Fuel Price Increase And The Leadership Question In Nigeria (Part 1) By Anthony Ubani
WHAT’S IN A NAME?
In Nigeria, names are extremely important and are taken seriously. Even our national budgets are given names albeit the names are for the most part just a public relations necessity. So we commonly hear names like budgets of hope, restoration, new beginning etc. Politicians give their governments names that symbolize what they represent and what direction economic policy will go. For President Obasanjo, it was National Economic Empowerment Development Scheme (NEEDS). President Yar’Adua followed quickly with 7 Points Agenda. Not to be out done, President Jonathan came out with the heavy sounding Transformation Agenda. And transform Nigeria, he did!
Over the years, different administrations have made rich deposits in the library of new policy lexicons in Nigeria. From Obasanjo’s Operation Feed the Nation (OFN) to President Shagari’s Austerity Measure and President Babangida’s Structural Adjustment Program (SAP), Nigerian leaders have never lacked imagination for nice sounding names for their policy initiatives. The more lyrical, the better. Unfortunately, history shows that for the most part, the nice sounding names have always been the only good thing about most of these policies.
Today, we have a new fuel price regime in the country. Naturally, I have waited for the policy to be baptized with a sexy name. Will it be called deregulation or liberalization, subsidy removal or something else. Sadly, this government has fallen short on the sexy policy name index. This is not surprising because President Buhari’s austere nature brooks no tolerance for such empty designs. Thus far, there seem not to be concord in the policy statements coming out from senior government and party officials. If anything it has been more of dissonance. Consider, for example the following statements;
APC National Leader, Aswaju Bola Tinubu in his contribution said “President Buhari has, with this decision, put an abrupt and just end to this assault against our economy and political system. He has made a courageous and prudent decision. It is time to end the fuel subsidy and to begin to subsidize the true needs of the people. “To Mr. President, I say congratulation for having the courage to REMOVE THE SUBSIDY.”
APC National Chairman said “I invited you because of the fundamental announcement that was made within the last 24 hours because I wanted to join my voice with that of the Minister to appeal to the Nigerian public, to our unions and other civil society groups for understanding of the situation that has led to THE PARTIAL DEREGULATION OF FUEL PRICES.”
Minister of information, Lai Mohammed, on his part, had this to offer, “distinguished ladies and gentlemen, I can tell you that THAT DECISION is inevitable, if we are to end the crippling fuel scarcity that has enveloped the country, ensure the availability of the products and end the suffering that our people have been subjected to”
For the Secretary to the Government of the Federation (SGF), Babachir Lawal, “the consequences of our past actions are that the nation, today, cannot afford subsidy payments. Our reserves have become so low government has to enthrone tight monetary measures in the allocation of foreign exchange,”… “In the circumstance, government is left with no option but to PARTIALLY DEREGULATE the sector and assume the role of a regulator.”
Minister of State for Petroleum, Emmanuel Ibe Kachikwu disagrees with all of the above theories and states pointedly that “While the federal government IS NOT DEREGULATING, the government through this NEW PRICE REGIME will ensure that the price of products are monitored and modulated to ensure that citizens get a fair value for products they purchase.”
But the number two citizen, Vice-President Yemi Osibanjo in a carefully worded explanation, stated that “I have read the various observations about the fuel pricing regime and the attendant issues generated. All certainly have strong points…The most important issue of course is how to shield the poor from the worst effects of the policy. I will hopefully address that in another note…Permit me an explanation of the policy. First, the real issue is not a removal of subsidy. At $40 a barrel there isn’t much of a subsidy to remove…You will notice that I have not mentioned other details of the PPRA cost template. I wanted to focus on the cost component largely responsible for the substantial rise, namely foreign exchange. This is therefore NOT A SUBSIDY REMOVAL ISSUE but A FOREIGN EXCHANGE PROBLEM, in the face of dwindling earnings.”
So, the question still remains, what exactly is the name of or if you like, theory behind the current policy in the petroleum downstream sector? Is it ‘partial deregulation’ as postulated by the APC Party Chair and the SGF? Or is it ‘subsidy removal’ as theorized by the APC National Leader? Or do we go with the Vice-President’s arcane ‘foreign exchange problem’? Or perhaps, we should just settle for the far less controversial ‘new price regime’ offered by the Petroleum Minister of State? Or better still, just avoid all the controversies and go with the Information Minister who cleverly calls it ‘that decision’. Or perhaps, we should forget about all these government and party functionaries and just run with ace human rights activist, Femi Falana, for whom the fuel price increase policy appears more likely to be a ‘Neo-Liberal Ideologues Hijack’.
For now, we wait to hear from President Buhari, who, hopefully, when he speaks, will illuminate this debate and avail Nigerians a little more clarity.
