Occupy Nigeria

OP-UNEDITED | Subsidy Removal: How Did Their Minds Change? – By Ilemona Onoja

By Ilemona Onoja

I remember January 2012 very vividly. Along with my brother, hyped on the need to stand up to the Federal Government’s announcement to remove subsidy and increase the price of fuel to N140, I had joined several others to walk from Ajah to Falomo. The objective was to join fellow protesters there or anywhere where we could find them, to ensure that the Goodluck Jonathan led Federal Government reversed its decision, to stand with the people. There are not many things I regret more than those days. In my whole life.

On 11th May, 2016 the Muhammadu Buhari led Federal Government in a terse statement announced the complete removal of fuel subsidy and set an upper limit price of N145 per litre of the product. It also opened up the downstream sector of the petroleum industry to any corporate entity desirous of importing fuel provided such entity meets requirements.

Certain things confuse me about this announcement. And add to my regret over joining #OccupyNigeria in 2012. This government and all its major players are on record criticising the decision to remove subsidy in 2012. In 2012, all the key actors in the current regime gave moving speeches, wrote strongly worded articles and passionately motivated Nigerians to shut down the country as in response to the government’s announcement. I heard those speeches. I read those articles and interviews. I believed them.

A particularly telling article was written by Tolu Ogunlesi who currently serves as the SSA to President Buhari on New Media. In it, he strongly criticised and condemned former President Jonathan for removing subsidy. The screenshot below contains excerpts from that article. I am confused. Tolu, what has changed? How are you now an advocate (or at the very least the employee of an advocate) for subsidy removal?

Tolu 1 Tolu 2

The thing is the criticism did not stop there. It continued all the way to 2015 and was a constant reference point in the 2015 election campaigns. To quite a lot of analysts, the journey to the loss of 2015 presidential election started for President Jonathan on the day he announced the removal of subsidies. Indeed, President Jonathan lost a lot of public goodwill during that period, most of which he never regained.

As part of the continuing criticism, Babatunde Fashola – then Governor of Lagos State (now Minister of Power, Works & Housing) wrote an article criticising the N10 reduction of fuel prices by the Jonathan administration on January 26, 2015 as insufficient. This article was written with the context that 50% drop in price of crude oil ought to have seen a commensurate 50% fall in the cost of fuel. Today, Fashola serves as minister in a government that has increased the price of fuel by N58 despite the fact that crude prices have fallen lower than they were in January 2015. Excerpts of that article can be found below.

Article 1 Article 2

I am not even going to bother writing in depth about people like Pastor Tunde Bakare who called for the impeachment of Jonathan over the issue, or of Femi Falana (SAN) whose voice filled the airwaves as protests raged on. Dino Melaye? Nasir El Rufai? The list is endless. I just wonder what has changed.

Quick retorts are being given all over social media that #OccupyNigeria was formed on the basis that Jonathan could not be trusted with the savings accruable from the removal of subsidy. Thing is this argument falls flat on its face once one runs a simple google search on projects financed by funds saved from the partial removal of subsidy. Of course there were issues, as with everything Nigerian, but we can point to a lot of infrastructure constructed by SURE-P as evidence of the investment of those funds.

Another retort is that #OccupyNigeria was as much about protests against government wastage as it was about the hardship Nigerians would have suffered. Such people lament that Jonathan was asking Nigerians to make sacrifices that he was not ready to make. Such respondents will tell you that President Buhari would better apply funds saved from the removal of subsidy.

This argument falls even harder on its face. Having taken an in-depth study the 2016 Budget proposal (or proposals if you take the fact that there were several versions into consideration, I can categorically tell you that this government is not doing anything to cut waste.

A government that budgets N738m for the construction of a website at the Ministry of Solid Minerals cannot be serious about cutting government waste. A government that budgets N531m for a minister to attend statutory meetings cannot be serious about cutting government waste. A government that budgets N193m for the provision of recreational facilities for the Head of Service is not serious about cutting waste. A government that budgets more for the library of the Vice President than several tertiary institutions combined cannot be serious about cutting waste. A government that budgets N332m for the installation of cable at the drivers’ lodge at Villa Extension gate cannot be serious about cutting waste. I can go on & on.

In essence, this government has deceived Nigerians. It is either it lied to us in 2012 when it hoodwinked Nigerians like me to take to the streets against the Jonathan administration. Or it is lying to us now.

Either way this government is bringing untold hardship to the Nigerian people. To “remove” subsidies at a time with inflation is at 12.4% (its highest in several years), when there is simply no power to power our offices and homes, when there is a food crisis owing to shortfalls in food production due to the inability of farmers to reach their farms in the North Central and the inability to import given the stance of the government, when government is introducing several new taxes on homes and businesses, as well as during the longest fuel crises in the country’s history is nothing short of plain wickedness.

There are several other questions. Like if this was a removal of subsidy and a full deregulation of the downstream sector of the economy, why is government still setting the price? Is government’s ability to determine price not indicative of a price increase rather than a full deregulation of the sector? Considering that government has told marketers to source Forex from secondary sources does this not mean that price will increase if the Naira falls further against the dollar? Will a reversal of government’s strict forex control measures not lead to a reduction in the pump price of petrol? Alarmingly, there are very few answers.

To be honest, I still believe that subsidy has to go. But like I believed in 2012, government has to take responsibility for its failures, especially the ones of its own making, sort out the issues and then remove subsidy. Government has to cut down the excesses and the flamboyant lifestyles of its officials before coming for my modest lifestyle. Government has to fix the refineries or get private investors to build new ones, sort out our exchange rate, eliminate waste and then remove subsidies.

Anything short of this is just more evidence that all that talk between 2012 and now was just that- talk. It was the sweet schmoozing of a playboy seeking for how to conquer “new territory”. It was the sort of lies a fraudster will tell an unsuspecting victim to get access to the hard earned money.

This sickens me. And it will sicken me every time I pay N58 extra per litre of fuel.

Ilemona Onoja is a corporate solicitor who lives and works in Abuja. He tweets via @the_harrasser

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Inspired by Steve Biko’s ‘I Write What I Like‘, OP-UNEDITED is the citizen opinion segment of SIGNAL. All opinions posted on the OP-UNEDITED page are unedited and the raw opinions of the writers.

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