Nigeria Strikes Back: A Primer

harmattan, hot, dry wind that blows from the northeast or east in the western Sahara and is strongest in late fall and winter (late November to mid-March). Source: Britannica Online Encyclopedia

It’s New Year’s Day.  You wake but you cannot go to church today as you do every year.  You stay home like you did on Christmas day.  Rightfully so, considering that Boko Haram attacked a church that day and killed almost 40 people.  You decide to brave the outdoors to get some petrol for the generator.  To your surprise, without warning, overnight, fuel prices have more than tripled.  You learn that the government has suddenly revoked the fuel subsidy with no preamble.  You remember them discussing this a while back but there was no timetable.  You’re in the village, miles away from work, visiting family.  In an instant, the money you saved to travel back to the city is not enough, you will need four to five times that amount to pay for transport.  Until you figure that out, you’re stuck and you will probably lose  your job.  You wonder why the government implemented this law when they have not addressed the insecurity that has you afraid of going to church and has your friends grumbling about revenge.  Clearly you are not a priority for your government.  This is the last straw.

As you read this, day 15 of the revocation of the fuel subsidy in Nigeria has passed.  Nigerian citizens concluded the 14th day of protests and 1 week of strike.  Some have lost their lives protesting.  Banks are closed.  Commerce is halted.  Oil and gas exports are threatening to shut down.  Nigeria is at a standstill.   This is the crossroad.

The ongoing protest in Nigeria in response to the sudden removal of the fuel subsidy on New Year’s Day has been dubbed OccupyNigeria by many, although the activism here well predates the movement in the US.  The strike is the largest in recent times with participation from crucial areas in Nigerian commerce.  I have read some pieces from Westerners who, in their analysis, miss the nuances of such a movement and dismiss it as a misguided group of disgruntled seekers of entitlement refusing to let go of a hampering practice.  Not only are such assessments offensive, they are grossly off base.  As someone who is currently in Nigeria and spent the bulk of my life in the US, I believe I have a unique perspective as I watch history unfold.

Let us examine the oil subsidy and the root of Nigerian citizens’ furor.  State-run Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) has the duty of regulating the petroleum industry yet has done little to build or repair existing oil refineries.  In the years that it has been active, that organization has operated far afield from its mandate.  Instead it has served to enrich those who can tap into its corrupt inner workings.

The fuel subsidy was put in place in to provide relief to citizens who have the undue burden of filling in for a failed power system.  The removal of the subsidy has been lauded here and abroad as an opportunity for the Nigerian government to retain funds which it can use to address many of its failings.  Apparently, the faulty power grid, disastrous infrastructure and various other ills are to be solved by removing the one thing the government provided consistently for Nigerian citizens, relief from the burden of high fuel costs.  The subsidy has been the sole relief for citizens who feel that Nigeria provides them with little else although it reportedly exported $59 billion worth of oil in 2010.

At this time, Nigerians are heavily dependent on petrol.  While Nigeria is a major oil producer, it is also a major importer of refined petroleum products with barely any functional refineries in the country.  In essence, Nigeria sells the oil and then has to buy it back in refined form, primarily as petroleum to fuel cars and homes.  There is no escaping petrol usage in Nigeria.  It is a part of daily life here more so than anywhere else.

The removal of the fuel subsidy is a case of putting the cart before the horse.  In discussions about this prospect in 2009 with the government, Nigerian Labour representatives believed that there was an established agreement that a number of key conditions would be met before removal would be considered plausible.  They are:

