By Chidi Amuta
appy New Year!’ is a reflexive outburst of thoughtless and unconditional optimism. At the back of it all lies humanity’s compulsive superstitious wish that the things that determine good tidings will obey our good wishes. Just wish it and it could happen. The expectation is that the unseen hands of divine providence will make our wishes come true. We have a way of assuring ourselves that in the torrent of exchanges of good wishes among us as friends and neighbours a flood of good fortune will sweep through the world and make everything new and happy in the New Year. In the euphoria of heralding the New Year, there is an implicit condemnation of the Old Year. The ingratitude is palpable especially for miscreants and outright criminals whose life defining heist was executed in the Old Year.
The superstition can be even worse. There is a preposterous assumption that things will turn out well simply because everybody wishes everybody well. But it never does. It is more a social convention, a manner of speaking and a ritual of daily living. Behind it all is a naïve belief and an infantile expectation that a flip of the calendar from one day to the next will suddenly chase away the bandits of Zamfara and Kaduna or make politicians in Abuja slightly more honest and sensible. Not quite likely and not so quickly.
In all religions and cultures, a certain superstitious wish for good things in the New Year unites humanity. Old things have passed away! Everything is made new! The mascot of the New Year is the energetic young warrior prince on a white horse. Some throw away old utensils, thrash old apparels or dump their refuse at the road junction at midnight on the last day of the old year. Leftover food is not left out. Some pour ashes on their own heads in an act of expiation for sins committed in the old year. But alas, that wish for a better New Year does not stop your dog from dying tomorrow or your enemy from hitting it rich in spite of his treachery and wickedness. But it is in our nature that we speak good tidings to each other at the turn of the New Year, expecting the best and fearing the worst. At the back of our minds, we know and live with the frightful foreboding that ugly things will happen to good people in the New Year in spite of our best wishes.
But more often than not, the things that determine what we wish for are far beyond our individual control. We wish each other happiness. But our happiness is often more a function of whether the bank balance is showing black or red. The decisions that determine those bank balances are made not by the gods or the God we pray to on Fridays or Sundays but by a special breed of creatures called politicians. They decide who will become poor or rich, who will become broke in the year or take a vacation to the Virgin Islands. Politicians decide whose wife will run away because of a sudden onset of an infection of adversity. In a way, the politicians in Abuja hold the power to decide whether you as the head of your household will retain your position in dignity or wear your title and badge of honour in blind obedience to tradition and a manner of speaking.
In the New Year, Nigerians may be shocked how early in the new year their superstitious wishes for prosperity and happiness will turn into ashes or simply evaporate into thin air. In this place, even the best intentions of divine beneficence are soon thwarted by the machinations of bad or incompetent people. Early in the New Year, president Buhari is likely to sign into law a senseless volume of silly figures and statistics called a budget. The volume, compiled by lazy bureaucrats, padded up by greedy legislators and delivered to a bemused nation by semi literate politicians is all the empowerment the executive branch needs to proceed on a spending binge. That is the national budget which sensible citizens hardly spare a moment to read. The other 36 state governors and the Minister of the FCT follow suit in this futile annual ritual of public fraud. The public does not bother to take a look at the figures since they know the politicians will follow neither their own words or implement the content of the silly documents. The budget process in Nigeria is part of an elaborate ritual of collective deceit and mass hypnosis that goes in the name of governance in these parts.
Nonetheless, the politicians in Abuja are waiting to herald the New Year by resuming their patriotic services to the nation. They are waiting to endorse a long conceived presidential decision to remove the ‘subsidy’ on petrol. The myth is that the pump prices of petroleum products are subsidized by government because the cost at which these products are imported are too high for the ordinary consumer to pay at the pump. Government subsidizes the landed cost instead of fixing the refineries that would have made the products cheaper and more affordable in the first place. But every year for over thirty years now, government pays to fix or turn around the refineries which never refine even a gallon of petrol year on year. The ways of government are mysterious!
The importers of petroleum products are licensed agents of the same politicians and bureaucrats. So, the subsidy payments calculated by government, the profit on the importation of refined products and the cost of the dubious refinery maintenance rituals all go to the same commission agents of government. Now government wants the people to pay directly for the fraud because the cost has become scandalous. Government itself is getting broke under the weight of its own profligacy and relentless borrowing binge.
The first reversal of our New Year wishes is that the gas station will soon cease to be a centre of economic and political power in Nigeria. Once the new petrol prices come into effect, only very few will find the courage to go near there. In return, urban Nigerians will rediscover the power and limitations of their legs since bus fares will no longer be for the poor! Others who still dare to take public transport will have to decide whether the cost of going to work is worth the starvation wage they earn. Some may no longer find a place of work to go to as every other honest Nigerian will probably be out of work when petrol prices hit the sky soon.
Those who dare question this ‘patriotic’ and ‘courageous’ decision through protests are enemies of the nation. They may have to return home in police Black Maria or worse with broken heads and fractured ribs. Labour leaders, youth enthusiasts and student activists who dare speak out or lead protests against the new prices of gasoline may be prosecuted for unlawful assembly and criminal incitement of mobs. Social media platforms that disseminate messages about fuel price protests may get the Twitter treatment!
