Is it a case of the monsters we created turning around to haunt us? Or are we contending with the verity of a tribe that speaks from both sides of the mouth?
By Emeka Omeihe
These posers come in handy in the current debate on the propriety of the removal of subsidies on fuel and electricity by the Buhari administration. The negative emotions they engender are further given added impetus by the manner officials of the current regime strive to justify the astronomical hike in the prices of these commodities.
This doublespeak has been so much so that one begins to wonder if something has gone awry. Those who were known to have cast aspersions on the subsidy regime dismissing it as a monumental fraud are all of a sudden, singing different songs. They would want us all to see the measure as the best thing that ever happened to Nigerians. Ironically, these later day apostles of subsidy removal have turned out the greatest undoing of attempts by officials to persuade Nigerians buy into the touted altruism of that policy.
If one labels such disposition as unnecessary politicization of the subsidy regime, you are right. If it is seen as bitter and rancorous politics at play, one would also not be far from reality. It also bears the trademark of dubious attempts to obfuscate reality so as to get even with political opponents. That has been the ugly face of the fuel subsidy removal all this through. But in this attempt to politicize an ordinarily economic decision, Nigerians have turned out the loser. That is the uncanny irony.
All of a sudden, revisionism has resonated and the seemingly bitter pill is being sugar-coated so that it can be easily swallowed. Or how do we rationalize the statement from a presidential aide that history will be kind to Buhari for “eliminating the evils of corruption embedded in subsidies” What of the other claim that “these are reforms that are necessary and overdue. Blueprint upon blueprint, timeline upon timeline had come and gone but the courage to take bold decision was not there”.
If one may ask, was it cowardice that prompted the Jonathan regime in 2012 to announce the removal of fuel subsidy by increasing the pump price? And what happened thereafter? Did the opposition not go into the trenches with its Occupy Nigeria protests? Was Jonathan not forced through organized protests to rescind that decision? Why was the verdict of history not allowed then to run its full course?
Maybe what Jonathan did not do then was to muzzle his way through by repressing the protesters. Or he did not have the control of those with the devious technology to organize mass protests. Perhaps, for not allowing that price regime considered by many as suffocating to subsist, Jonathan lost the necessary courage required of a leader. That is the courage Buhari is said to have summoned for which history will judge him fairly. But the views credited to him then, did not indicate he had the necessary understanding of the matter or he had but for reasons best known to him, opted for the line he took.
And what was Buhari’s position then? He was credited to have said that anybody who claimed that he was subsidizing Nigerian oil is a fraud, asking ‘who is subsidizing who’? When his government was later taken up by Jonathan for increasing the pump price of fuel even with the sharp drop in international oil price, Minister of Information, Lai Mohammed had said “those who accuse this administration of propaganda and lies in the fuel supply sector, did not tell you that whereas they paid between N800 billion and N1.3 trillion as subsidy yearly without making the product available, this administration is not paying any subsidy, yet all products are currently available at competitive prices and fuel queues are now history”.
That was far before it became public knowledge that that government was discretely into underhand subsidy deals. It took two years of secret subsidy deals before it was exposed. Today, the same government is saying that fuel queues will re-emerge if subsidy is not removed. Who is now fooling who? Today also we are being made to believe that the country stands grave risks of survival if we revert to a regulated fuel price regime. Why that view was not heard from those now at the corridors of power when another regime was canvassing the same message, is at the heart of the difficulty in convincing Nigerians that total removal of subsidy at this point is at the best interest of the toiling masses already buffeted by all manner of taxes. Far from it! Rather, it will further reinforce the poverty index of the country which the World Poverty Clock rated as hosting the highest number of people in the world living in extreme poverty.
How the hike would serve public good with rising unemployment, debilitating inflation, general rise in prices of goods and services patronized by the poor in face of the COVID-19 pandemic is left to be conjectured? In effect, the greatest challenge government apologists’ face in marketing the total deregulation of the oil sector is how to swallow the vitriolic attacks they mounted before now, to de-market subsidy removal. It is yet to be seen the progress made either in fixing the refineries or the fight against corruption to repose a modicum of confidence that monies realized would not be frittered away as usual.
Before he came into his current office, the president believed subsidy was a monumental fraud. Apparently haunted by his previous position, his government had made concerted efforts to conceal the reality that they were paying subsidy before the bubble burst. Now, we are being made to believe that subsidy removal is the only thing that can guarantee the survival of the country. That could as well be. How come this reality only dawned on him after he had mounted the horse such that they now cajole us to view the matter from a developmental perspective rather than partisan predilection?
Why did patriotism and national interest not count when another regime came up with the same idea? Or are we contending with a verity of Frankenstein monster? Perhaps, if positive disposition had dominated reactions to earlier attempts at deregulation, Nigerians would have by now got adjusted to its reality. And whatever benefit there is in it would have been harnessed more bountifully this past years.
But that did not happen due to contrived and negative opposition. Elite consensus which was vital in selling the idea to the masses was in short supply because politicians wanted to get even with their opponents. Having made strident attempts to discredit the idea of subsidy removal, it stands a tall order trying to convince Nigerians on why they should accept it now.
Comparative statistics on the pump price of fuel or electricity tariff in the sub-region are of little consequence in changing the minds of the people that subsidy is of any benefit to them. Even then, price differentials as shown by Mohammed are of little empirical value in assessing the complex indices that impact on the lives of a people.
He needed to proceed further with data on comparative income regime, the number of citizens gainfully employed, inflation rate and the positions of those countries in the world’s oil production chart. Even then, some of the countries listed depend on Nigeria for their fuel and electricity needs. Why will the cost of these items not be high there?
The issue is not just about the price of these commodities being among the least in the sub region. Neither is it all about putting more monies in the coffers of the government. We are contending with a conflict between the quest for increased government revenue earnings and the survival of our citizens. It is a clash between increased revenue earnings that may be stolen by rapacious and rogue officials and the lives of a vast majority of our people who remain hewers of wood and fetchers of water in a nation bountifully endowed.
Policies fired by economic or political exigency must find common ground with the existential realities of the people. That is the missing link. But next time, constructive opposition is the way to obviate the shame in having to re-market a policy that was once discredited just to get even with opponents. Maybe, some lessons have been learnt but at a huge cost to the country.