DANCE OF THE DEAF
News reports have it that the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) and the Trade Union Congress (TUC ) have decided to go the old ways. To tread worn paths and attempt to confront new national realities with old and discredited tactics. Apparently they forgot to read or didn’t receive the memo that says a new leadership is in place: a new culture of integrity and seriousness in the work of nation building has been proclaimed. Populism, blackmail and compromise have been neutered. The singer has been changed. The drums and the drum beats are new. The lyrics and rhythm of the songs are distilled from the reservoir of patriotism. Sadly, the dancers still twist and turn in the familiar patterns of a puerile past.
Joining the NLC in this ill advised and poorly choreographed dance, is Senator Dino Melaye, who never misses an opportunity for cheap publicity and selfish posturing. Senator Melaye has also issued an ultimatum to the Buhari government to reverse the fuel price hike and return back to status quo within one week or he will mobilize Nigerians to take to the streets in protest. Fortunately, PENGASSAN and NUPENG have, for reasons that are not too difficult to understand, refused to join the threatened protests but have instead pledged their full support for the fuel price increase policy.
The good news about all these threats and counter threats about mobilizing Nigerians to protest is that, a rare opportunity has now manifested for some of these self styled ‘we no go gree’ type individuals and groups to test their credibility with Nigerians (not rented crowds) and the integrity of the new Nigeria that is gradually emerging from the ashes of misrule.
While NLC, the TUC, Senator Melaye and their co-dancers reserve the constitutionally protected right of dissent and civil protest, the truth remains that they have it all wrong this time around. The facts and the realities of today’s Nigeria as well as the fuel price increase do not support their threat to protest.
Time it was that organized Labour had an unimpeachable integrity, a powerful voice, a unity of purpose and a compelling logic that resonated well with ordinary Nigerians. Not so any more. The NLC of today cannot even organize credible elections for peaceful leadership succession to take place within its ranks. Sustained allegations, over the years, of corruption and compromise in its ranks and that of the TUC have further eroded whatever ounce of confidence Nigerians reposed in them.
Sad memories of the curious role of the NLC and the TUC in scuttling the last fuel price increase protest, tagged occupy Nigeria, is still very fresh in the minds of many Nigerians who participated. Nigerians who came out in their millions to protest the last fuel price increase in the previous administration will not forget in a hurry how labour and its affiliate unions unilaterally called off the protest after it was alleged that they had had been handsomely settled the night before in the hallowed halls of Aso Rock. Nigerians lost wages. Many suffered for days under the hot sun. Many were beaten and intimidated. A few died. But Labour leaders were alleged to have smiled to the banks.
Should it then surprise anyone today why there is such lukewarm attitude to the call by Labour to protest if the price of fuel is not returned to status quo. Quite simply, protests, as with most things in this clime, have become a 419 activity. Just another arm twisting get rich quick scheme. Fortunately most Nigerians are now wiser. Many are not ready to suffer or get killed for a misplaced cause only for a few so called Labour leaders to fan their ego and line their pockets.
Civil society groups are not left out of the allegations of sleaze. Indeed, which group survived the naira and dollar rain that was ubiquitous in the previous administration? Allegations are rife as to how so many so called civil society activists/organizations were compromised. None of these allegations which are all in the public space have been denied or challenged in court or discountenanced in any way. The show of shame by the opposing groups campaigning for and against embattled Senate President Saraki has only done more to expose the rotten under belly of some civil society activists /groups.
The bitter truth therefore is that poor ethical leadership, lack of personal integrity, mismanagement, fraud, corruption, and violation of corporate governance rules have virulently conspired to undermine the trust and confidence that Nigerians hitherto reposed in civil society activists/groups. Gone are the Gani Fawhehinmi’s. Today’s activists and activism are largely political, selfish and fired not by any patriotic zeal but mainly by pecuniary interests.
Outted in the corridors of compromise and political partisanship, stripped of the vitalizing force of integrity and citizens’ trust, the NLC, most of its civil society affiliates and so-called activists like Senator Melaye have long lost the impetus of leadership and may just be about to come to terms with this grim reality. To attempt to lead when integrity is lacking is like making faces in the dark. Nobody knows what you are doing, nobody cares about what you are doing and nobody responds to what you are doing. You lead nobody but yourself.
But these are just contributive factors why the planned fuel price increase protests might not hold and if they do, may not have any significant impact. There are however more compelling reasons why there is no significant traction in the call for protest against the fuel price increase, why the planned protests are a needless and unnecessary distraction at this time and why well meaning Nigerians must reject the call for protest and refuse to participate if it is orchestrated.
THIS IS THE FIRST PART OF A THREE-PART ARTICLE. THE SECOND PART WILL BE PUBLISHED ON MONDAY MAY 16 AND THE CONCLUDING PART WILL BE PUBLISHED ON TUESDAY MAY 17, 2016
– Anthony Ubani