By Oduche Azih,
The former media spokesman for President Jonathan has today given the nation his latest take on what can be called the fuel subsidy conundrum. He was quite persuasive and some of his observations are actually unassailable. However he didn’t cover or perhaps is incapable of covering some of the grounds that need be covered if we are to move forward. I intend to fill in some of the blank spaces.
The petrol pump price subsidy moving from about 1.5% to say 3.5% of GDP did not become unsustainable at that transition in late 2011. It has ALWAYS been unsustainable. The quantum of resources involved were and are of the same order of magnitude as the Federal budget itself. Yes, that is what no sane person should allow. But strangely we did. Nigeria was rushing willy-nilly towards the very edge of a fiscal cliff unperturbed, even with a cheerful song on our lips.
Now to the elite: The elite know that Nigeria is actually an undeveloped country, valiantly maintaining the pretensions of being a developing economy, which we are not. I have in the past written on the way forward for the automobile industry. I had posited that most Nigerians have no business driving any car bigger than a petrol sipping Kia Picanto. The jeep-loving crowd came after me. They buy their fuel guzzling “tokunboh” jeeps, while we pay for their fuel! Of course they like the status quo. So also did the Association of Customs Clearing and Forwarding Agents.
One main problem is that people like Reuben Abati, who obviously have a limitation in dealing with numbers, publicly took a position opposing removal of fuel subsidy. Then as slow students, they learn more, a luxury that Nigeria can ill afford. Two things then happen. Either, because of peer pressure or new socio-political alignments they come out to extol what they have previously opposed, WITHOUT PROVIDING ANY NEW FACTS. Or they keep their Road-to-Damascus conversion to themselves, hoping that the past has been put where it belongs and fully forgotten, and that nobody takes them to task. Since Reuben hit the media with a vengeance, (Abimbola Adelakun of The Punch would say in search of a new relevance), he obviously could not resist staking a position. His enemies dutifully outed him.
As for the position taken in 2011 by the leading lights of the ACN/APC, compared with their new position, it is strictly a matter of morality that has been in very short supply in our polity. What can we say, except to condemn it? Their earlier posture of urging on President Jonathan and then abandoning him midstream, can perhaps best be described by the Igbo aphorism, sending forth somebody with a head load of salt while sending a rainmaker after him. Despicable to say the least.
Meanwhile the word palliative has established a new place in our lexicon. Let’s pursue that line for a while. We are supposed to speak no ill of the dead, a concept that I find difficult to agree with. Such a notion is why our brief history as a nation is full of misery and several missteps, both political and economic and an inexplicable preponderance of heroes. Our children must be so confused.
Yes, Gbolahan Mudashiru, erstwhile governor of Lagos State is long dead, and so we will leave him to his rest. However we, the elite, must have something to say to General Buhari under whose watch as military head of state that the original Chief Lateef Jakande government initiated Lagos Metroline was stopped. It was eventually to be cancelled and ultimately paid for with no goods delivered, courtesy of the European arbitrators. Has President Buhari learnt any lessons from that terrible decision? If so he would have alluded to it even briefly during his campaign. It is possible that Buhari is incapable of expressing such fine sentiments. That is part of his baggage.
On the other hand, what does one say about the new darling of the APC, former president Olusegun Obasanjo, who spent a good part of his 8year rule undermining Gov Tinubu’s effort to provide Lagosians with a viable metro line system meant to be a backbone of the much awaited urban/suburban mass transit system of Greater Lagos? The point I am making here is that the elite in their overpriced airconditioned jeeps, (aided by subsidised fuel), seem incapable of thinking outside what they perceive to be their immediate needs and concerns. How wrong they are. My wife once related how she rode in the same railway carriage just a couple of feet away from the Malaysian prime minister. He was simply going to work. The only privilege extended to him was that people did not crowd around him. Of course a couple of his personal security detail was unobtrusively in the vicinity, with no fuss. They asked nobody to move.
Against this background, I can now confess that one of the most stupid investments I ever made was to purchase a car for my wife, for the only purpose of going to work on The Marina, Lagos. However, I had no choice. At several points over a decade, I had to throw in a driver, who invariably had a mind of his own. Driving around in the “kabu-kabu” mode was just one of their many shenanigans. The palliative of a cheap, conformable and reliable mass transit system is one that the elite, who waste time discussing the price of petrol, should have been relentlessly hammering on. It should have predated this unfruitful debate.
Because of the strong and unwavering position that I have held in support of the removal of fuel subsidy, I tried at a time to keep a list of all the turncoats. It was a useless exercise. The stampede was unbelievable. The list became so long that I gave up the project. The conclusion here is that Reuben, who has delivered very sound arguments and a good historical excursion over this matter, is definitely not alone. As the Americans say, the elite, if only they can eschew greed are the only ones who should step up to the plate and make their analytical bent to count. This is a duty.
Now, what exactly do we have here? Is it an increase in the pump price of petrol? Is it a deregulation of the downstream petroleum sector? Is it a partial deregulation? What about price modulation? What exactly does each one mean? Right now the conflicting signals coming from the various arms of government can confound the bravest of souls.
Why on earth is the PPPRA, which rightly should have been scrapped in the same press release by the minister, still making pronouncements about petrol pricing? When the government announced glibly that anyone can now import petrol into Nigeria, does it not amount to beer parlour talk? The stranglehold of the government through the NNPC over this nation is but one aspect of its maintenance of THE COMMANDING HEIGHTS OF THE NIGERIAN ECONOMY, in place over the past four and a half decade. For that era to be truly over, the National Assembly must be involved in tearing down the walls. At the end of the day the NNPC, if it survives at all, will have no business with the downstream sector of the petroleum industry.
If the NNPC owns any refinery, it should be expected to sink or swim. The government must start by relieving NNPC of any role in the importation of ANY fuel into Nigeria, and sell off all its fuel dumps nationwide starting with The Atlas Cove, which for the past two decades has remained a load on the conscience of those who still have one.
I have said my bit.
Oduche Azih wrote form Lagos.
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