Fuel Price Increase And The Leadership Question In Nigeria (Part 2) By Anthony Ubani
COMPARING TOMATOES WITH GRAPES
One is a vegetable, the other, a fruit. Controversial but true. Indeed, not a few have asked the question why there is no blanket condemnation of this fuel price increase as it was in the last administration? Why are the activists, celebrities and intellectuals not rallying round Labour to prosecute the mother of all protests against the recent fuel price increase as they did with the former? The facile logic of those pushing for a protest is that, citizens rejected and protested the fuel price increase in the previous administration and so this fuel price increase must also be rejected and protested. Sounds like an intelligent comparism but like they say, the devil is in the details, and if I may add, the context too.
The second logic that has been canvassed to make the case why Nigerians must reject and protest the recent fuel price increase is that the price of PMS is falling internationally, so it should also be going down and not up in Nigeria. And, of course, there is the third and most common argument that the increase imposes significant hardship on the people, which is certainly true but not an economic argument. Now, let’s try and consider all three points.
First, in the same way that it is wrong to compare grapes and tomatoes so also it is unfair to compare the fuel price increase of January 2012 to that of may 2016. Any fair and objective minded observer will agree that the issues and contexts involved are completely different. How?
The reason Nigerians trooped out to reject the fuel price increase of former President Jonathan had less to do with the increase in price or the reasons for the increase in price. It had more to do with a loss of confidence in President Jonathan’s ability to provide values-based leadership. It had to do with citizens’ loss of faith in President Jonathan’s stewardship of the nation’s resources. It was an indirect protest against the unprecedented level of corruption, impunity and incompetence in the governance and management of the petroleum industry and the country as a whole. In short, the fuel protest of January 2012 was a ventilation of citizens’ angst over governance failure. The fuel price increase was only a trigger, a catalyst, indeed a convenient opportunity for citizens’ to demonstrate their total loss of trust in the President’s ability to lead.
At the time of the fuel price increase, the plurality of citizens no longer trusted the Jonathan government. They no longer believed the government’s postulations. The reality of corruption, impunity, arrogance, stealing, compromise and state failure was boldly on display everywhere. The sacred compact between the led and their leaders was fatally broken and the centre of trust could no longer hold. To make matters worse for the Jonathan government at that time, Nigerians were not sure who was actually in charge of government and what exactly was going on in government. There was a huge public perception of former President Jonathan as a weak leader who was not fully in charge of his government. Nigerians wondered, was it the President that thoughtfully made the decision to increase the price of fuel or was he cajoled into announcing that decision by Deiziani, Patience, Ngozi, Stella, Tompolo, Clark or Asari? These are some of the solemn concerns and uncertainties that polluted the polity at that time. In that kind of putrid atmosphere, the Jonathan government was asking for too much to ask Nigerians to endure even a day’s pain or inconvenience regardless of the benefits of so doing.
Leaders are elected on the basis of the trust that citizens repose in them to govern well. It is a social contract. When that trust is sustained through integrity and good governance, citizens become willing to absorb the shocks and pains of reform because they have the confidence that their leaders mean well and dividends will accrue down the line. In other words, with evidence of good governance, transparency, accountability in the conduct of government business plus the crystal clear personal integrity of the President, Nigerians are now more willing to endure a little longer, believe a little longer and keep faith with government a little longer in spite of the hardship occasioned by the fuel price increase because there is a sense in which citizens’ have confidence that the government means well. That is a critical factor that is working in favour of President Buhari.
Nigerians may not trust the APC. They may not even fully trust the entire machinery of the present government. But it is clear beyond any doubt that the vast majority of Nigerians trust President Buhari, acknowledge his personal integrity, discipline and firm leadership. They believe that President Buhari will not steal or mismanage the commonwealth but will provide good stewardship and accountability for every kobo committed to his care. Above all, Buhari is perceived as a strong leader and with him there is no confusion or doubt as to who is in charge and in total control of the ship of state. As President Buhari himself once stated “if anything goes wrong, I will take responsibility and fix it. That is what it means to Lead” That is exactly what the President is doing with the fuel price increase. Taking responsibility and trying to fix a system that has remained broken and intolerable for over two decades.
