Part IV of IV: Nigeria’s failed attempt at subsidy reform

Part IV of IV: Nigeria’s failed attempt at subsidy reform

This final part in the GRI Series on energy subsidies examines Nigeria’s attempt at reform, and why it went wrong. Gradual adjustment and decision transparency are key elements of success.

Nigeria provides an excellent case study on the failure to properly manage the removal of energy subsidies. Currently the eighth most populous country in the world, Nigeria produces the most oil in Africa and is the world’s fourth largest exporter of liquid natural gas. As is common among energy rich countries, Nigeria heavily subsidizes the cost of fuel by capping gasoline and kerosene prices.

The Brookings Institute estimates this cost the Nigerian government $8 billion in 2011, or roughly 30% of government expenditures. The subsidies have displaced important investments while disincentivizing refining production. While the country exports large quantities of oil and gas, its own ability to turn those raw resources into usable domestic energy remains low. This motivated the Nigerian government to begin planning the removal of subsidies in 2011.

A failed attempt at reform

On January 1, 2012, President Goodluck Jonathan and the Nigerian government surprised the county by increasing the price of gasoline 117%, matching the prevailing supply cost. Protests spread across the country, turning deadly when police fired into crowds in the city of Kano. Given Nigeria’s energy wealth, many of its citizens felt that the low price of fuel was one of the few ways the state shared prosperity.

Budgets are tight for many Nigerians (85% of the population lived on less than $2/day in 2010) so the sharp increase in fuel costs quickly galvanized unrest. A national strike shut down most of the country, and the government went as far as to say the country risked descending into “anarchy.”

On January 16, President Jonathan partially reversed his decision, lowering prices back near the original capped price. Over the course of two weeks, ten people had died, 600 were wounded, and Nigeria’s economy had ground to a halt. Clearly the government made a serious error. What went wrong?

Distrust of the government and sharp adjustments

The Nigerian government had mounted a public campaign arguing for the removal of energy subsidies. However, it only lasted six months and failed to convince the National Assembly of the merits of the idea. The government promoted a mitigation effort dubbed the Subsidy Reinvestment and Empowerment (SURE) program, but announced it only a month before it eventually decided to raise prices.

There was no comprehensive study done to support claims about cost, and the government timeline for enacting the reforms was not transparent. In a country with low trust in government, this proved to be a crucial misstep.

The IMF noted that “the new administration had yet to establish the credibility that it would live up to its commitments…” Finally, price increases were implemented too rapidly to allow for a gradual readjustment of people’s budgets and for mitigation measures to take effect.

Nigeria’s attempt at reforming its energy subsidy program offers a number of lessons.

Foremost among them is the need for civic engagement to build both awareness and trust. The government needed to be open on the issue. Instead it veiled its true intentions to the National Assembly and the Nigerian people.

As many countries around the world (such as Indonesia, Malaysia, Argentina) debate energy subsidies, investors and markets should focus on how the governments explain the costs of subsidies and the logic of their removal to the people. Otherwise, people may sour on the idea, making reform difficult. An inability to effectively reform subsidies could be a red flag for deeper issues within emerging market governments.

About Author

Ned Pagliarulo

Ned Pagliarulo works for a Japanese press company, reporting on economics and government statistics. Ned received a BA in History with a minor in Japanese from Georgetown University in 2012.