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Fuel at N97: The same old song

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By Dele Sobowale

“Those who do not remember past are condemned to repeat it”. – George Santayana, 1863-1952.

To this Barbara Tuchmann, the leading authority on thirteenth and fourteenth century Europe had added: “History does not repeat itself; man does”. President Goodluck Jonathan and his government on one side and the Nigerian Labor movement as well as civil society groups had just taken the entire country through the same rigmarole we have experienced before each time a government had increased the price of petrol.

The only difference had been the duration of the strike and the intensity of the heat generated by both sides. Never, since fuel price increase had become a contentious issue had so much heat been generated, at the expense of light as this one. Yet, by the second or third day, any discernible observer could have predicted that the end result would be the same. Government will reduce the price announced on January 2, 2012, from N141, to an unknown figure. This time, it is N97. Why not N95 or N100? That is anybody’s guess; but rest assured a government official will explain it “fully” later.

President Jonathan in his address to the nation, had explained the rationale this way. “However, given the hardships being suffered by Nigerians, and after due considerations and consultations with state governors and the leadership of the National Assembly, government had approved the reduction of the pump price of petrol to N97 per litre”. That smacks of a unilateral decision; taken after “consultations” with mainly supporters of government. And, it was also obviously a political solution not an economic one.

It has procured a temporary cease-fire but, apparently, no permanent peace because the underlying economic reasons for deregulating and the former price had not been addressed. There is one problem with a political solution imposed after “consultations” with supporters. It never guarantees lasting peace. As one victorious warrior had pointed out, “If you want to make peace, you don’t talk to your friends;  you talk to your enemies”. (General Moshe Dayan, hero of the Six-Day War in VANGUARD BOOK OF QUOTATIONS, P183).

President Jonathan must have got tired of talking to Labor, he sent them to the Belgore Committee for “dialogue”. And Labor declined on the grounds that they don’t want to talk to “errand boys” – if you pardon the blunt expression. So, government has sown the seeds of future conflict which can erupt anytime in the future.

One thing is clear however, the hardliners in government, thundering “no going back on subsidy removal” had been told to belt up – at least for now.

Labor and the other civil society groups, while admitting that they were not consulted before the new price was fixed, nevertheless agreed to call of the strike on account of several “victories” scored by the protests. Again, like government the President of the Nigerian Labor Congress, NLC, Comrade Omar, seemed to have tacitly accepted the new price which is still about 50% higher than the former pump price. Obviously, “no going back on N65” has been tactfully given a burial in order to allow Labor to save face.

Somebody called it a “win-win situation”; that may be true in the short run. But, it could easily degenerate into a “lose-lose affair” because it rests on a foundation of trust in government that it will tackle the corruption issue which had been the source of all doubts about governments intentions as articulated in the SURE document.

Meanwhile, the first obvious casualty of the new price regime is the SURE document. It was based on collecting N76 per litre of petrol sold. Now only N32 per litre will be saved – if the current price sticks. So only 42 per cent of the N1.4 trillion, or N588 billion, projected by government will be available – if anything at all – at current prices.

The Federal government’s share of this amount, approximately N240 billion, will certainly be insufficient to complete the East-West Road alone; leaving nothing for all those other initiatives catalogued in the SURE document. Obviously, the SURE document has now been consigned to the dustbin of history and the millions hastily spent to produce it have gone up in smoke. The most important question now is: what will be financed from N240 billion; now that hard choices must be made?

When, the father of modern India, Ghandi, warned about the things that would ruin any society, he listed three that are most relevant to our present predicament:
Politics without principle
Wealth without work
Business without morality

Underlying our problems, as manifested by conflict about the fuel subsidy removal is the lack of principles in our political life. When the President campaigned as “a shoe-less” young boy who made it to Aso Rock, he invokes, deliberately or inadvertently, the image of a “populist” leader. The truth of the matter is, populist leaders and the conservative elements running the World Bank and IMF are like two parallel lines which don’t meet.

But, when he turned around and went on “his knees” asking Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala to lead his Economic Management Team, another President emerges – the President of capitalists and “technocrats”. Until Jonathan sorts himself out, the country will continue to drift.

Are the Labor and the so-called progressives better? Perish the thought. All the governors were in support of fuel subsidy removal. Even the one we all expected will be the last man standing – Adams Oshiomole – finally revealed his true character as a political chameleon. He was probably the first governor to support subsidy removal; yet he continued to urge the Labor leaders to continue with their strike. Wait for more revelations about the diabolic role Adams played in this unfolding drama.

Consequently, we are told that the critics of government support deregulation but oppose subsidy removal or government getting out of petrol pricing and distribution. This is an economic oxymoron, i.e. a contradiction in terms. Again unless the activists straighten themselves out, they are confusing the entire nation and what we have achieved is a brief cease-fire.

Very soon, everybody will be back in the trenches. As, it is what we have done amounts to building half a bridge; probably a step in the right direction. But, in the meantime, it amounts to a bloody waste of time and funds.

We as a people have to decide whether we want a conservative government run by billionaire oil robbers or a populist one – which can never be GEJ/PDP. Jonathan is no longer poor and can never be poor again. We must remember that. Otherwise, we continue to run around in circles.

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