While the impending petrol price clampdown lasts, the long awaited upward adjustment in electricity tariffs will roll into place. After all, the luxury of electricity on demand is not for all Tom, Dick and Harry. International energy prices demand that Nigerians pay the equivalent of what other civilized countries are paying for a unit of electricity. A delegation of electricity distributors and power company executives will likely visit the state house to press home the need for appropriate pricing of power and its products. No nation develops by handing out free electricity 24/7 to citizens who in any case will use the power to commit internet fraud or watch pornography!
Happy New Year and welcome to the year of many new taxes. This is the year of the tax man as king. There is already a foretaste. The cooking gas tax is already here! Common folk are paying through their noses for cooking gas. The international prices of energy and gas have gone up and Nigerian importers of cooking gas (LPG) are importing at the same international prices in addition to paying duties to government. Government needs the money badly to pay $200 million for the importation of mosquito nets so that more people do not die of malaria. Since people can no longer afford cooking gas, they are reverting to fire wood. Soon, a new rural-urban trade in firewood is likely to blossom. Forget all the international protocols on climate change and environmental protection.
Ordinarily, happy New Year should have meant some relief from the existing gamut of explicit taxes on Nigerians. The implicit taxes are assumed. We provide our own security at home, in offices and even when we venture out of town to visit the places of our ancestry. Private fees for private security guards, rented police escorts, rented military escorts and private military companies are things that Nigerians pay for even though they have already been taxed by government for the same services. Add all that to your private water supply, generators and first aid and primary healthcare.
At New Year, we wish each other safety and protection. In a place where every urchin positioned at every hundred meters on the highway is wielding an AK 47 ready to do you harm or worse, the wish that our protection and security are in the hands of the divine is a bit unfair to God. God oversees the safety of all in a rather invisible unscientific way but government makes us pay it to keep us safe. It arms and clothes the police, those rich and fat army generals and all the other officially armed guards to keep us safe. No one knows who arms the bandits, ‘unknown gunmen’, the rogue policemen, insurgents, terrorists and separatist thugs to vitiate the work of God and render divine protection of the people a bit more problematic.
There is an even more curious and unkind aspect to our ritual of New Year greetings and wishes. We the elite mock the less privileged by wishing each other ‘prosperity’ in the New Year. I am part of this conspiracy of the privileged. To wish a man who is already a multi billionaire in every currency ‘prosperity’ is an atrocious infamy and the height of capitalist insensitivity. It is the height of bourgeois class arrogance and a travesty of natural justice to insist that the affluent and super rich deserve even more ‘prosperity’ in a place like this. Not even the slightest modicum of natural justice or decent sense of proportion can justify this infamy and yet we keep flaunting it year after year. So far, I have never seen any of my rich friends throw back the wish at me by insisting that I should wish myself what I keep wishing them rather unfairly year after year. I am srill waiting for any of my rich friends to send me a wish that they pray for me to join their ranks in this New Year!
A bleak economic outlook should not ordinarily be the entitlement of a willing and hard working citizenry. It can be relieved by the promise of democratic renewal as elections approach. A free people can endure adversity in the hope that the acts of a few good men and women to be placed in political power can reverse adversity through better governance and wiser leadership. An obedient and law abiding people deserve an expectation of good things each New Year. A wish for a happy New Year is therefore not too much to expect in a democracy. The essence of democratic accountability is the expectation that elected leaders will be more sensitive to the yearnings of the people and bring them some smiles each New Year. In fairness, Nigerians have placed their confidence in democracy to bring about the good things that they wish each other every New Year.
These days, the popularity of democracy can be measured by the percentage of Nigerians who are waiting for the next election to bring about some positive changes in their lives. Yet somehow and repeatedly, our lives never get batter. More and more of our children cannot find work for their able hands. Our urban alleys get more dangerous while our highways have become the abode of robbers, kidnappers and an assortment of casual criminals. Those who dream are afraid to wake up because the reality of waking experience is more nightmarish than our worst nightmares. Those who have been around for long enough testify that our lives have descended into greater bitterness and brutishness as the New Years have rolled in. The older generation find happiness only in nostalgic reminiscences of times past while the present frightens even the most courageous with its bloody fearsomeness.
Democracy does have inbuilt reassurances of some sweetness. A free society, free and fair elections, transparent political processes and systems and accountable leaders can hold a hope that the New Year will be a better place for all. But as 2022 gathered steam to roll in, Nigeria’s democracy had one hopeful expectation. A bill to amend our electoral system and allow for open direct primaries was gathering dust on the president’s desk. The consensus was that the president would break the backbone of a fledgling political oligarchy and autocracy by signing the bill into law. Open direct primaries would level the playing field by giving party members universal equal say in who gets put forward for elective office. This would end the cultic control of leadership selection by party oligarchs who thwart the will of the people by unilaterally handpicking party candidates. But just on the eve of New Year, the president, consistent with his conservative creed and instinctive anti democratic inclinations, withheld accent to the law. The only door open for a happy New Year seems to have been shut by a man who is easily the greatest beneficiary of Nigerian democracy, magnanimity and optimism.
In the young New Year, there is abundant ground for more pessimism in Nigeria than ever before. A clear and present economic doom looms in the horizon. And now, a virtual political autocracy presided over by party oligarchs has been slammed into place by presidential fiat. Those who wished each other Happy New Year a few days ago may be at a loss. As sual, all that may be left of our New Year wishes is the hope that God and Allah will intervene to bring us some sweetness after all.