By Ben Agande, Abuja
Members of the House of Representatives last Sunday lived up to expectations as the true representatives of the Nigerian people when they reconvened from their Christmas and new year holidays, to sit in an emergency session to urgently address the impending strike announced by the Nigeria Labour Congress, NLC, and its allied bodies, to protest the sudden removal of the subsidy on fuel by the federal government.
Though the decision of the House to call on the Executive to suspend the removal of the subsidy was dismissively ignored by the President as merely advisory with no effect on government policy, it was a huge political point scored by the House of Representatives which since the return to democratic rule in 1999 has distinguished itself as pro-people parliament. And like the Executive, the organized labour also ignored the call by the House for it to suspend the planned strike but it was emboldened by the perceived solidarity of the representatives of the Nigerian people.
But the rather hasty reaction of the presidency to the resolution of the House of Representatives was not totally surprising. Since the emergence of the present leadership of the House against the preferred choice of the Executive and the Peoples Democratic Party, PDP, political apparatchik, there has been no love lost between the Executive and the House even though there have been spirited attempts by both parties to paper over the obvious cracks in their relationship.
The decision of the House to therefore reconvene on a Sunday, a day Christians goes to church to worship God, provided an opportunity for some elements in the Executive to try to rubbish the leadership of the House as being insensitive to the religious beliefs of some of its members. Anonymous text messages were circulated to some legislators that by reconvening the House on a Sunday, the Speaker, Aminu Tambuwal, was pursing a religious agenda.
At a time that tension between the two major religions in the country, Christianity and Islam, is at an all time high, the resort to whipping up religious sentiments underscored the desperation of government officials who appear to be bereft of ideas to defend the government decision to remove subsidy. It was that bad; very bad.
And contrary to the information put in the public domain that the decision to reconvene the House was a unilateral decision of the Speaker, the decision was welcomed by representatives of all the political parties in the House to address what they believe was a truly a national emergency.
While announcing the decision of the House to reconvene, the Chief whip of the House, Hon. Isiaka Bawa, said following the requests by the leaders of the various political parties in the House, the Speaker had directed that all members should resume in the chambers at 3pm in accordance with Order 5 (18) (2) of the House standing rules, a view corroborated by the Minority Whip of the House, Hon. Samson Osagie, a member of the Action Congress of Nigeria, ACN.
According to Hon. Osagie, it had become “urgently important” for the House to reconvene because “our intervention could bring some succour” to the nation adding, the issue at hand is serious enough for the House to sit on a Sunday.
To underscore the gravity of the matter at hand, the House, which even at the best of times barely struggle to meet the quorum required for sitting was able to garner a whopping 296 members at such a short notice to attend the session.
Speaker Tambuwal, who also did not have prior knowledge of the removal of the subsidy, rose to the occasion as he provided leadership to his colleagues as he set the tone for the debate that followed when he called on his colleagues to be guided by the mood of the nation in view of recent bombings targeted against Christians and the culture of fear engendered by these attacks.
While reiterating the commitment of the National Assembly to uphold the fundamental rights of Nigerians to live, reside and move freely in all parts of the country without molestation, the Speaker urged his colleagues to rise to the occasion by taking critical decisions adding that “while posterity may judge us harshly for inappropriate decisions, a much harsher judgment awaits us for failure to decide at all for in the later case, we would be promoting a dangerous drift whose terminus is better imagined”.
The Speaker’s admonition clearly split the House into two camps with those who were in support of the subsidy removal seen as being out of tune with the reality of the feelings of the people they represent while those who were against the subsidy removal were seen as being pro-people.
Mover of the motion, Hon. Yusuf Tajudeen (PDP Kogi) noted that though deregulation as a policy may not be altogether “objectionable, the alternative to proper procedure and good timing as such policy is not only equally important but imperative in a democratic dispensation”.
According to him, the removal of fuel subsidy has not only increased the price of petrol, it came at a time when Nigerians were mourning the loss of loved ones resulting from acts of terrorism and grappling with the serious challenges resulting from the extreme measures of the declaration of a state of emergency in parts of the country, adding that a policy that affects the people in such a profound way as the fuel subsidy require in-depth consultation, proper timing and deep introspection.
The contribution by the sponsor of the motion opened a floodgate of opposition to government policy, The Chairman of the House Committee on House Services and one of the lawmakers who was favoured by many members to be the speaker before the tide of zoning turned against him, Hon. Yakubu Dogara, blamed government officials for swallowing hook, line and sinker an agenda propounded by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank without looking at the larger implication for the Nigerian people.
