“Please Sir, l want some more. To do a great right you may do a little wrong; and you may take any means which the end to be attained will justify.” That is one of Charles Dickens’ most popular lines quoted from his novel, Oliver Twist – a poor orphan rendered notorious and beggarly, always asking for more food because of extreme poverty. The theme of desperation induced by hardship is further accentuated when one of Oliver’s roommates could not sleep at night for fear that the boy by his side might eat him up. Oliver came at a time when a large population of England were living in abject poverty, forcing many of them to be cramped into what they called ‘work houses’ with little or nothing to live for.

The predicament of poor Nigerians today is not much different from that of the pitiable character of Oliver Twist and his poor English friends.

A few weeks ago, two students of Nasarawa State University were trampled to death and fourteen injured during a stampede to get hand-outs of rice palliatives being shared by the school authorities.

In this country, a goat seller parked his truckload of goats by the roadside and went to a nearby ‘mamaput’ for lunch; he came back to find a band of men and women looting his goats from the truck. Evidently, that level of hardship and deprivation is capable of driving people crazy.

In recent times, there have been several reported incidents of looting of food items from shops and moving trucks, of hungry folks burgling their neighbours’ kitchen and carting away their pot of soup. Hardship and poverty have exposed Nigerians to all kinds of indignities comparable only to the life of lower animals. Palliatives that Nigerians used to be ashamed to queue for have become manna from heaven to the extent that they are now willing to die in order to get a crumb of it. Many believe that much of the hardship was the direct result of some of the reform policies of the present federal government under the leadership of President Bola Ahmed Tinubu. The removal of oil subsidy and recent electricity tariff hike rank highest in the catalogue of policies perceived as anti-people.

It has been argued that though these harsh policies may create initial hardship, in the long run the country would be better for it. Of course, everybody knows that typically, this argument would be dismissed as story for the gods because it sounds like a broken record in the ears of the average Nigerian who has been hearing it from each successive government since he was born, only to be disappointed at the end. As far as the energy sector is concerned, the general belief is that what is being subsidized is darkness, not electricity, which means that more darkness should be expected in the years ahead if the present price regime continues. And one bad thing about darkness is that it attracts all kinds of demons! Is it not even scandalous that eleven years after privatization of the power sector, the so-called private companies are still unable to provide meters to their customers? Instead they have the audacity to impose estimated bills on consumers, a crime that could earn them long jail terms in sane climes.

The fact that Nigerians, as intelligent as they are, could descend so low as to accept such enslavement simply beats one’s imagination. When the telecom sector was privatized, one can easily point at the benefits by simply making a call with one’s own cell phone even with borrowed data. This fact is incontrovertible. In the power sector, it is darkness and tales of woe all the way. Trying to tinker the current energy architecture as is currently being done, and then attempting to obfuscate the human intellect with technical jargon, is like storing dirty water. Everyone knows that what poor people do with dirty water is to either throw it away or use it to flush their toilets. Whether a consumer is in the so-called Band A or not, the impact of the hike will ultimately trickle down to every citizen of this country. In any case, those in other Bands not currently affected should be wise enough not to rejoice yet. The whip used in chastising the first wife is at the back of the door waiting for the second wife. The dark dynamics of darkness entrenched within the sector has not changed, and experience has shown that no amount of tariff hikes can change it except there is a total rejigging of the entire framework. The rejigging must, of course, include a thorough assessment to determine whether the GENCOS and DISCOS are part of the problem or part of the solution. If the former is the case, the country cannot move an inch towards light.

The famous American civil rights activist, Martin Luther King Jnr, once said, “If you can’t fly then run. If you can’t run then walk. If you can’t walk then crawl, but whatever you do, you have to keep moving forward.”

These inspirational words provoke one question Nigerians are asking today, and have been asking in recent years: with all this suffering in the land, is our country actually moving forward as being made out by some of these new-breed technocrats at Abuja? And if indeed the country is moving forward, the question is: moving forward to where?

On his inauguration on May 29, 2023, President Tinubu announced that “oil subsidy is gone”. The announcement came like a resounding knock delivered on the head of a stubborn pupil by his teacher. Painful and shocking as it was, while the nation is still writhing in pain from that policy, hike in electricity tariff was again slammed on citizens. According to Nigerian Electricity Regulatory Commission (NERC), the federal government will incur electricity subsidy commitments of as much as N1.6 trillion in 2024, a burden it considers no longer sustainable. Well, excuses are excuses. It is hard to see how executive pillow-talk and suffer-now-and-enjoy-later gospel can win the trust of citizens already buffeted with life-threatening policies. The excuse that the federal government is under pressure from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and other international financial organizations to remove subsidy from all subsidized items is even more pathetic because it tends to lay credence to the sad idea that the nation may indeed fall into the embarrassing category of a failed state. By the way, in whose interest is IMF mounting the pressure?

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As at 2023, energy statistics showed that Nigeria has the lowest access to electricity globally with about 92 million out of the country’s over 200 million population lacking in power supply.

In the last three years, electricity tariff has been increased three times and each increase came with excruciating difficulties with no visible economic gain to the nation. With less than 3,500 miserable megawatts currently being generated, what therefore is the guarantee that the present tariff increase from N65 per kilowatt hour to N225, representing as high as 240 per cent, will be different?
Stating the obvious, the reputed social activist nicknamed Comrade Mai-Gashi, Senator Shehu Sani, said the electricity tariff hike will “electrocute human lives and businesses in Nigeria”. Add this to food inflation, exorbitant fuel and transportation costs, house rent, naira scarcity, unaffordable price of cooking gas, unemployment, and the latest madness called banditry and kidnapping, what you get is life on tenterhooks for both the rich and the poor.

From the 3,500 megawatts the country generates, over 40,000 megawatts are derived from generators. According to the Association of Nigerian Electricity Distributors, the country’s 200 million population requires a minimum of 33,000 megawatts, which means we haven’t even started crawling, let alone moving forward. So frankly speaking, to ask whether the country is moving forward only begs the question.

There was a time during previous regimes when the country managed to stabilize its output at around 5,000 megawatts. Ironically, those in today’s corridors of power and their followers who mobilized protesters to “occupy Lagos and Abuja” when the previous governments attempted to remove subsidies are the ones now telling Nigerians that election is over and this is not the time for criticism and protest. Diehard opponents of subsidy removal have suddenly become the strongest advocates of the same policy. Is this how to move forward?

The problem with us is self-deceit. That’s why we are where we are. Fela said we were ‘suffering and smiling’, but now we are also crying and dancing at the same time.

A number of pragmatic remedies have been put forward one of which is that states should simply go ahead and reinvent their own energy sector devoid of any of these encumbrances of tariffs and subsidy palaver from Abuja. In Delta State, for example, a number of key public establishments no longer have any business with the national grid as they get their power supply from the state-owned independent power project which has since proved more efficient than the darkness we have all along been paying for.

Secondly, renewable energy sources offer wider options across board, particularly for federating units who have the foresight to grab the opportunity.

In this season of subsidy removal and tariff hikes, it won’t be surprising if the economic experts in Abuja suddenly discover that taxing the air we breathe would provide revenue to build prisons for the poor, very much like the workhouses built by 19th century Englishmen for the likes of Oliver Twist.

By and large, one thing is certain. Just like Oliver Twist, as long as citizens of Nigeria are subjected to untold hardship, they would continue to “ask for more” until they attain a life worth living.

*Anthony-Spinks writes from Asaba, Delta State.