Saturday 21 May 2016

Fuel Subsidy Removal: How Buhari's 'Cowardice' was Starkly Exposed

This piece tends to undertake a scholar analysis of the insensitivity of the current administration to the plight of the common people with the heartless deregulation of the downstream oil sector in Nigeria. 

President Muhammadu Buhari
The seed of discord has been successfully planted among Nigerian masses by the government over the night unnoticed. In as much as I have mixed feelings about the removal of fuel subsidy, my heart bleeds for the division in the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC president Ayuba Wabba and Joe Ajaero factions) and Trade Union Congress due to the manipulations of the Federal Government. 

The reality of this is that the masses are losing their most potent megaphone of speaking out in the face of oppression and intimidation from governmental forces. The masses have become a house divided against itself which is a back-breaking move on the part of the Federal Government whose agents enjoy formidable unity in diversity to loot the state's treasury. We have unconsciously been divided into two groups namely the pro-subsidy removal group and those against.

Double standards should never be encouraged. It’s an indication of impunity and high level corruption in the polity. What am I trying to say? Why will President Muhammadu Buhari be applauded for the same decision that made the government of his predecessor, Goodluck Ebele Jonathan unpopular in 2012 within a period of 6 days of national protests that cost Nigeria a whooping sum of about N2 trillion due to the shutdown of economic activities throughout the country? Why will a leader who has severally denied the existence of fuel subsidy with the advantage of his time as the Petroleum Minister in 1976-1977 finally come out to remove what he claimed never existed in 2016? A leader that sacrifices the truth as well as remedies for cheap political points is not worthy of promising 'change'.

Nigeria in 2012 witnessed an array of protests that were so potent that the United States of America Embassy in Abuja urged its citizens to stockpile food, conserve fuel and delay travel while the strike and protests were ongoing. Political analysts pictured another Kigali, Rwanda 1994 magnitude of crisis in Nigeria if appropriate steps were not taken by the government.

I have followed diverse views of prominent Nigerians on the highly celebrated fuel subsidy removal issue in the last one week. I must admit that every contributor made sense speaking from his or her own economic circle. From the onset of the scheduled strike by the leadership of the organized Nigeria Labour Congress and Trade Union Congress, I perceived strongly that the advocacy against the fuel subsidy was a fight that was lost before it started on the basis of 5 cogent points which were well articulated in my previous article. The major basis of my argument is the popularity of President Muhammadu Buhari which he has exploited to take 'hard decisions'. Nigerians were caught speaking in different voices as against when we stood as one within the 6-day near-revolutionary struggle against the hike in fuel at the MKO Abiola garden, Ojota park in Lagos where Nigerians poured out en masse to register their displeasure in January, 2012. The hike in fuel price which is used interchangeably with the term 'deregulation' of the downstream oil sector to probably conceal the potency of the bad news has led to a close comparison between former president, Goodluck Ebele Jonathan and President Muhammadu Buhari considering the fact that both parties made the controversial decisions in the first year of their administrations after being elected. Activists and writers who crucified Jonathan's dramatic decision are finding it uneasy to come out plain to justify Buhari's removal. The heroic Occupy Nigeria civil society has confirmed insinuations that it’s under the payroll of a prominent member of the All Progressives Congress, APC who unleashes them at will as democratic political attackers on his opponents. This is a real close shave!

This is like a tug of war between the government and the Nigerian people. I just have to admit that there is a need to restructure the Nigerian political system as there is a clear disconnection between the government and its people on the grounds of greed and office structure. It amazes me how government officials lose the understanding of the language of the people they represent as soon as they assume power.

Prominent Nollywood actor and lawyer, Kenneth Okonkwo in an interview on a programme on the African Independent Television named Focus Nigeria envisaged that Nigerian leaders are disconnected from the people by the numerous security officials guarding them which is causing inaccessibility as well as governmental protocols attached to their offices. This he termed a 4-year 'imprisonment' while in power. What is being practiced in Nigeria today is not democracy but a mere 'demonstration of craze' just as the late Afrobeat legend, Fela Anikulapo Kuti reiterated in a song. If indeed the major political parties in Nigeria namely the All Progressives Congress, APC and the People's Democratic Party, PDP duly represent the interests of the people and not elitist agenda, then why should we the masses bear the consequences of the grave sins of our leaders and other privileged few who became affluent signing bogus financial documents in the name of Nigerian masses? We are always the soft targets of trial and error economic politics because a few privileged people that have bled or bleeding the economy are too big to be questioned or brought to book.

