Oil subsidy removal and a way forward (2)
IN the first half of this article, which appeared in a number of national dailies just before the just suspended industrial action over oil subsidy removal, I had argued against hitting the barricades and advocated a Government-Labour dialogue as an option for amicable solution.
Well, as everyone has seen, the strike has eaten up a first devastating week and seems likely to assume a rolling character, which could only compound the nation’s crises points, especially as oil-sector workers threatened a total shutdown.
The breath of fresh air comes in the form of the dialogue, previously thought to be pointless, now taking place between the two parties.
The last week has afforded so much food for thought. What really led to the impasse? When the Lagos Town Hall meeting on the oil subsidy issue took place on December 22, 2011, there were three distinct moods that were self evident. Practically everyone present wanted success for the Jonathan administration. Practically everyone present felt that the regime of fuel subsidy was unsustainable.
And practically everyone present believed that the Town Hall meeting will take place in other parts of the country, in order that the arguments for the oil subsidy removal will impact positively on the majority of our people.
Government officials had told the nation that the President was still in consultation on the matter, which meant that the removal of the subsidy was not imminent. Therefore, what gave so decisively that a precipitate announcement removing the fuel subsidy surprised everyone on New Year’s Day? It must be borne in mind that any and every President is buffeted on all sides with advice, some wise, some foolish and others downright stupid. But, in the last analysis, the buck stops at the President’s desk. No adviser will take the credit or the discredit arising from a leader’s actions or inactions.
While researching for Ironside, my biography of General Aguiyi-Ironsi, I discovered that a lot of the animus against the man was down to the Unification Decree which he promulgated. Given the circumstances of his regime, Ironsi had been extremely badly misadvised.
I got to find out the guy who gave that advice (he wasn’t even Igbo!) But it provoked incalculable damage. Ironsi carried the can, together with his ethnic group while the fellow who misadvised him rests in his grave today, covered with the encomiums of selfless service to the nation.
A leader in a democratic setting owes himself and those who elected him the constant recourse to deep thought and extensive consultations on volatile issues. My father told me that, contrary to the generally held opinion, “I’m sorry is a mark of strength, not an indication of weakness.” Put differently, the posture of “No going back” is derisive of democracy.
I have been analysing a lot of the views recently put forward in the media by experts and non-experts alike. Those who have been saying that governance is not a popularity contest cannot claim total sincerity because governance happens not to be an unpopularity contest. Of course, it is meet to do the right thing for the governed; but it is preferable to do the right thing in a way that those being helped will understand and appreciate. As an analogy, it is appropriate to turn a damsel from promiscuity but a good way of doing this cannot be by pouring hot, peppery water into her vulva! Right now, the people feel like red-hot pincers had been used to yank their tonsils…Some experts may claim that the demonstrations are being sponsored. But their view cannot obviate a pertinent question: who established the conditions that led to the pliability of the masses? Who doused the house in petrol before the madman tossed a lit match in it? This is crucial because the faces on the barricades look like those of the enthusiasts screaming “Jona”, “Jona” during the presidential campaigns.
To come to the heart of my argument, there are further experts going on with the fairy tale that the federal and state bureaucracies are so large and should be slashed, if possible, by half. Apart from being nonsensical, that is a recipe for humiliating political capitulation. Salaries are not the reason the country is hemorrhaging.
Over-invoiced contracts, oil-sector related scams and a dire absence of creativity in governance are to blame. It is not true, for instance, that the States are not viable. What is true is that those presiding over the States are largely uncreative. They wait impatiently for the end of each month in order to troop to Abuja and greedily collect statutory appropriations before returning brazenly to the path of plunder.
Something in all of this plays into the hands of President Jonathan who campaigned for office on the mantra of political transformation. Transformation, he certainly knows, is a root-and-branch operation. This is what he must present before Labour and other stakeholders in the negotiations. He should show a genuine commitment to combating corruption, and he should invite everyone to team up with him in the assignment. It is difficult to persuade people to tighten their belts who, on a daily basis, witness profligacy all around them. In the immediate term, I urge another look at the insight proffered by Mr. Ben Bruce at the Lagos Town Hall meeting. He did proper arithmetic and posited that, for billions, a special arrangement could be made by which the Okada passengers and bus users, the real poor of our society, the messengers, the pupils, the jobless, could escape the shrapnel of oil subsidy removal. This is by retaining the subsidy for the category of mass transit users who form the bulk of those screaming at the Gani Fawehinmi Park in Lagos and other sectors of demonstration across the land. It is not rocket science and can be worked out.
In effect, Mr. Bruce’s proposal ensures the removal of oil subsidy but without the attendant severe economic backlash on the poorest of the poor.
If subsidy removal is suspended until the 2012 Budget comes into force; if subsidy goes thereafter but without afflicting the lowest classes of society, including the flotsam and jetsam who continue to work and move around on old fuel prices, the national financial hemorrhage will be staunched. Peace will reign. In such a scenario, no one will call President Jonathan weak. Instead songs of “Jona”, “Jona” will return to many lips.
Mr. CHUKS ILOEGBUNAM, a former commissioner of Information, wrote from Lagos.