  1. Consistent power supply -  Aside from being infused in everyday products, petrol is necessary for the generators that practically every Nigerian home operates to supplement the shoddy, inconsistent power grid that blacks out daily if not for days or months on end, providing a few hours of power a day at its highest function.  Petrol is a necessity in Nigeria for even the simplest activities even if you don’t own a car.  Everything electricity-based is moved by fuel when the power grid shuts down.  As I type this, the power has gone out and eventually, I will have to turn on the generator to keep my laptop battery going, burning precious, expensive petrol in the process.
  2. Repairing and building refineries – Doing so would remove the additional cost of importing petroleum products, removing dependence on outside entities to process an abundant national resource for astronomical savings all around.
  3. Infrastructure improvements – Again, providing working railways and repairing and maintaining roads would provide relief to Nigerians and would reduce the overall individual dependence on fuel as they go about their daily lives.
  4. Eliminate oil industry corruption – This would result in cost efficiencies in supply and distribution of petroleum products resulting in overall savings that could be passed down to consumers.  Corruption in general costs Nigeria an estimated $1o billion yearly.  Considering that the subsidy costs $8 billion a year to provide, it would be more cost effective to eliminate the graft pervasive in Nigerian government.

It is quite interesting that items a majority of Nigerians wanted to be in place before removal of the subsidy are the very things that the government says it needs to remove the subsidy to address.  How can the government and its people be so misaligned?  Simple.  The government of Nigeria, as demonstrated through policy and action, has no regard for its people.  Its function is primarily the enrichment of those lucky to participate within its confines.  It has very little interest in anything else and has been quite successful in reaching its goal of augmenting politicians’ wealth.

We can go on for some time about the merits of keeping or removing the subsidy.  The Nigerian government may have a valid point in seeking removal that it says will finally free up funds to fuel change for necessary projects to improve the lives of all Nigerians.  I daresay Nigerians, already used to struggle, would not mind participating in something that would result in something as rewarding as stable electricity and infrastructure as well as reasonable fuel prices.  The greatest issue here lies in the government’s management of the entire fuel subsidy removal process.  Their timing and actions, at best, indicate a disconnect from its citizens’ needs and, at worst, an outright disregard and disdain for the very people who put them in power.  Here is why:

  1. The fuel subsidy was removed on January 1, 2012 in the middle of people’s holiday celebrations.  During the holiday season, most Nigerians travel back to their home villages from city centers and other places of work to reconnect with their families and communities.  These travelers budgeted for their return to work by putting aside money for transportation or fuel for their cars.  With the announcement–with no warning– of the revoking of the subsidy, many people were left stranded and still are to this day.  The sudden hike in fuel cost outstripped the money they had set aside to return.  Petrol and transportation now cost far more than they anticipated and many could not return to work or had to sell items to compensate for their shortfall.  Removing the subsidy without warning during downtime indicates a government that absolutely could care less about inconveniencing its people.
  2. Most importantly, the timing of the removal after horrific attacks by Boko Haram on Christmas day on Christian churches indicates the government is not only disconnected, it is unwilling to address issues of immediate concern to Nigerians.  While it toys with subsidy removal, Nigeria is poised to break out into waves of violence that may result in civil war.  Rather than focus on what is necessary to stave Boko Haram and retaliatory Christian attacks and assure all Nigerians of their security, the impotent Nigerian government continues to keep its eye on those very things that will make it richer.

In 1967, Nigeria entered into the bloodiest war of its history, the Biafra war.  It lasted for thirty months and claimed at least two million lives, a majority of which were children.  After watching their young swim in streams of blood, Nigerians were welcomed with decades of harsh military rule and corruption that taught it that suffering can outstrip war.  Nigerians have  suffered and smiled.  They have quietly tried to get on with their lives.  They have been compliant.  They have tapped into the game.  They have done their best.  They can no longer ignore the rampant hoarding of wealth and resources at their direct expense.

This is the time of the harmattan.  In those winds, a change must come.  I pray that it is a peaceful and enlightened one.  A change is coming.  It is long overdue.

For some more essential reading on the protests, strike and fuel subsidy removal in Nigeria, please read #OccupyNigeria – 7 essential reads about the protests in Nigeria (with additional updates).

Gratitude Day 26

Day 26 of 30 Days of Tessism leaves gratitude for what delights the eye.