Fuel subsidy in Nigeria has been seen as a demonic machination of the devil to foster corruption. Subsidy in the oil sector has been seen as a conduct pipe for corruption due to the failure of successive administrations in Nigeria who have been either clueless in approaching the situation head-on, 'fantastically' corrupt or being insensitive to the state of development of the country. According to the Nigerian Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, Nigeria paid N219.72 billion in 2006, N236.64 billion in 2007, N198.11 billion in 2009, N416.45 billion in 2010 and in 2011 through corruption abracadabra rose to N1.9 trillion which was the most colourful red flag in the history of the world.

According to Frederick Fasheun, the founder of the Oodua People's Congress and national chairman of the Unity Party of Nigeria; the essentiality of subsidy on a core commodity like fuel in Nigeria can't be overemphasized. The United States of America subsidizes agricultural products heavily which has made food the cheapest item in the country.
The European Union and China also subsidize their rail system for affordability purposes. Britain and Australia subsidize coal and gas exploration. U.S subsidizes football and ethanol production. Why should Nigeria be indifferent about subsidizing a common product whose fate is tied to the entire economy of Nigeria? This is a rhetorical question by Fasheun. Why can't the government of Buhari that frowns at corruption exhibit the effrontery to salvage the policy of government from abuse by a so-called oil cabal? Is Buhari scared to confront some of the most connected men in Nigeria, Africa and beyond? Can it be true that this cabal can ground Nigeria if they fight back?  My head is filled with too many rhetorical questions right now as I pen down my views.
An influential Islamic cleric from Kaduna state, Sheikh (Dr) Ahmad Gumi drew my attention to the unquestionable status of some 'big men' who have the sources and influence to destroy Nigeria if the search-light of anti-corruption is beamed on them.

PDP federal lawmakers of the green chamber have reiterated that Nigeria has lost nothing less than N9 trillion to the payment of fuel subsidy in the last 4 years specifically from 2012 to 2016. In 2011, the Goodluck Jonathan administration of monumental corruption budgeted the payment of N245 billion for oil subsidy and ended up unexplainably expending N1.9 trillion at the end of the year.
Why is Buhari reluctant to go after the actors of the subsidy scam? Have the Economic and Financial Crime Commission, EFCC auditors and fraud investigators turned intellectually lame overnight that the fact and figures of the heist have become elusive or incalculable?
The leadership of the All Progressives Congress, APC should be reminded that government is a continuum. You collect the baton and continue the race from where your predecessor halted. Jonathan's administration in all fairness and truth should never be regarded as at utter failure. The Bayelsa man recorded some massive achievements that would forever linger in the hearts of people. The fact that Nigerians took to Twitter to trend the hashtag #BringBackOurCorruption confirms the obvious.

I digested the views of Nigerian professor of Literature and African studies in Carlton University, Ottawa; Canada in the person of Pius Adesanmi who wrote on the Nigerian masses being 'soft targets' of successive administrations in the face of cash crunch. Why should we always be victims of the ineptitude of our leaders? Is it because our voices are cheap to buy or forcefully suppressed by security operatives?
What is the essence of governance without the people? Governance isn't a ‘hustle’ or better say a gateway to wealth as our 'retired governors' in the senate perceive it.

A leading Nigerian Economist, Paul Alaje who passed through the same school with me, Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, Osun state during my first degree days made a valid contribution on the subsidy removal saga that kept me awake all through the night considering my high and undying hopes in Buhari.

In his words:

''I support removal of subsidy but not transfer of government failure to the citizen. We don't need to subsidize government. Subsidy rate is N12.5.
Add it to N86.5 it would be N99. What we should be paying now is N99 but not N145. The remaining N46 is subsiding government failure in exchange rate gap"

A reader might be forced to conclude that I have missed the point of the argument which is that Nigeria is currently broke and the economy is shrinking as the Minister of Information and Culture, Lai Mohammed put it. In figures, this administration made us to understand that foreign earnings from oil has plummeted to $550 billion in a month and the Federal Government expends $225 billion on fuel importation per month which is milking the treasury dry considering the burden of monthly allocation to states. This is a valid excuse but a brief history of the APC administration of almost a year right from the failed campaign promises has been ridden with propaganda, empty promises and locally-refined excuses from high places. This current administration has a weakness of speaking in different voices on the same issues which is an indication of falsehood.

