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The 2019 Tinubu Speech We ignored Is Biting Back, By Farooq Kperogi

AT the 11th Bola Tinubu Colloquium on March 29, 2019, Bola Ahmed Tinubu, then only a powerful but unofficial pillar of the APC, gave us an ominous presage of his administration that we all either ignored or sniggered at but which is now eerily materializing.

“If we reduce the purchasing power of the people, we can further slow down the economy,” he said to a mysterious ovation from the audience. “Let’s widen the tax net. Those who are not paying now, even if it’s inclusive of Bola Tinubu, let the net get bigger and we take in more taxes. And that is what we must do in the country.”

Many people were genuinely bewildered and wondered what Tinubu meant. I was, too. For one, there is clearly neither economic logic nor even moral merit in reducing the purchasing power of a people, slowing down the economy, and then taxing the same people whose purchasing power has been reduced in a depressed economy. Why would anyone propose that as the anchor of his economic policy?

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It’s defensible to suggest the broadening of the tax base of an economy, but not even the most ruthless, unfeeling, sadistic, and misanthropic tyrant would openly advocate the mass pauperisation of the people as an economic policy.

So, many people, including me, concluded that Tinubu merely slipped up. What he meant to say was inconsistent with what he actually said. It was a fair concession. But there was more to the slip-up than many of us cared to accept at the time.

I am a student of Sigmund Freud. I was exposed to his psychoanalysis in my secondary school days by one Steven Omolaiye, a 1984 University of Ibadan sociology graduate, who was the project supervisor of a hospital the European Economic Community built in my hometown.

He was from Ogori-Magongo in what is now Kogi State. I have no idea where he is now—or if he is even alive—but I first learned about Freudian slip and of Sigmund Freud from him. When I got to Bayero University, Kano, for my undergraduate degree, I read almost every book Freud wrote, even though I was a mass communication student.

I am bringing this up to establish my non-credentialed bona fides to psychoanalyze Tinubu’s 2019 slip-up in light of what his administration is turning out to be. When Tinubu idealized increasing the tax burden of the people at the very moment that their purchasing power is weak and the tempo of the economy is decelerated, he was betraying, without he himself realizing it, a subconscious, deep-seated longing for the sort of invidiously stratified, anti-poor regime he creates and strengthens with every policy.

“From error to error, one discovers the entire truth,” Sigmund Freud once said. In other words, errors in speech and in writing sometimes serve as lenses that help reveal an unconscious, suppressed, or subdued desire or internal thought.

If I had written this in 2019 or, especially, in 2023, I might have been accused of being “sponsored” (everyone who writes what we don’t like is “sponsored” in Nigeria) to undermine Tinubu’s chances at election.

It bears repeating that Tinubu’s first act upon being inaugurated as president was to announce the removal of petrol subsidies which, in one fell swoop, reduced the purchasing power of the people and slowed down the economy in unexampled ways.

The “floating” of the naira merely strengthened the wickedness that the removal of petrol subsidies unleashed. The astronomical increase in electricity tariffs and the foxy dilly-dallying over increasing the national minimum wage are metaphoric rubbing of salt in the wounds of reduced purchasing power and slow economy, the necessary precursors to Tinubu’s next stage: widening the tax net.

The “next stage” of Tinubu’s economic masterplan started in earnest on May 6 when he directed the Central Bank of Nigeria to require banks to assess a 0.05 percent “cybersecurity” fee on every electronic bank transaction—in addition to multiple bank fees that have already made Nigerian banks notorious for being the only banks where you lose money by saving it there.

While I was seething with angst at the unceasingly escalating economic assault on the poor and the weak in Nigeria in the less than one year that Tinubu has been president, I saw a headline in the Daily Trust of May 9 that almost ruined my day and convinced me beyond all shadows of doubt that Tinubu is single-mindedly determined to push through the dystopian economic vision he inadvertently articulated in 2019.

The headline was, “More Burden For Nigerians As Tax Committee Recommends VAT Hike.” The paper reported that “The Presidential Committee on Fiscal Policy and Tax reforms has recommended an upward review of the Value Added Tax (VAT).”

Apparently, even the chairman of the committee, identified as Taiwo Oyedele, is aware that there would be an outcry, so he quickly said poor people and small businesses won’t be affected by the proposed increase in VAT.

“We would ensure that it doesn’t affect businesses,” he said. “The only thing is to look at basic consumption from food, education, medical services and accommodation will carry zero percent VAT. So for the poor and small businesses, no VAT.”

Of course, even a novice in economics knows that when companies are burdened with higher taxes, they transfer this burden to consumers, which invalidates Oyedele’s assurance that poor people and small businesses would be exempt from the impending VAT hike since inflation, which higher taxes on businesses will activate, is an ill wind that blows nobody any good.

But Oyedele thinks Nigerians are unthinking chumps. He said the government had extracted a commitment from businesses that they won’t jack up the prices of their goods and services in response to the increased tax obligation they will have to contend with. “We have spoken to businesses about it, and they won’t increase the product price,” he said. “We want to make sure when we do VAT reform, no one will increase the price of commodities. We will work the mathematics with the private sector.”

Why does he think Nigerians would be persuaded by his false assurances? When Tinubu announced the removal of petrol subsidies on May 29, 2023, and petrol marketers suddenly increased the pump price of petrol from less than 200 naira to more than 500 naira on old stock that was subsidized by the Nigerian taxpayer, the government didn’t intervene.

It was the most nakedly immoral, government-sanctioned predation of the people that I have seen anywhere in the world. Why would a government that tolerated, even encouraged, that sort of rape of the people be trusted to persuade businesses not to increase the prices of their goods and services in response to increases in their tax liabilities?

In any case, we now know from a retrospective reading of Tinubu’s 2019 speech that his grand plan is to economically disempower the people, depress the economy, and tax people and businesses to death.

I am honestly at a loss what Tinubu hopes to gain from this other than to make the vast majority of the people so economically disaffiliated that they are vulnerable to manipulation, as I pointed out last week. But I hope he is aware that he is sowing the seeds for a spontaneous eruption of a disabling convulsion. There is a limit to what even the most docile humans can tolerate.

My genuine hope is that Tinubu and the people close to him understand that they are brewing the ingredients of a potentially all-consuming conflagration and beat a strategic retreat. It’s not late.

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