Gratitude: I am grateful today for the majesty and awesome beauty of Nigeria. I still cannot believe I am here. After years of tales of Africa’s beauty, I am here to witness it. There are trees like nothing I have seen before. There are endless stretches of green land and red clay. I am grateful to see this with my adult eyes that can appreciate them in this lifetime. It is incredible.

Where to now?

Before I came to Nigeria, I had lofty ideas about how I was going to approach “the new experience.”  2 months into my visit, those ideas have not come anywhere near the reality of my what I call my #naijalife all over my Twitter feed.

As per my last post, I did my best to hold my judgment at bay.  I have learned, by the way, that at best, I can work toward a momentary reprieve from harshly maligning things I don’t know, understand or accept.  At my weakest, I have been known to batter a new situation endlessly with disapproval.

In that regard, I’ve come to a tenuous agreement with my opinionated self during this trip: no snap judgments.  I allow myself to have opinions.  I just will not spew them instantaneously.  I observe.  I process.  I notice its effect on me.  Am I reacting to what I’m seeing in front of me or an unpleasant trigger based in the past?

It is for that reason that I’m just now beginning to blog 2 months later.  A good deal of what would have come out of me earlier would have been reaction-based and far from generous.

Let me begin from the beginning and see how far that gets us.

In which she discovers…

Something newIn those last heady days before I left the US for my 30-year overdue trip to Nigeria, I had no idea what to expect.  It really didn’t matter.  I was finally going!  The Nigeria I remembered–my best friend, red clay, playing kitchen–was through the eyes of a toddler and not enough guidance for the woman returning there.  There was what I barely remembered, things I’d read or been told and some things that I’d made up a long time ago about Nigeria.  Now was my chance to see for myself.

A few months ago, I came up with a model for dealing with new situations, particularly jobs, that I shared with a coworker newly introduced to the maelstrom our workplace.  I remember saying to her that very often, we go to new jobs with an idea that it shouldn’t be this or that way and that we, clearly, have the best sense of how things should be.

Should and shouldn’t are quite treacherous territories that usually leave us dissatisfied and distressed.  The model I created seeks to help us maneuver through the unknown while keeping the shoulds at bay.  It calls for us to put our relentless judgment aside and learn, master, improve, and innovate.

Learn

When facing the new, acknowledge that your presumptions and biases– your already knowing–are irrelevant.  You have never been here before .  You have never done this before.  You don’t know what to expect even if it reminds you of something you’ve already experienced.  Repeating the steps from the past gives you more…past.  Instead, observe the situation as much as you can.  Feel free to compare but don’t stop there.  Learn what there is for you to learn to be successful in that new job or to maneuver your way through that new location.  This is not time intensive and doesn’t require years of observation.  Learn quickly, competently and concisely so you can move on to the next step.

Master

Once you’ve been humble enough to discard your inner know-it-all (now THAT is difficult!), you get to see what really is happening in front of you.  You get to say, “Oh, this is how they do this.”  Eventually, you should be able to anticipate how something would be resolved at your new job, for instance, based on what you’ve learned about how they solve problems.  Now that you’ve learned, endeavor to master the ways of this new environment.  Can you do what this place requires in your sleep?  The aim of your learning is mastery.  Mastery is an important step before you take the situation and make it your own.

Improve

Now that you’ve entered this new situation, refrained from denouncing its stupidity and have gone so far as to master its existing ways, you allow for new tools to manifest: respect, authority, legitimacy.  You now have the opportunity to possess and wield these tools.  From this space, you can work to improve the situation.  You have established that you know how things go.  You’re very good at the status quo and suggestions for improvement hold far more weight from you now than if you’d done so at the very beginning.  Now you can propose, “Let’s do this in 4 steps instead of 10″ and actually be heard.  Your recommendations can now be based on your experience of and expertise in the existing system and come from a place of empathy rather than one of complaint and will be more easily heard.

