Fuelling Poverty: The Story of the Fuel Subsidy Scam in Nigeria
By Udo Jude Ilo
Since independence, Nigeria has lost about $400 billion to corruption. If anything, the looting of Nigeria’s treasury is on the increase. A recent Gallup poll places Nigeria as the most corrupt country based on citizens’ perceptions. The Transparency International Corruption Index ranks Nigeria 139 out of 174 countries with a score of 27 out of 100. The unemployment rate in the country is on the rise, public amenities are grossly inadequate, and the cost of living is high but the standard of living is low. Nigeria—popularly called the giant of Africa—is a shadow of itself with Nigerians increasingly seeing fewer reasons to believe in their country. About 70 percent live below the poverty line.
Fuelling Poverty, a documentary made against the backdrop of the January 2012 protest after the removal of the fuel subsidy, attempts to compress in less than 30 minutes the sad story of corruption in Nigeria and the mismanagement of oil wealth—the mainstay of Nigeria’s economy. It is a story that brings to life the pain and helplessness of Nigerians who are caught in up in the reckless policies of a government that has continued to impoverish them and has continued to foster an environment of impunity where corruption is the norm, rather than exception.
Nigeria stood still in the early part January 2012 when the federal government, without consultation, removed the fuel subsidy and the price of petrol rose more than 100 percent and triggered an unprecedented inflation that caught many Nigerians napping. Happening during the Christmas season, with many Nigerians traveling out of their station, it became a catastrophe of sorts when most people could not find enough resources to go back to their station given the sudden hike in transportation cost.
The outrage that greeted this government policy triggered the biggest demonstration ever in Nigeria since the return to democracy in 1999. The rationale behind the demonstration moved away from focusing solely and specifically on the fuel subsidy and began to question government spending on a much larger scale, including the rot in the oil and gas management and the “free for all” mentality of corruption that destroyed the effectiveness of the subsidy regime. Subsequent enquiry by the Nigeria’s House of Representative revealed that about $7 billion had been stolen under the subsidy regime with clear connivance of government officials. Almost 12 months after this crisis and demonstration, still nothing has changed and Nigeria remains in a death grip of oil and gas corruption.
Fuelling Poverty tells the story of the fuel subsidy management in a manner that demystifies the numbers and humanizes the tragedy. It brings the experiences and perceptions of the average Nigerian to the forefront, lays down the arguments of both sides of the fuel subsidy debate, and underlines the culture of impunity that has been the bane of accountability in Nigeria.
The documentary is not just about a government that has failed in its promise, but rather about dreams that have been taken away by bad government. It is about schools without chairs, hospitals without drugs, careers without prospects, hunger without hope, and a nation with so much potential but very little prospect. It is a tale of metastasized corruption sustained by a weak ruling class and perpetrated by an unholy alliance between the private and public sector. The images, the interviews, and the songs in this documentary are worth a thousand books. The pungency of the message elicits tears, anger, laughter, and determination for a better Nigeria.
Fuelling Poverty is a story that needs to be told. We need to keep the challenges of corruption in Nigeria on the front burner, to awaken Nigerians to action and to rally the world to help our country save itself from instability fuelled by corruption. It is a tribute to the many lives lost during the demonstration and the many avoidable deaths in Nigeria as a result of bad governance. It is a story of a country that can do better and of people who have suffered for too long. Fuelling Poverty is a joint initiative between Open Society Initiative for West Africa and Ishaya Baku, a young Nigerian producer who is fast becoming a force in the film industry and a fearless social activist.
Udo Jude Ilo is head of the Nigeria office for the Open Society Initiative for West Africa.