These are just a few of the more fundamental differences in context between this current fuel price increase and that of former President Jonathan. Differences which partly account for why Nigerians are not particularly enthusiastic about participating in the call for mass protests. The truth is that trust is an invaluable pillar upon which all successful leaders must lean. President Jonathan had it in deficit locally and internationally while President Buhari has it in surplus locally and internationally.
Regarding the second point of falling oil prices, the enemies of Nigeria who have been profiting from the perennial fuel subsidy scam have spent heavily to populate the public space with propaganda and false information because they ‘fantastically’ desire the criminal subsidy to continue. What are the true facts about falling oil prices and how have other oil dependent economies around the world responded to the crisis occasioned by sharply falling oil prices?
Venezuela, the country with the biggest oil reserves in the world, estimated at 297.7 billion barrels is currently undergoing its worst economic crisis in its history due to falling oil prices which like Nigeria, accounts for about 95% of foreign income. How has Venezuela responded to falling oil prices? Venezuela’s President, Nicolas Maduro has announced the first increase in petrol prices in 20 years and a sharp devaluation of the country’s currency which he said is aimed at shoring up the faltering economy. The increases in fuel prices are as high as 6,086% for 95 octane gasoline and 1,300% for 91 octane gasoline.
Saudi Arabia with 268.3 billion barrels of oil, the second highest proven oil reserves in the world is also facing severe economic crises due to falling oil prices. As a consequence, Saudi Arabia has raised domestic fuel prices by as much as 50% after it announced a record $98bn budget deficit – the highest in the history of Saudi Arabia.
Angola, which is dependent, like Nigeria, on oil for 95 percent of its export revenues but has taken over from Nigeria as Africa’s largest producer of oils is also facing an urgent cash flow problem with its currency now falling to record lows due to falling oil prices. In response, Angola has for the first time, under President José Eduardo dos Santos, sought financial aid from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to weather its economic crisis. The President has gone as far as to dip into the country’s sovereign wealth fund just to pay civil servant salaries.
Nigeria, with 37,200 billion barrels of proven oil reserves and also dependent on oil for about 95% of its export revenues, is facing similar economic woes like Venezuela, Saudi Arabia, Angola and other oil dependent nations of the world due to oil prices which has fallen from record highs of over $100 a barrel to record lows of under $40 a barrel. Nigeria’s economic woes are made more complicated because, one, as the former Finance Minister, Ngozi Okonjo Iweala, revealed, Nigeria under the watch of former president Jonathan, failed to save for the rainy day due to a crippling lack of political will. Two, over 50% of the revenues from the oil price boom period under Jonathan was either brazenly stolen or wasted on valueless political projects. Former CBN Governor and now Emir of Kano, Sanusi Lamido warned in 2014 that if the Jonathan administration did not take steps to address the rent seeking culture in the oil industry, the waste and corruption in government, then the next administration will be inheriting one of the worst economic crises in history. That advice was not heeded and today the future has come. The next administration, which is the Buhari administration, is here and it has, as was foretold, inherited one of the worst economic crises in Nigeria’s history.
Yet with all the problems inherited by the Buhari administration, it has managed to continue to pay its wage bill without borrowing and is even lending to states to also pay their wage bill; it has put in place sensible policies to block leakages and waste in the system; Buhari has demonstrated character, courage integrity and leadership by insisting on stopping the ugly tradition of ‘budget padding’ which has saved the nation about 500 billion naira which instead of going into private pockets will now go to building much needed infrastructure for Nigerians; his government has instituted one of the most transparent and far reaching anti-corruption crusade in the history of Nigeria – a crusade which is not only yielding tangible results but has been commended locally and internally as a standard for other countries to follow; it has refused to borrow money from the IMF as Angola has done; it has refused to devalue the naira as Venezuela has done. It has only decided to increase the price of gasoline as every other sensible oil producing nation facing serious economic challenges has done to mitigate the foreign exchange and cash flow challenges as well as the corruption that has perennially dogged the oil pricing regime.
