By Lasisi Olagunju
Immediate past Kaduna State governor, Nasir El-Rufai, recently waxed proverbial and made a Facebook post which sounded like a loud complaint: “The axe forgets but the tree remembers…They are the axe. We are the trees. We have long memories. God Bless Nigeria. Amen.” El-Rufai made that sour post on June 13, 2023 – about three weeks ago. It sounded very ominous and sparked a feeling of deja vu. I read his post again, especially the two sentences: “They are the axe. We are the trees.” I felt like asking El-Rufai: who are the ‘they’ assailing innocent trees with their axes; and who are the ‘we’ – the victim-trees with ‘long memories’? But then, I could see that the message was his most popular social media post in recent times, attracting more than ten thousand likes and almost three thousand comments. Some of the commenters threw it back at the former governor. They said he was the axe and should stop acting the victim. One comment reads: “You are the axe here, Mallam. We, the citizens, are the trees. We’ll never forget.” And another: “We will remember; we will tell our children the stories when the time is right.” What stories?
El-Rufai described what he wrote as an African proverb. He may be correct. But where I come from, we say songs always presage rebellion (orin níí síwájú òtè, owó genge níí síwájú ijó). Nineteenth century American author, abolitionist and statesman, Frederick Douglass, said a variant of this: “The thing worse than rebellion is the thing that causes rebellion.” I think Nigeria should ask brilliant El-Rufai to explain what he meant and who wronged his “we”. If he says it is a harmless promise, a warning to his allies, then we may ask: what sort of man removes a fly from his friend’s forehead with a hatchet?
Beyond El-Rufai’s proverbs, I also like his choice of quotes. Take his Thomas Friedman quote of 15 October, 2022: “….sometimes the news is in the noise, in what is being said and shouted, and sometimes the news is in the silence, in what isn’t being said at all.” I would recommend that quotation to every person in government today who goes about sleeping because the traumatized hungry street is not saying anything. Think of everything that has happened in the last one month. Our government has removed fuel subsidy. The effects have been immediate in ruination and teeth gnashing. My problem here is not just petrol subsidy removal. How about where the gains will go? The gains will very likely feed the greed of the power elite or the elite will tell us there has been no gain yet; that we should, like Animal Farm’s Boxer, work harder and stop whining.
El-Rufai’s proverb says the tree does not forget what the axe does. Is that really true? If it is, why then does the tree continue to empower the axe with the comfort of wooden handles to wreak more havoc? Before our very eyes, we saw how perfect acts of acquiescence in the Orwellian Animal Farm wrecked the years from 2015 to 2023. A reenactment of same is afoot. Every squeal of disapproval from young porkers today attracts nauseating bleating from the sheep of the farm; the dogs of Napoleon, with menacing growls, tell their mates in hunger that the leader does right always. We are not complaining. We take anything our government offers; even when it offers nothing, we take and clap. “When Napoleon begins executing other animals, Boxer can only say, ‘I would not have believed that such things could happen on our farm. It must be due to some fault in ourselves. The solution, as I see it, is to work harder.’”
They are the axe, we are the tree. The people are increasingly made the fodder for the Knight’s horse, his charger. The government is celebrating a crash in demand for petrol as an achievement. They call it life style change; the poor call it trekking, suffering and sweating. Where are Tinubu’s policies against the rich? Installmental death of the poor is afoot. The elite applaud appropriate pricing of petrol. But the poor wears that shoe, he feels the pain. Petrol marketers have served us another notice of misery. They said from this month, because of the realities of the new FX policy, they may start selling petrol for N700 per litre. If and whenever that happens, the people will most likely ask if this democracy is really about them. That will be very dangerous. Again, Fredrick Douglass warned: “Where justice is denied, where poverty is enforced, where ignorance prevails, and where any one class is made to feel that society is an organized conspiracy to oppress, rob and degrade them, neither persons nor property will be safe.”
International money lenders are also the axe here. They insist that there are too many trees in our forest. They cut, trim and prune life and living out of our lives. It is as if they do not care if the human ecosystem is destroyed and our forest becomes a desert. The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) are happy and dancing that Tinubu did well by carrying out what they called bold reforms. But most developed countries subsidise energy. Indeed, there is a report that German Finance Minister, Christian Lindner, last November made plans for his country to spend €83.3 billion ($83.4 billion) on gas and electricity subsidies this year. Bloomberg, which published the report in November 2022, said it got it from a document it obtained from the ministry. Germany does that as we speak and it is not alone here. The International Energy Agency (IEA) estimated that consumption subsidies for fossil fuels doubled in 2022 to $1 trillion globally. A March 2023 report by Reuters said estimated oil subsidies in the US are as high as $50 billion per annum. No government in America has been able to stop it as part of the country’s transition to clean energy to tackle climate change. “Even with a commanding Democratic majority in the Senate in Obama’s first six years in office, he was unable to kill the subsidies. For many governments, keeping consumer energy prices affordable is the top priority. That’s why numerous countries, ranging from Japan to Brazil, last year imposed or increased subsidies to cushion consumers from skyrocketing prices,” the Reuters report said.
