By Frisky Larrmay | –
Today, the picture that meets the eyes is one of a government that didn’t seem to know how to get out of the subsidy quagmire in the aftermath of a quiet policy reversal probably necessitated by prevailing circumstances and a government that doesn’t seem to know the mood and trend of thoughts among ordinary Nigerians.
An unnecessary own-goal indeed. Who doesn’t remember Muhammadu Buhari’s infamous interview before he became President? He talked elaborately about fuel subsidies, stressing very clearly that the measure was a fraud and that he hardly understood what it was all about. So far, so good. He went further to express his dismay, how we got to where we are, asking repeatedly who was subsidizing who. He emphasized clearly, how shortfalls in domestic supply were managed during his days as Minister of Petroleum Resources when the refineries were dysfunctional in the wake of Turn Around Maintenance. Muhammadu Buhari, the private person then, explained how he, as Minister of Petroleum Resources, employed the services of multinational oil companies to take out crude oil, refine and bring them back again without Nigerians noticing the shortfall. Such foreign companies marketed a part of the end-product directly through their outlets within Nigeria and were paid commission. That was Muhammadu Buhari the retired general and a private citizen.
When he subsequently became President, however, Muhammadu Buhari inspired a lot of hope – lots and lots of it, too. After all, who will not embrace a man as President, who openly did the mathematics of what a litre of fuel should cost the average Nigerian given the readily comprehensible to the negligible cost of production and transportation of the refined product?
It, therefore, goes without saying then, that intelligent Nigerians who viewed that footage logically expected the fuel subsidy to be removed swiftly under a Muhammadu Buhari Presidency. That much is proper and logical. Beyond that, however, such Nigerians also expected this President to ensure a low-priced disbursement of fuel at the proper outlets having heard the underlying mathematics. They also expected a Buhari government to move swiftly to replace fuel importers with those same multinational oil companies, with whom he struck those deals in his years as Minister. After all, the same companies are still around. In fact, one would have expected the then President-elect Muhammadu Buhari, to have moved straight into negotiations with such companies that were still known to him from his days as Minister, to explore the scope of assistance that they could render, when he becomes President.
The reality that he met on the ground will, no doubt, go a long way to define the pace and nature of action to be taken by the President. One such reality is the huge debt owed to importers who were friends, cronies and surrogates of yesterday’s people and some hidden people of today. The refineries were inoperable and simply comatose. Depot facilities were largely in the hands of importers and other criminals that were propped up by agents of previous governments. These are seriously negative conditions to meet for any meaningful effort in this project no matter how well-intentioned it may be.
In an overbearing atmosphere of pervasive corruption and fraudulent minds, no doubt, a government will face a sense of confusion, knowing where to begin and telling what to prioritize.
In my honest opinion, the government did set the right priority by beginning with corruption and taking up all other issues on a parallel train. Indeed, the falling price of crude oil in international markets, couldn’t have come at a better opportunity. So, it came as no surprise, when news broke out, a few months into the new Presidency, that the fuel subsidy had been removed. That was just a few months ago. The issue was passionately debated and many unrepentant supporters of the ousted regime of Goodluck Jonathan had poured venom and vitriol on people who supported the removal of subsidies but almost brought down Jonathan’s government for the same reason. Again, that was only a few months ago.
Obviously, there have been some quiet back-and-forth within the government that may have entailed policy somersaults. We were told at a point that the NNPC was now the sole importer of refined fuel and that other importers had been weeded out. A few days later, the story changed. The NNPC was reported to be the largest importer and was assisted by a few select private importers for whom subsidies continued to be paid even though we had long been informed that the subsidy was no more and we were done with the weeping and wailing.
Following the sudden outbreak of fuel scarcity, apparently, in the aftermath of sabotage actions by disgruntled losers of the subsidy equation, frantic efforts were made to normalize the situation and the Junior Minister of Petroleum Resources and General Managing Director of the NNPC Mr. Ibe Kachikwu, addressed the nation directly in a video footage. Precisely this, is the lesson that President Buhari has, so far, refused to learn. The art of talking to the nation.
Former President Goodluck Jonathan ran into trouble trying to remove subsidies because he did not only ambush Nigerians amid denials and childish tricks in bad faith, the project was soaked in oozing corruption that he was just not willing to face up to. With the high price of crude oil at the time, the removal of fuel subsidies would have simply handed over Nigerians to the mercy of profiteering vampires. Today, the price of crude oil is down. Corruption is facing a head-on challenge and opportunity is rife. But that is just is just one segment in a chain of prerequisites.
We asked Jonathan to work on old refineries and build new ones given the resources available at the time and first kill the regime of fuel importation. The subsidy would have died a natural death and the process of privatization would have been smoother. Today, some of the refineries are functional again that were not in Jonathan’s days. Government-owned outlets sell refined fuel today, at a far cheaper rate. Not the private ones.
Given the fact that the requisite conditions for the removal of fuel subsidies have not been fully met to make the transition to private enterprise less painful to the underprivileged, it is pertinent to ask why this government is caving in so quickly to the demands of neo-liberal economists who cannot wait for the cushioning groundwork prior to privatization. This is all the more painful because this is a government that is believed to be not anti-people. The pains of substandard living remains high with ordinary Nigerians.
On the other hand, however, there is hardly any Nigerian today who still thought in all seriousness that fuel subsidies were still being paid. So high is the confidence in President Buhari that many believed in the automation of the process to fix the sustenance of refined fuel either through importation by the NNPC as sole importer or through the refinement of crude by international oil companies or whatever.
Today, the picture that meets the eyes is one of a government that didn’t seem to know how to get out of the subsidy quagmire in the aftermath of a quiet policy reversal probably necessitated by prevailing circumstances and a government that doesn’t seem to know the mood and trend of thoughts among ordinary Nigerians. After all, Nigerians have already known that the new budget for 2016 made no provision for subsidy payments. Legislators knew it. The Labour Unions knew it too. This has been tacitly accepted across-the-board.
Where then did the idea suddenly spring up from again to re-announce the official removal of fuel subsidies? Are there no public relations experts within this government, who should measure and gauge the public mood and know the manner of measured communication to dish out to the public? Government communication is never done on whims and caprices.
Publicly revisiting the issue in this fully amateurish manner has offered the opposition a fresh lifeline to get noticed. Now, a high-level Ambassador (plenipotentiary) and self-proclaimed anti-Nigerian citizen of the Republic of Corruption is screaming out loud from the balcony of the Senate to lead a march on Aso Rock. Civil Society Pretenders have now found a voice so suddenly. Labour Unions who offered cosmetic cries and shed crocodile tears when Senators were padding and unpadding the budget and holding our collective progress to ransom have now suddenly found their voices to Occupy Aso Rock. Unfortunately for them, however, the widespread backing of 2012 will prove elusive this time, simply because of their ingenious hypocrisy.
In spite of all that, this reactionary pressure on the government will not be wholly counterproductive. It will, indeed, be a partially welcome idea to keep the government on its toes while standing and on the edge of its seat while sitting. In spite of all public admiration and approval over the ferocious war against corruption, Muhammadu Buhari should not take us for a ride. He should learn to communicate with Nigerians more frequently.
Irrespective of the amateurish nature of a government that is acting confused on the subsidy issue and the constant manifestation of unprofessional public relations exposures and incompetent media management, the premature removal of fuel subsidies is just wrong. If it was wrong yesterday, it is wrong today still. More so, it is an unforced own-goal.