The removal of fuel subsidy by the Federal Government has shown that President Muhammadu Buhari, the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC), which is a metamorphosis of the Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN) and other yesteryear opposition political parties, the Minister of Information and Culture, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, and many others did not learn these valid lessons of life: Be mindful of what you wish for. Be mindful of what you say. Be mindful of what you do.
I believe that, had President Buhari, the APC and Lai Mohammed learnt the above lessons, they would have known the following: 1. That, as the Igbo say, the bitter kola does not taste as the sound of the chewing. Therefore, what one sees, on realisation of one’s wish, may not be palatable; 2. What one says in the past may catch up with one in future and, therefore, expose one’s hypocrisy or insincerity or both; 3. What one does in the past may catch up with one in future.
Eight years ago, Nigeria was mired in a controversy over the removal of fuel subsidy. President Goodluck Jonathan had mustered the political will to announce the increment of the price of petrol to N142 per litre, anchored on the removal of subsidy on petroleum products, with effect from January 1, 2012. The government at that time defended the action, insisting that payment of subsidy was not sustainable. Following that audacious move by the President Jonathan government, hell was let loose in the country. Members of the opposition, labour unions, human rights activists and civil society groups organised the “Occupy Nigeria” protest, which started on January 2, 2012. There were civil disobedience, scheduled industrial action and spontaneous demonstrations in major cities across the country.
Prior to that, President Buhari said there was no subsidy on fuel. He did not mince words in declaring that subsidy was a fraud, pointedly asking: “Who is subsidising who?” During his campaign as presidential candidate of the Congress for Progressive Change (CPC) in 2011, President Buhari opposed the removal of fuel subsidy in the guise that it never existed. He declared in Yola, Adamawa State: “Nigerians are being deceived on the issue of fuel subsidy. The Federal Government takes out fuel for refining, only to come back and talk of removing the subsidy. That is nonsense and an attempt by a clique with the PDP-led Federal Government to siphon the proceeds to be realised from the removal of oil subsidy.”
Lai Mohammed, speaking for the then opposition ACN, while rejecting the removal of fuel subsidy, said: “President Jonathan has gone ahead to instigate a fresh crisis by hearkening to the voices of agents of the Breton Woods institutions, instead of the voices of Nigerians who elected him. Removing the non-existent fuel subsidy at a time the majority of the population are barely surviving and the rank of jobless youths is swelling negates the aphorism that when you are in a hole, you stop digging. The dislocation in social order that the fuel subsidy removal will engender will definitely strengthen the hands of the Boko Haram end-gamers and worsen the country’s plight.”
When President Buhari and Lai Mohammed, among others, spoke against fuel subsidy removal some years ago, declaring convincingly that there was no subsidy, Nigerians hailed them. They were seen as saints, while Jonathan and his government were sinners. The opposition’s evil machination forced the Jonathan government to buckle. Fuel subsidy was restored and the price of petrol was reduced from N142 per litre to N97. Discerning minds knew what happened. Jonathan knew what transpired and had told a beleaguered nation: “It has become clear to government and all well-meaning Nigerians that other interests beyond the implementation of the deregulation policy have hijacked the protest. This has prevented an objective assessment and consideration of all the contending issues for which dialogue was initiated by government. These same interests seek to promote discord, anarchy, and insecurity to the detriment of public peace.”
Now the tables have turned. President Buhari is in charge of the affairs of the country. Lai Mohammed is the spokesman for the government. Nemesis has caught up with them. The chicken has come home to roost and they are facing the law of retributive justice. President Buhari, who said there was no subsidy on petroleum products, spent about N2.3 trillion in his first three years in office on subsidy. In 2019, the government projected N1.149 trillion for fuel subsidy. This year, the government budgeted N450 billion for subsidy, which Minister for Finance, Budget and National Planning, Zainab Ahmed, said was made “under-recovery for PMS (premium motor spirit).” The people who said fuel subsidy was a fraud some years ago not only budgeted for subsidy but also spent money, in trillions, to sustain it.
It is interesting to hear President Buhari say there is no going back on the removal of fuel subsidy, since, in his own words, “there are several negative consequences, if the government should even attempt to go back to the business of fixing or subsidising PMS prices.” He listed the consequences thus: “First of all, it would mean a return to the costly subsidy regime; today, we have 60 per cent less revenues; we just cannot afford the cost…The second danger is the potential return of fuel queues – which has, thankfully, become a thing of the past under this administration.” One can only say to President Buhari: Welcome to reality. The reality of 2012 has sufficed now.
The question is: What has changed between 2012, when Jonathan attempted to remove fuel subsidy but was blackmailed into reinstating it by President Buhari and others, and today when President Buhari himself has seen the wisdom in removing it? The reasons the Jonathan government adduced then are almost the same reasons the current government has given. Perhaps, had President Buhari known that today would come, when he would be forced by economic circumstances to eat his words, he might not have said what he said years ago. As it was then, when fuel subsidy was not sustainable, so it is today.
Having seen the light, as it were, and knowing that the removal of fuel subsidy is desirable and inevitable, what one expects from President Buhari and those who opposed removal of fuel subsidy in the past is to tender an unreserved apology for misleading Nigerians and, by so doing, bringing the country to a worse economic situation, partly caused by payment of subsidy. Had subsidy been removed when Jonathan attempted it, the government would have saved the money expended on it thereafter, including the one the President Buhari government paid. Such money would have been used for other things that could have helped in the country’s development. Some of us feel strongly that President Buhari, the Lai Mohammeds and all those who spearheaded, sponsored and participated in the “Occupy Nigeria” movement of 2012 should tender an apology as part of restitution. They got it wrong then and should say so.
What has played out in the subsidy saga is that those now in government deceived Nigerians. They came to power with the promise to change the Nigerian narrative for the better, but have ended up subjecting the people to dire hardship. The removal of fuel subsidy now will further worsen the plight of Nigerians. The people will pay more for goods and services, when income remains static or reducing. The removal of subsidy has shown how insensitive the government could be. At a time when the coronavirus pandemic has devastated the economy and businesses, the people expect succour from government. Ironically, government is not providing succour. The government has not done much in putting in place things that would cushion the effects of the removal of subsidy. The refineries are still not working. The government has not done much in rail services nationwide, which is the cheapest form of mass transportation. There is no strong stimulus package to help businesses survive and grow, in order to retain their workforce or give more people jobs. There is insecurity in the land.
Some of us are waiting to see how the Nigerian Labour Congress (NLC), the Trade Union Congress (TUC), the civil society groups and prominent Nigerians who worked in the open and underground to frustrate Jonathan’s removal of subsidy in 2012 would react to what President Buhari has done. Let’s see how the current conspiracy of silence would pan out. However, no matter what happens, Lai Mohammed’s advise in 2012, when he attacked Jonathan for removing fuel subsidy, is also recommended here. He had said: “Since President Jonathan has now opted to embark on an anti-people misadventure, it is now up to the elder statesmen, our past leaders, to move quickly to prevent him from bringing the house crashing down on all of us. After all, it is said that elders cannot sit back and allow things to go wrong.”
Are the elders of Nigeria and those who rose up against Jonathan’s removal of fuel subsidy listening? What is good for the goose is good for the geese.