These economic initiatives are products of sound economic reasoning and bold leadership. I dare add that they do not deserve the protest that Labour seeks rather they deserve the commendation and support of all well meaning Nigerians because finally, we have a government that has the courage to permanently resolve the confusion, corruption and rent seeking culture that has polluted the oil industry in Nigeria for decades.
LOST IN TRANSLATION
It is a trite fact that no single individual or entity has a monopoly of knowledge. That is why in the multiparty, Presidential system of democratic government that Nigeria practices, there is adequate provision for an opposition party, minority voices in the legislature, the media and civil society groups who have a sacred duty to act as checks over the ruling party and its government; to proffer alternative ideas and platforms for citizens to consider; to ensure that healthy debate is sustained in the public space particularly on issues that impact on citizens directly.
Given this context, millions of Nigerians, in the wake of the new fuel price regime, waited with baited breath for the leading opposition party in Nigeria, the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) to thoroughly analyze and dissect the new fuel price policy, critique it and come out with a policy alternative. Or at least, say something in support or against the new fuel price regime. But to the shock of all lovers of democracy and good governance in Nigeria, the PDP’s only response was a brazenly delivered SILENCE. Mum was the word. As the debate and conversation for and against fuel price increase raged in the public space, the PDP with characteristic impunity maintained its embarrassing silence.
No press releases. No press conference. No statement from the Ag. National Chairman. None from the party’s Secretary. Nothing from the Publicity Secretary. And not too surprisingly, nothing also from the party’s Institute, the Peoples Democratic Institute (PDI), which I had the privilege to lead in better times. This conspiracy of silence and abdication of duty by the PDP has not only compromised the ongoing debate on the fuel price increase but has robbed Nigerians of the intellectual rigor that they expect to see exhibited by the ruling and opposition parties in the contest of ideas. The PDP’s silence in the face of a fundamental shift in economic policy threatens the foundations of our democracy because at the heart of democracy is the notion of choice, opposition and the right to civil dissent, all of which the PDP has refused to provide.
The message from the PDP’s silence to Nigerians is clear: the fuel price increase is not important. We have more important things to worry about like the various problems most of our leaders are facing with EFCC and of course our fight to take full control of our party’s structures so that we can perpetuate ourselves in power and sustain our sweet romance with impunity and corruption. But sad as this may be, kudos must be given to the PDP for finally making two moves to put some smiles on the faces of Nigerians. Realizing what a difficult week Nigerians have had to endure, also recognizing his sworn duty as a medical doctor to bring succor wherever there is pain, and further disappointed that his party the PDP has done or said nothing to contribute meaningfully to the conversation on fuel price increase, Dr. Doyin Okupe decided in a fit of patriotic zeal to give Nigerians a reason to smile even as they suffered for the pains which his party’s original sin orchestrated. So what did Dr. Okupe do to ameliorate the burden of the new fuel price regime? The former Presidential Adviser to President Jonathan and PDP Chieftain, decided it was a better idea to quietly sneak into Ota, in the heat of the fuel price increase saga to seek redemption from the Balogun of Owu, former President Olusegun Obasanjo.
The ubiquitous images of Dr. Okupe groveling on the floor with his left hind leg swaying forlornly behind him, his massive weight struggling for balance on the sterile tiled floor while he held on desperately to Obasanjo’s feet as he begged for mercy served as sorely needed comic relief for many hard hit Nigerians. Sadly though Dr. Okupe’s comic distraction is one that, courtesy of the information superhighway, is now permanently etched in the memory drives of many mobile devices worldwide and, if the murky waters of Nigerian politics is anything to go by, will cause the medical doctor turned politician some not too comical inconveniences for innumerable years to come.
Belatedly, a bit of relief finally came for the PDP when the PDP House of Representatives Caucus condemned the fuel price increase. But the damage was already done. With the PDP’s almost complete lack of attention to the state of the nation, it lost an important opportunity to lead and demonstrate leadership.
THE CONCLUDING PART OF THIS ARTICLE WILL BE PUBLISHED ON TUESDAY, MAY 17, 2016
– Anthony Ubani