Innovate

As you climb the hierarchy of legitimacy and authority in this new situation you can reach the apex of ownership of the new situation when you innovate.  You have acquired the knowledge of how things work.  You have gone so far as to be an expert on the what’s so of the situation.  You have seen and shared ways to make this situation better for everyone involved.  Finally, you can go so far suggest, “You know what?  Let’s stop doing this altogether and do this instead.  This isn’t simply improving what we normally do.  This is a whole new approach that eliminates the need for those steps and creates a satisfying result.”  In this instance, you do what you may have been tempted to do from the very beginning.  Your innovation is far more acceptable now because it is based on experience and participation rather than blind dismissal.

Test

The above model will always needs fine-tuning and that it’s a great rough guide to dealing with a decidedly alien new workplace.  Could I apply it Nigeria?  The challenge was to attempt to shed the ball of emotion and information about Nigeria I’d been clutching to all my life and experience it newly.  I would learn before I leapt to conclusions.  I would test myself to see if I could do more than survive following the existing rules of the place.  I would seek to master some portion of my Nigerian life in the few months I was there.  And only then, after observation and training, would I attempt to improve and eventually innovate.  Based on a true understanding of my surroundings, I could work to eliminate inefficiencies and enhance the experience of people around me.  Could I do it?  Did I do it?

Well I’m still in the middle of it.  What I can say though is that judgment is no light thing.  It is cemented to my being and is almost as automatic as breathing.  I have failed numerously at evading my sense of judgment.  It has been a great struggle to set aside what I already know and just simply watch and learn.  Yet the challenge here isn’t perfection.  It is the actual awareness of automatic, endless assessment that undermines my experience of life in general in whatever country I find myself.

So, yes, I fail often but I go right back to my model when I notice that I’m imposing some stale bias on a brand new situation.  I’ve learned much about myself, my family and my native country.  I’ve learned which battles are worth fighting and what is best left alone.  One of these days I’ll tell you about it!

Tessism Returns to Nigeria

In the 30 years since I had left Nigeria, I had grown to believe that the longer you stay away from the land of your birth, the more ghost-like you become.  With my father’s passing, I finally got the chance to test that theory.

Traveling back under those circumstances has been surreal.  I promised myself that I would keep my eyes wide open and my judgment at bay.  I have definitely kept my eyes open but I constantly fight a war of attrition with my judgment.   Thankfully, today, my higher self is winning.  That is, until, I run into something difficult to accept in the bubbling pepperpot of brilliance, corruption, wealth, destitution, mismanagement, delight, highs and lows that I call my homeland Nigeria. By the way, Happy 51st Independence Day, Nigeria.

It has been a marvelous, emotional roller coaster filled with food, people and places I’d forgotten I was missing and stories of an amazing life that I will never stop celebrating.  One thing Nigeria will always be is breathtaking.  It is breathtaking in its beauty, greenery and blessings.  In the same token, it can choke you with it’s pollution, greed and absolute disregard of legacy and humanity but I’ll save that for another blog.

So I am here.  Was my theory correct?  Am I less ghost-like now that I’ve returned to my land of birth?  Well, yes and no.

Being away simply left me incomplete.  Not quite a ghost–a woman-in-waiting missing parts the longer I stayed away.  I still have no idea what those parts were but it feels different.  Yet my years away are an essential part of the woman I am today, something I would not change.

I don’t expect to ever be complete in this life.  I am happy for the experiences that expose more of me to…me.

And although I’ve learned to chase regret away as quickly as it descends, I am saddened that I did not see my father before he left us.  I connect with him each day as I walk where he walked and sit where he sat.  I fill in the parts of his life I missed.  Some days he is more of a giant.  Others, more human.

He lived life long and fully and left peacefully.  For that I am forever grateful.

He is my Daddy.  My prism through which the light of life is reflected.  His love, energy and legacy remain.  Always with me.  Thank you for welcoming me home.