Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Eyes left : Look towards Nigeria

There is endemic corruption that beggars belief. There is a highly educated, superb English speaking elite and large masses of illiterate poor. There is insurgency and terrorism around the edges. There is organised loot of the country's finances with a few getting extremely rich and the lot remaining dirt poor. Misguided subsidies are ruining the state finances. There is a thriving film industry that churns our the second largest number of movies in the world and provides opium to the masses. No this is not India. Welcome to Nigeria.

Nigeria is an oil producing country. You would expect that to be a huge blessing, right ? Wrong. It has proved to be a curse. Nigeria is suffering from an unsustainable petroleum subsidy burden. So unsustainable that this week it announced abolition of the subsidy. Predictably there will be chaos on the streets as large scale protests have commenced.

The petroleum subsidy case in Nigeria is a textbook case of how pathetic government policies can ruin a country. Nigeria is an oil producing nation. However it has not set up refining capacity. It therefore exports crude and imports refined products. It then massively subsidises petroleum prices. A litre of petrol costs Rs 20 (US$ 0.40). The government spends some $1bn a month in subsidies. This is simply unsustainable. 

Subsidies like this distorts every economic activity. There is, of course, large scale smuggling into neighbouring countries where the prices are four times higher. The largest per capita incidence of petrol pumps in the world is in the border towns like Idiroko - organised smuggling designed to fill the coffers of the masters in Lagos.

From the perspective of the poor, the subsidy is the only thing the government does for them. It is otherwise almost a failed state. The government says the money wasted on the subsidy will be used to build infrastructure, schools, hospitals, etc - things that the government ought to be doing. The trouble is that nobody believes them. Given the highly sophisticated levels of organised corruption, few doubt where the money will land up.

Replace petroleum subsidy with colour TVs or colossal statues or free power and you'll look at a country, readers of this blog are more familiar with.

India often likes to compare itself with China. It should instead look up to Nigeria. That is the true role model - of how bad things can become if the deterioration in governance and the state continues in its present trajectory.