I will not go far in history to back up my view, I will simply make reference to the case of the Minister of Power, Works and Housing, Babatunde Raji Fashola who before now boasted about revamping the power sector within 6months in 2014 while he was the governor of Lagos state. His ministerial screening at the senate was celebrated and Nigerian blogs made quotable quotes out of his speech.
A few months later, the popularity dropped, he was nicknamed the honourable Minister of Darkness and Dark Forces. The uniqueness of Fashola's leadership is that his kind of darkness is highly expensive. Fashola gave the efficiency of the power sector as the reason behind the 45% increment in electricity tariffs to enable the electricity distribution companies secure investment loans from banks as they were running at a loss. He even boasted he could provide electricity for 24hrs in a day if Nigerians can afford the accrued massive bills like it’s experienced in developed countries. Now what do we get? The resultant effect was a record low power generation of zero percent earlier this year and currently 1400 megawatts in a country of over 170 million people that requires a minimum of 25,000MW to fully illuminate the country. Now Fashola has shifted his blame to the Niger Delta Avengers blowing up oil and gas facilities in the South-south region. That's a very thoughtful escape route. We need to assist Fashola to perform. We will abandon our jobs, form a paramilitary body, relocate to the Niger Delta area, and help him secure all the gas pipelines as Buhari's media adviser, Femi Adesina suggested on national TV.

I am a staunch supporter of the APC and an enduring lover of Buhari but to help this government perform, we need to confront it with the truth at least one in a while. The irregularities are too glaring that even Stevie Wonder could see them clearly with his lost sight. If this administration can be bold enough to inflict the plague of fuel hike on the masses in the face of economic downturn with a record high inflation rate of 13.7% according to the National Bureau of Statistics report, then the executive and legislative arms of government which consume about 40% of Nigeria's annual budget should also bear the brunt of the hard decisions. The impact of the ' negative change' should be universally felt without the masses as soft targets.

I appreciate the fact that Buhari and Osinbajo slashed their salaries but there is more to be done. The Aso Rock feeding cost should be neck of the presidency and not the state just like the United States of America president, Barack Obama, reduction in the number of aides of public servants (I personally think Buhari's media aides are too much to curtail propaganda), FG's plan to renovate Aso Rock villa which is obviously unnecessary should be shelved aside to assist budding entrepreneurs who can create jobs and help the economy, some of the 11 presidential jets which costs N5.3 billion to maintain per annum should be sold off to ease the prodigal costs of maintenance, the huge funds earmarked for the upgrade of the State House Medical Centre should be cut since Buhari publicly admitted his doctors are abroad and also, it’s of public knowledge that most of his colleagues in the presidency loathe local treatments, security votes of state governors which they are not obliged to account for should be scraped, every foreign trip by the public office holders should be subjected to scrutiny to measure the gains and losses in order to avoid another occurrence of a startling proposed trip of N13 million trip Lai Mohammed to China in a period of emergency, Buhari should curtail his incessant foreign trips in consideration of public perception as we pass through murky waters, the salaries of our lawmakers should be slashed by half and other unnecessary allowances like wardrobe, estacode, furniture and others scraped for now (what have they done to be the highest paid lawmakers in the world in a poor country like Nigeria?), the N200 billion earmarked for the constituency projects of lawmakers should be strictly monitored by anti-graft agencies to ensure transparency and accountability, members of the House of Representatives must be stopped from buying the proposed 360 brand new Peugeot 508 vehicles costing N8 to N10 million in order not to send the wrong message to Nigerians licking their wounds as inflicted by Buharinomics, each federal ministers in Nigeria have 3 exotic official cars on the account of the state which should be reduced to one to save costs  and several other areas time and space will not permit me to mention.

Buhari, known to be a brave leader that commands the obedience of his subjects should express no fear or favour in implementing these austerity measures on the privileged class who have the economic capability to cushion the effect of the hardship unlike the masses that are badly exposed. They should be included in the hard decisions. As soon as the economic forces normalize, the old ways maybe reverted to just as the Minister of State for Petroleum resources, Ibe Kachikwu has promised a possible reduction in fuel prices after 6 months of the current price modulation. And also FG's promise of creating 200,000 jobs from the proceeds of the deregulation of the downstream oil sector including the building of refineries, N500 billion intervention funds that will see the 'vulnerable' Nigerians be given a minute amount of N5,000 monthly which they will spend and be back again for more even before they left.

In conclusion, austerity measures and experimental policies shouldn't be designed for the impoverished masses alone which is an act of cowardice on the part of this current administration. The upper class should be confronted with the hard economic decisions just like the ill wind of Buhari's anti-corruption fight that emasculates the big men after all we have a leader that ''belongs to everybody and belongs to nobody''.

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