By Aniebo Nwamu
Which labour union plans to protest the recent hike in the price of petrol? In his address on Wednesday, minister of state for petroleum resources Dr Ibe Kachikwu said that the leadership of the National Assembly, Governors’ Forum and labour unions (NLC, TUC and PENGASSAN) attended a meeting of stakeholders where certain decisions were taken in respect of Nigeria’s fuel situation. Perhaps, some labour union leaders were running with the hare and hunting with the hounds. They should therefore be ignored. And student unions should not allow themselves to be misled once again. Those who may be sponsoring mass protests should keep their money this time, for President Muhammadu Buhari is not like President Goodluck Jonathan who failed to show leadership in January 2012.
Fuel “subsidy” is a scam that should never have been permitted in a democracy. Were Olusegun Obasanjo a better leader, the fraud would have been nipped in the bud. Indeed, our leaders, starting from the Yakubu Gowon era, lost it by not building enough refineries in the country and allowing the monumental corruption existing in the few ones built later. What was spent as turnaround maintenance each time was enough to build two new refineries. Yet, each of Nigeria’s 36 states could build a refinery, if it saved funds stolen through security vote and ghost-worker syndrome within one year. There is little doubt that government was subsidising corruption, not petroleum products for the masses. No irony could be greater than that of an oil-rich nation importing by-products of oil!
At the risk of blowing my own trumpet, I can claim to be among the voices that have been crying out aloud. In a “fantastically corrupt” country, however, leaders steal with impunity – they don’t worry about what people say or write because the country is lawless. To prove my consistency in opposing payment of fuel “subsidy” to importers (most of whom acquired private jets between 2010 and 2011), I wish to refer the reader to just three editions of this column published from the time of “Occupy Nigeria” protests: “Ungovernable Nigeria” (January 8, 2012), “So Long, Fuel ‘Subsidy’” (March 30, 2014), and “Why Fuel ‘Subsidy’ Should Go Now” (December 13, 2015).
I have always put subsidy inside quotation marks because I have believed it doesn’t exist. My reason has been that our former leaders who made allowance for N1trillion—2 trillion petrol subsidy out of a N4 trillion federal budget in a year couldn’t have done so out of love for ordinary Nigerians; they did it because of the immediate gains they would get from their fronts disguised as fuel importers. It’s no magic that billionaires with no visible means of livelihood emerged from Nigeria within the same period: many got paid without importing even a litre of fuel. As revelations from Armsgate can educate the less informed, two major ways through which Nigerian leaders plundered the treasury are security votes and overinflated or phantom contracts. Fuel “subsidy” belongs in the latter. More selfless leaders would prefer to subsidise food or education or power, or pay social security benefits to the unemployed and the physically challenged.
During the “Occupy Nigeria” protests of January 2012, some of us felt that removal of fuel “subsidy” was the right way to go. Many in the current government held the same view. But the politicians in the then opposition parties joined hands with the so-called marketers to campaign against the move. Today, I wonder where politicians like Nasir el-Rufai and Dino Melaye would bury their heads now!
The Jonathan administration ought not to have paid anyone a dime as subsidy. But the next best time it should have erased the phantom thing was July or August 2014, when the price of crude started crashing. I know it’s because of political expediency (in an election year) that he didn’t. Similarly, Buhari shouldn’t have paid anyone from his first day in office, as this column advised. The 11-month delay has now caused more problems: prices of goods and services, already high, are rising further in instalments.
Let me repeat myself several times today, if to demonstrate what I had seen beforehand: “In supporting the removal of ‘subsidy’, therefore, I am not asking that more pains be inflicted on already traumatised Nigerians. I have only taken notice of the monumental corruption, lack of transparency and inefficiency existing in both the nation’s oil industry and government apparatchiks. When we allow them to remove the phantom subsidy, one pipe through which they siphon trillions each year will be blocked. Then, we shall see reason to block other pipes — such as security and defence expenditures – also deliberately invented for stealing public funds.” (March 30, 2014)
Had Jonathan ignored the “Occupy Nigeria” protests, we would have been better off today: “We just have to live with high fuel prices. I don’t expect the so-called mass action or nationwide strike to last longer than 10 days. In fact, the markets are likely to reopen after Monday. The petrol stations and banks can’t remain closed after Thursday. And there will still be buses and taxis on the roads after the first day. By the end of one week, we may start hearing that the labour leaders will negotiate with government after which the ‘strike’ will be suspended.” (January 8, 2012)
Buhari must not make the same mistake Jonathan made. “2016 will determine the success or failure of the Buhari government. It would do well to take all the hard decisions and let Nigeria swim or sink.” (December 13, 2015) And I know the pump price of a litre of petrol won’t remain N145 for long even in Abuja, Lagos and Port Harcourt; it could rise above N200 anytime soon, just as it is now nearing the mark in states like Borno, Enugu, Akwa Ibom and Kaduna.
This government is not communicating well: it can’t deregulate and still regulate; it can’t fix the exchange rate at N197 per dollar and still have a secondary market where, as Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo stated on Friday, fuel importers could get a dollar at N285. If the naira depreciated to N500 per dollar (at the “secondary” or tertiary market), as is likely, would any importer offer to sell petrol at N145 per litre? Such ambivalence still beclouds government’s intention – it’s not certain the scam has ended.
Since there is no transportation system in place, workers are not earning a living wage, there is mass poverty, and inflation is already high, would fellow compatriots cope? In Abuja, for instance, a civil servant who lives 30km from his office in Maitama would fuel his car with more than N60, 000 per month. He now has to go to work twice a week or give up his N80, 000-a-month job. I expect the gridlocks usually witnessed in the country’s major cities to disappear. We now have to go to where we must go, not where we want to go. It is the price we must pay for tolerating visionless, greedy, selfish, corrupt, wicked and incompetent leaders down through the decades.