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Let Poor Nigerians Breathe -By Sheriffdeen Tella

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There were two suffocating reports in the news last week. Suffocating in the sense that each could make the poor ask whether life is worth living. The first information was like rubbing salt on a bleeding leg or in a normal action, dropping iodine liquid on a fresh wound. But the second gave the feeling of a wicked jab. I remember those days when I would return from school with a wound from playing football and my mum would bring out, from her cardboard-made first aid box, two bottles with white and black content respectively. The white bottle contained ‘spirit’ for sterilising the surrounding area of the wound and the black was the dreaded iodine, a drop of which sends hot tears dropping from my eyes. Of course, the pain would not stop me from going to the football field the next day. It was all fun, just entertainment for kids. Albeit, the conditions of kids and their parents today are not funny.

Just a few weeks ago, the World Bank alerted the world that Nigeria is one of three countries with the highest level of poverty globally. Another report of the bank in February 2023 explained that 12 per cent of the world’s population in extreme poverty lived in Nigeria, given the poverty threshold at US$1.90 per day! The World Poverty Clock’s data also show that not less than 71 million Nigerians are extremely poor. The clock is a tool used to monitor progress against global poverty. The National Bureau of Statistics had in the recent past categorised 133 million Nigerians as suffering from multi-dimensional poverty. This is damning information that the government must work to bring about quick and timely improvement in the lives of the majority poor.

There is no doubt that the initial negative impacts of the removal of fuel subsidy and realignment of the foreign exchange market would fall on the poor. It is therefore apparent that a responsive government must work hard to find quick solutions to reduce the impacts and the poverty level through macroeconomic policies that generate increased output, improve employment and income. However, the task does not rest on the public sector alone but also on the private sector. This is because it is the living and not the dead that will patronise private sector programmes and commodities. The announcement by the electricity providers, the discos, that they will increase tariff by July 1, 2023, dwells on wickedness and insensitivity to the plight of the majority of Nigerians already in poverty trap.

The small-scale printers, welders, vulcanisers or as they are often called, ‘vulka’, the Okada riders and small-scale transporters with their passengers are still reeling in pains inflicted by the 120 per cent jump in petroleum pump price, just few weeks after the suspended governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria, Godwin Emefiele’s currency redesign killer punch when the electricity price hike proposal was thrown at them. Given that the medium and large-scale manufacturers are used to buying their forex from the black market with the supply constraints that kept the depreciation of naira deepening, the forex market deregulation might not have changed the production costs greatly but prices of domestic goods remain largely outside the reach of the poor. The poor now consume what they can afford, not what they desire.

The government is still working out palliatives with the labour unions on how to reduce the deleterious effects of the fuel subsidy and exchange rate pains on the citizens when the discos thought it was time for them to compound the problems of living in Nigeria. In Shakespeare’s words, “It is the unkindest cut of them all.” No breathing space for the poor. They want to sniff life out of him. Although there are public reactions warning the discos to put their proposal on hold, they can go ahead if the government does not halt the action officially.

There is the need for a change of attitude by goods and service providers when it revolves around production and profits. There is hardly value for money paid for goods and services in Nigeria. A news report stated that the discos “raked in N247bn in Q1.’ That is, the first quarter of this year when much of the period witnessed low supply of electricity. We paid much for darkness and spent huge amounts of money on diesel and petrol power generators to keep the economy going. The power providers are already thinking of making more money or profit in the remaining quarters of the year without thinking of how to improve their services.

The discos still run the business as it was under the public enterprises structure. Potential consumers still have to buy electricity poles and cables whenever they want to connect. Consumers have to contribute for new transformers whenever the existing one got damaged or vandalised. They have worked out periods of price hikes to meet profit targets, not periods of innovation, rejuvenation and maintenance of their services.

Since the discos took over the distribution of electricity, how much improvement through innovations and technological advancement have they brought into their operations? Even when the former President Muhammadu Buhari’s government subsidised their operations in terms of giving them subventions initially and later subsidy for provision of free meters to capture more customers, they never reciprocated with improved services. Each disco operates like a monopolist in its domain. They still rely largely on the infrastructure inherited from the government. There is the need for reforms in the sector to promote competition. If they need more funds for expansion, they can raise funds in the capital market by selling shares or through selling bonds.

The profits for the discos should be calculated based on improved output and distribution or operations generally rather than exploitation of the consumers and government. Any increase in price now by the discos cannot be tolerated by consumers and should not be allowed by the regulators at this time. There should be breathing space for the poor who are still adopting some survival strategies to avoid total strangulation from recent economic policies.

The report that the Revenue Mobilisation, Allocation and Fiscal Commission recommended upward review of basic salaries for political and judicial office holders came as a surprise to the public and should be an embarrassment to the new government that is still negotiating salary adjustments for civil and public servants. Labour unions have rightly reacted to the announcement as provocative. But it should provoke the thought that working out palliatives, including new salaries for workers, should be taken with urgency and possibly that the starting point should not be less than the starting point of this recommendation.

One does not need to begrudge the revised salaries for the political office holders since it was reported that the last recommendation was in 2007/2008. Albeit, what is in the total package since some allowances can be 300 per cent of basic salary? It is even important to ask about the role of the RMAFC in the determination of the salaries and allowances of the legislature whose present humongous take-home-pay is part of what is draining funds for development.

One hopes that the Academic Staff Union of Universities whose salaries were last reviewed in 2009 will also start full negotiation. After all, the public always think the many strikes were about salary increase, rather than universities’ development funding. This is the period of salary negotiation and recommendations which should leave no one behind. Unfortunately, the much the country earns from exports is devoted to servicing humongous debts accumulated by the last government. It should not however become an excuse for improvement in the wellbeing of workers.

Nigerian workers, whether in the public or private sector, are among the least paid globally. A large proportion of the private sector ties their salaries to that of the public sector, yet they demand a higher level of productivity. In fact, some private businesses would owe workers and claim that even the government owes its staff salaries! They use the existence of a large pool of unemployed citizens to exploit those that are engaged. That is the level of ridicule Nigerian workers are subjected to and with ineffective labour union policing. Yet, to each worker are myriad of dependent relatives. What employers in the public and private sectors refuse to understand is that when workers are well paid, they become more dedicated. Their level of productivity will improve leading to higher outputs, employment and incomes for the government in terms of tax revenue and more profits to the businesses. Level of poverty will also gradually fall.

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