15 January 2012
By Paul Collier, Professor of Economics and Director of the Centre for the Study of African Economies at the
University of Oxford
If ordinary people are sufficiently disbelieving of government, it is entirely possible for populist rhetoric to seduce people into fighting against their own true interest. In the
, despite an extraordinarily low tax burden, dramatically rising inequality and an unsustainable fiscal deficit, poor people demonstrated for tax cuts for the rich. In US , despite decades of elite plunder of oil revenues by means of scams such as the petrol subsidy, the poor and the young have turned out to demand its restoration. Convinced government is theft, they cling to the pitiful benefits of a petrol subsidy. Nigeria
Should the poor have been on the streets? The petrol subsidy was costing $8bn a year; in other words the average Nigerian household was forfeiting more than N750 ($4.70) a week of public money. Much of this expenditure was captured wholesale and shipped out of the country. Even the petrol that was sold locally at its subsidised price disproportionately benefited the better off. There are a myriad of ways in which public money could benefit poor people more than the petrol scam – for example, children could be given bursaries for attending school. That is what poor people should have been urging on their government, and it should now be the focus of political compromise.
Should the young have been on the streets? The petrol subsidy was a classic instance of squandering the oil revenues on current consumption. As oil wealth is depleted, the government has a responsibility of custody to the next generation. Enough of the revenues from oil must be invested in infrastructure and other assets. This is a responsibility that previous Nigerian governments failed to meet. At last a Nigerian government is taking its responsibility to the next generation seriously.
’s youth should have taken to the streets to celebrate this change of policy, not to lobby for a return to the status quo. Nigeria
In attempting to harness the present oil bonanza for development, reformers in the new Nigerian government are trying to avoid a repeat of the history of plunder. There are powerful interests in favour of plunder, including some prominent government officials, which is why repeating history is the default option. But societies can also learn from their history.
Germany is the best-managed economy in Europe because it used to be the worst: from hyperinflation, Germans learnt “never again”. Germans are locked into sound decision-making by a combination of legal rules, dedicated institutions and a critical mass of ordinary citizens who understood why the rules and institutions mattered and so defended them.
Yet while it is evidently possible to fool many people for some of the time, there does appear to be a ray of hope. In the
the Tea Party has fizzled: more recently, streets have been claimed by protesters from the other side of the political divide demanding tax increases for the rich, not tax cuts. ‘We are the 99 per cent’ would make as good a slogan in US Nigeria as in , for a protest demanding that oil revenues be spent wisely and transparently. America
The writer is professor of economics and director of the Centre for the Study of African Economies at the
University of Oxford