I have not heard the IMF and the World Bank tell those powerful countries that it was wrong to keep fuel prices low with subsidies. But at the launch of the Nigeria Development Update for June 2023 in Abuja last week, Alex Sienaert, chief economist at World Bank Nigeria, applauded Nigeria and its Tinubu. He said “the recently undertaken PMS subsidy and FX reforms are historic.” He said our country will make savings of N3.9 trillion in 2023 alone and that the action had stopped “Nigeria from going over a fiscal cliff and sets the stage for a new, upward Investment, growth, and development trajectory.” Then, he warned that “headline inflation is expected to rise…to 25 percent in 2023.”
He added that if there were no buffers to cushion the impact of these reforms, over 7.1 million Nigerians would be further thrown into the poverty net. Ari Aisen, resident representative of the IMF in Nigeria, at the same event, said the reforms were long overdue. If you complain as I do about the effects, the IMF man had a response: it is natural that the policies have some side effects. “We have seen inflation already high and it is likely to increase further…” I read the IMF man and wondered if he did not know that many of the urban and rural poor have been made to believe that the spike in petrol price is just for some time. We need someone to tell the hopeful to tighten their seat belts because this láálá that has gone up isn’t going to come down to earth again.
Tinubu has been too much of a critic to fail in providing better life for the people. If he fails (we his friends say God forbid), he will be fed what he and his group regularly fed presidents who came before him. He will be introduced to the court hall where Thomas Rymer’s poetic justice is libatory wine, the undying gavel that “seeks to give to each what is owed.”
Inscrutable fate has heaved Tinubu onto power. Critics sometimes find themselves on the throne. When they do, they very often, because of their enormous street sense, get overconfident and take the people for granted; and, when they do this, they fail and fall and their enemies proceed to rejoice over them. I cite an example. Dr. Kofi Busia was one of the key opposition leaders whose criticisms provided the military the needed axe to sack Osagyefo Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana’s first president, in 1966. Busia later got elected and sworn in as Prime Minister on October 1, 1969 and hit the ground running.
Within the first six weeks of his Prime minister ship, he promulgated the Aliens Compliance Order of 18 November, 1969 under which he chased an estimated 191,000 Nigerians and thousands of other nationals out of Ghana. His domestic economic policies were harsh and largely ineffective in making life better for the people of Ghana. He did everything he did to please the “international community” and made sure he was a friend of America and, unlike Nkrumah, supported Big Brother “on all procedural votes.”
The American Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in a declassified November 3, 1971 memo to the White House noted with applause that Busia’s policies had “earned him the respect and support of the World Bank, the IMF, etc…” The CIA noted in particular that “Busia has followed highly moderate policies, adopted two straight austerity budgets, and refused to renege on the inherited debts. As a result, he is subject to a good deal of domestic pressure and the success of Ghana’s experiment with responsible democratic government is in doubt…” As correctly read by the CIA, Busia soon suffered a fate similar to Nkrumah’s – his ‘friends’ booted him out of office in January 1972, two months, 10 days after that memo was written. Almost immediately after the putsch, exiled Nkrumah fired what he called “a letter of consolation” to the fallen Busia, his former arch critic.
Cheeky, old Nkrumah wrote salt right into the injury of smarting Busia who had just fallen from power. A few lines from his three-page letter here: “I am sure that you realise that those who criticise other people without bothering to assign good reasons for their criticisms eventually end up as victims of their own circumstances. You will also appreciate the fact that those who sow a wind reap a whirlwind, and after you have finished spoiling other people, you will be surprised to find out that you have spoilt yourself.”
I watched President Tinubu in Ijebu Ode and Abeokuta last week. His movement suggested a sure-footed somebody. I watched him and wondered if he knew that tying the nuptial knots with one’s favourite lady is not the sole objective of marriage. He needs to be told that what makes the seas is more than sea water. Getting the presidency, complete with its power and glory, is not the end; making it work for the comfort of the people is. The eight million plus people who voted for him in February and the remaining millions on the street are dying slowly of hardship made worse by his recent policies. He withdrew petrol subsidy and is proud of it; he should be proud of enacting counter-policies that will deaden the pains. After all, when he was young and struggling, did he not join his folks to say that the one who knows how to eat isin must also know how to pluck out the death in its eyes?