them were clever enough to invest for the future while building enduring critical infrastructure. Now that the days of the most recent oil boom seem over, those countries would have to rely on the investment they have wisely made but since our country was unprepared for a time like this, we are now facing an uncertain future.

Whatever the spin being put on the situation by the managers of our economy, with the current global economic dynamics vis-à-vis oil, revenues from our only economic mainstay can only continue to dwindle and it is inevitable that there are difficult days ahead. But the questions remain: of what use have we put the hundreds of billions of dollars earned in the last 40 years from our oil assets? Have we diversified the economy away from rent? Have we improved on our productive capacity as a nation? Have we rebuilt or even maintained critical infrastructure? Have we invested in human capital?

The foregoing are tough questions but it is evident that we have practically wasted our years of plenty. With our oil now being sold in a manner the Yoruba would describe as “gbanjo” in the international market, at ridiculous prices that are far below budget 2014 benchmark.

We need no soothsayer to tell us that we are in serious trouble. The reality today is that in the coming months, at both the federal and the state levels, it will be increasingly difficult to pay the wages of workers even when we know many of them are doing virtually nothing basically because it is our own form of social security. New jobs will also be harder to find for our growing population of young graduates even as the cost of living will continue to skyrocket. Given such state of affairs, our elected representatives at practically all levels may be left with nothing but megawatts of excuses that the problem did not start today and that it is a decay that was gradual and steady. That may well be true but it is not the kind of story you want to tell to a hungry people.

Anybody who can read the times must know that in terms of petrodollars, the best years might be behind us and that things are not going to get better anytime soon. For that reason, hard choices lie ahead for the nation. For instance, can we sustain the subsidy regime that is not only inefficient but has become a byword for waste and corruption in our system as we have seen in recent years? The reality is that we cannot and at some point sooner than later, something would have to give about the issue.

The Nigerian Labour Congress (NLC) has raised a fundamental question about why pump prices have not come down given low prices of crude but since we import the commodity and with the fall in the value of the Naira, it stands to reason that other variables have been introduced into the matter. Yet in the state that our economy is in today, the more desperate clamour for subsidy removal will most likely come from the states with their dwindling share of spoils from the Federation Account.

Also, from the 2015 Appropriation Bill before the National Assembly, the federal government intends to tax Nigerians more this year. Among others, the budget bill proposes to increase VAT from 5 to 10 percent while even “Tokunbo” vehicles may from today be beyond the reach of the poor with the introduction of a 70 percent increase in import duty. I am almost certain that the same heightened tax-drive will compel many of the states to begin “looking inwards” for sources of revenues.

Ordinarily, that should be no big deal since that is the way government is run all over the world. The problem, however, remains as to whether Nigerians would be ready for further sacrifices that would entail paying to sustain a patronage system. If the idea of taking more money from people’s pockets is so that government could have enough to service our inefficient and corrupt political bureaucracy, there will be resistance.

The security challenge needs no further elaboration with Boko Haram seizing vast Nigerian territories, hoisting strange flags while killing and maiming thousands of our people after rendering millions of others homeless. But perhaps nothing puts the dire situation as starkly as the fact that today marks 262 days that over 200 female students abducted from Government Secondary School Chibok have been in captivity with no inkling about what may have happened to them.

Ordinarily, these are some of the issues that should dominate discourses in an election season but our politicians are not being tasked on what they would do to redress those situations. And that is because majority of the voters are not likely to make their choices on the basis of such practical issues that impact on their lives and future. Despite the challenges that confront our country today, one would not be wrong to assume that what we are voting for on February 14 is a tribal chief and not president of a challenged country. To compound the problem, the manifesto of those who seek to rule the nation and their supporters now hinge on threats of violence as a form of advocacy, a violence being canvassed to promote or defend primordial interests.

At a time we expect serious campaigns on critical national issues, what we hear everyday are threats about what would happen should either of the two leading presidential candidates lose in a contest in which only one can win. Yet the danger that these promoters of bloodshed cannot see is that it is easier to set in motion such violence than putting an end to it. Hence the essence of the timeless 1797 poem by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. It is based on the compelling story of a young magician’s apprentice who tries to lighten his workload by experimenting with magic spells over which he had no control.

The tale begins as an old sorcerer departs his workshop, leaving his apprentice with chores to perform. Tired of fetching water, the apprentice enchants a broomstick to do the work for him but as the water begins to flow, he realises that he does not know the magic word to make the broom stop hence the inevitable flood. The poem finishes with the old sorcerer’s statement that powerful spirits should only be invoked by the master himself while the enduring lesson remains the admonition that it is almost always catastrophic to set in motion a force over which one has no control.

While many of our politicians and public officials as well as those making threats on their behalf may have taken their families abroad, majority of our people are forced to live in fear that the incitements to make their lives more miserable than it already is may actually be acted upon after the presidential election. This is not only unacceptable, the authorities must act to ensure that this does not become a self-fulfilling prophesy.

Rather than engage on how they will improve our material condition as a people, politicians and their supporters swathe the national space with growing calls to violence in the event that the presidential election result does not conform to certain expectations. And both parties are guilty. The challenge, however, is that like the sorcerer’s apprentice, those entrepreneurs of violence have no magic wand to stop such violence once it starts by acts of their omission or commission. That is why they must be stopped now before they unwittingly set our country on fire.

Article by Segun Adeniyi

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