Back to the trenches

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By Hakeem Baba-Ahmad
“It is a good thing to follow the First Law of Holes; if you are in one, stop digging.”
- Denis Healey, 1983

THE President’s men are busy putting out lengthy repudiations of allegations and suspicions that he has an agenda to scuttle the numerous initiatives towards arresting corruption and waste in our oil and gas sector.

They say he has no personal interest or agenda in the outcome of the various investigations into the subsidy regime, recovery of funds, reorganisation of the sector, or the prosecution or other punitive action against proven fraud.

The media blitz is intended to repair major damage arising from the publicised fall-out over the report submitted by Malam Nuhu Ribadu and his colleagues, and which was ambushed and trashed by Steven Oronsaye, (a member of the committee who did not participate in its work), and a member of the Board of the NNPC and the CBN.

The presidency must also be doing a good job feeling the pulse of the nation regarding many other developments over which there is rising frustration over seeming lethargy or indecision, or over moves to scuttle progress earned only through massive public outcry.

If the men who have responsibility for evaluating their public relations outings do their jobs well, they should know that they are fighting a lost battle.

Indeed, the frantic efforts to assure Nigerians that reforms of the oil and gas sector are on track, and President Jonathan’s commitment is beyond question are evidence of some awareness that most Nigerians feel that they have lost all the advantages they gained through one of the most popular acts of resistance against entrenched corruption and impunity around the Nigerian state by citizens.

The national uprising against the removal of subsidy provided a rare opportunity to subject the entire sector to a most rigorous scrutiny and genuine reform.

The nation watched as the President set up committees with people of registered levels of competence and integrity, and set in motion reforms towards improving transparency and accountability in an industry which had resisted reforms for decades. Additional costs of petroleum products were tolerated on the basis of arguments that the long-term benefits will be well worth the pains of the removal.

Doubts regarding the credibility of an exercise superintended by some of the very people that had overseen the industry were assuaged by assurances that President Jonathan himself will take charge of reforms.

It did not take long before cynics began to be proven right. The strategic Petroleum Industry Bill became subject of intense debate, and its many variants were still being influenced by the awesome powers of industry players and even foreign nations directly.

As we speak, the National Assembly is set to conduct public hearings on it, and no one should hold their breadth over its outcome.

It is almost certainly going to be a rehash of the same arguments over its weaknesses and limitations from key industry players; and the need to verify its authenticity and implement it by civil society groups and labour unions.

The Farouk Lawal-Otedola bribery saga which is still being investigated had all the hallmarks of an ambush, and appears to have succeeded in tainting the efforts of the House of Representatives to isolate and submit massive fraud around subsidy to the demands of the law.

Then the battle moved to the heart of government itself: skirmishes involving powerful ministers of finance, justice and petroleum over what steps to take against which people suspected, being investigated, or proven to have received illegal payments for importing revenues threatened to scuttle the whole exercise.

Persons who have become intimately involved with the political fortunes of the administration faced threats of being hung out to dry, and therefore began to manipulate the many fault lines in the supply chain they are extremely familiar with.

When the state threatened to lean hard on them, they pressed buttons which instantly created long quenes, or ran to shadowy, powerful power-brokers for relief. Token attempts at prosecution of a few importers became spectacles as expensive legal firms battled to secure bails and stall commencement of trials.

Bewildering summersaults

In the midst of all these bewildering summersaults, budgets began to bear hallmarks of the past. Amounts budgeted for payments for subsidy showed little gain from removal, whichever figure was used. Queues began to emerge and then disappear.

Refineries worked and failed, and Nigerians in most parts of the nation bought petrol at anywhere between N120 to N150 per litre. Government says it is exporting more crude than it has ever done, and admits that crude theft is now the biggest organised crime, depriving the nation of billions.

Benefits of the removed subsidy show little impact, and youth unemployment in particular was spectacularly highlighted by the engagement of doctorate degree holders as drivers by Dangote.

Just when you think things couldn’t get worse, they do. Government spokesmen now say that Steven Oronsaye’s denunciation of Nuhu Ribadu committee’s report as incomplete and unreliable is its official position.

There is a lot of apprehension over the outcome of the House of Representatives’ investigation into the Farouk-Otedola bribery saga, with a new twist added when Otedola sued the Speaker recently.

Carefully crafted insertions into newspapers as news stories hint at serious in-fighting at the top achelons of government over directions of policy and strategy for the entire industry.

Personal security of key ministers is reportedly an issue, and there are planted stories of serious resistance from colleagues against attempts by some ministers to affect real change in the sector.

Civil society groups mobilise

Now civil society groups are beginning to mobilise and reclaim lost ground. They believe that they have the high moral ground to say that the administration of President Jonathan is insincere and undeserving of any more trust from Nigerians.

If they do succeed in generating sufficient interest and support to re-engage the presidency and the National Assembly on any scale approximating the popular resistance of January 2012, then the nation is in for another bruising, but quite possibly more prolonged encounter.

For a nation already face-to-face with an expanding insurgency, various threats to life and property and dwindling opportunities for employment particularly among the young, mass action against the administration on any issue at this time will be disastrous.

The nation is back in the trenches, but there may still be time to salvage the benefits which were won with lives, blood and sweat around this time last year.

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