Thursday, January 12, 2012

Nigeria is Angry: What Can be Done Now?

Nigeria is Angry: What Can be Done Now?

Dear NDWG readers,

Indeed the times are worrying, the more so since they seem to have been unnecessary, as a Niger Delta Working Group member and a Financial Times editorial below point out.  A PowerPoint presentation in circulation.  Nicknamed "The GAME CHANGER," it was reportedly put to the NEC by Dr. Ngozi Okonjo Iweala sometime last fall before the executive order on subsidy removal went into effect.  It contains a two-part strategy, one “economic” the other “social.” 

This dual approach has become quite standard since the Social Action Programs of the 1980s that were rolled out as an afterthought to cushion the sometimes draconian effects of Structural Adjustment.  Nigeria, recall, never agreed to become a part of such programs – in part to its detriment.  In any case, today’s world is very different from the 1980s.  African governments are more confident and democratic, populations are more educated, many people are better off, and information flows easily through cell phones, the internet, and social media.  These new communication tools offer governments enormous opportunities for mass public education and social mobilization. Nigeria made great use of them during its last election and succeeded in unifying the country around a common goal: a free and fair election.

Given this successful Nigerian precedent, the rush to enact a subsidy removal program without the same thoughtful preparation is a great pity.  Especially so, as it is well known that fuel price increases have generated social unrest and the fall of one government (Ernest Shonekan – with truly horrid consequences) in the past.  One can only wonder why decision makers didn’t study their recent past successes (and more distant past failures) and then take the same necessary steps to build trust and communicate with their people.  This is not an age of “tell me” or even “show me.”  It is an age of “engage me.” The Niger Delta insurgency has taught everyone that lesson well.  It is also an age in Nigeria where another insurgency in the form of Boko Haram and its sympathizers is underway.

So, now what?  Now, when everyone is angry and upset and less open to reason than they might have been several months ago.  And now that it seems the government is determined at present not to roll back its decision on the subsidy.

One will need first to calm the waters certainly – not through threats or undisciplined security – but by designing a massive and rapid strategy to get out the “social” message and combine it with a demonstrated action to implement some very quick wins that will relieve social and economic stress. The 1,000 busses is a weak example –a “band aide” – but it is at least something.  Much more substantial social and economic action is needed right away.

To support this effort, government must begin to talk and talk and talk … along with Nigeria’s greats, academics, businessmen, artists, and civil society who understand and believe in the rationale of subsidy removal.  (Yes, they do exist.) The SURE (Subsidy Re-investment and Empowerment Programme) intended to cushion the negative effects makes some good sense, but no one has heard much about it.  (Even this avid reader of the press first learned of SURE through blogs and list serves, not the press.)  The detractors should be quickly and actively engaged as well: the union leaders, the writers, the pundits, and even the opposition parties.  They will of course continue to take advantage of the fissures they now see, but the momentum can be slowed.

GET OUT THE “SURE” MESSAGE AND THEN SHOW WHAT IT CAN MEAN. Engage the population and give them a sense that they have some control of their own futures.  Mobilize professional communicators and public affairs experts along with all those who support the subsidy. Launch a communication campaign that describes how the subsidy removal can positively change lives and how the government plans to make that happen. Show people some examples of what it can and will do. It is time for the government to take concrete action on its transformation program for the people. 

By all rights, the State Governors should be in the front line of this communication and mobilization strategy. Reportedly, they support subsidy removal.  The money saved by the plan augments their budgets.  Let them explain and mobilize civil servants, politicians, the civil society, churches, concerned citizens, and teachers to explain as well.  Good communication, with managed demonstration of sincerity, can turn a divisive situation into a unifying opportunity.  It will not be easy, but it is one choice for government that is not optional. The next -- and likewise not optional --- choice is for the government to quickly, honestly, and effectively implement the SURE program.

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