While wondering why the government could be so blinded by the pontification of the western institutions when western governments subsidise some vital sectors of their economy like agriculture in order to cushion the effect of food prices on the populace, Hon. Dogara noted that the two institutions were pushing deregulation in Nigeria and other developing nations in order to protect the economic interests of Western countries and keep Nigeria in perpetual state of dependence on the west for handout.
According to Hon. Dogara, the removal of the fuel subsidy as announced by Executive is “illegal because the Price Control Act which list petrol as one of the products to be regulated has not been repealed. If the people are against the removal of subsidy, then it is against the people and ultimately it is against the will of God” he said.
The views of the Minority Leader of the House, Hon. Femi Gbajabiamila, captured the mood of many members of the House when he called on the Executive to tackle headlong the activities of the “one per cent cabal” in the oil and gas industry that had held the nation hostage by ensuring that they appropriate what belongs to the Nigerian commonwealth”.
Giving statistical figures to back his opposition to the fuel subsidy removal, Hon. Gbajabiamila recalled that the National Assembly had budgeted an average of N200bn in the past two years, for subsidy but that government had ended up spending over N1.3trn.
“How did they arrive at that figure? Who is accounting for the money? That is where the problem is. Could we have been subsidising what we did not really need? I do not believe that our economy will crash because of subsidy”, he submitted.
For Hon. Uzor Abubuike, the action of the Executive was not only a contravention of the 2011 Appropriation Act passed by the National Assembly which had extended till April this year just as he wondered what would happen to the provision made for subsidy in the 2011 budget: “Are we saying that we are truncating the 2011 Appropriation Act? We made provision for subsidy in that Act”, he informed his colleagues.
Also picking holes in government argument, Hon. Rafiu Ibrahim (Kwara) argued: “Diesel and Kerosene which were deregulated about five years ago has not resulted in a single AGO refinery. This decision is wrong and ill-timed” he said.
But if her colleagues were mild in their condemnation of the decision by the Executive, Hon. Khadija Bukar Abba Ibrahim said the House of Representatives was duty bound to speak out on the concerns of the masses, arguing that the fuel subsidy removal was a very “harsh and rash decision that should not have been taken in the first place.
Before a decision that impacts on the masses as this is taken, government should have put in place some soft-landings. But none of that has been provided. History will judge us if we do not consider the poor masses who are mostly affected by this harsh decision,” she said.
But the overwhelming opposition by members of the House of Representatives did not stop a few die-hard supporters of President Jonathan to register their loyalty. Though their contributions were intermittently interrupted by shouts of ‘No’ by those opposed to the policy, the constant intervention of the Speaker that those opposing the motion also had a right to be heard allowed some members in support of the fuel subsidy removal to be heard.
Curiously, apart from the House leader, Hon. Adeola Akande, who spoke as the leader of the party in the majority in favour of the subsidy removal, the preponderance of those who spoke in favour of the removal of subsidy were from the south south geo political zone of the country Jonathan’s home base) thereby giving vent to the feeling that their support was not a reflection of the wishes of their constituents but a blind support for a President from the same zone like them.
Those who spoke in favour of the subsidy removal were Hons. Sekonte Davies, (Rivers) Andrew Uchendu, (Rivers), Warman Ogoriba, (Bayelsa), Henry Dickson, (Bayelsa) Ndudi Elumelu, (Delta), Asita Honourable, (Rivers) and Friday Itulah (Edo).
For Hon. Dickson rather than condemnation, the removal of the fuel subsidy should be a commendation for President Jonathan for his courage.
“Leadership is about taking decisions; it is not seeking cheap popularity. Governance is multi-tasking”, he said.
Hon. Sokonte Davies (Rivers) said, “It is like we are trying to run away from the obvious; government is about multitasking; government must take different decisions at different times. This issue of fuel subsidy should have been solved at least 20 years ago, but we adopted what we call in economics gradualism, but we are here in this parliament today to advocate further gradualism. We know that the times are hard, but we must explain to our people. I stand on the removal of subsidy.”
All said and done, though the adoption of the resolution by the House of Representatives did not achieve the result that it was intended to achieve – suspension of the fuel subsidy removal and suspension of strike – a clear message was sent that when the chips are down and the House has to take a decision when the interest of majority of the Nigerian people are at stake, it would tow the path of the general interest of the Nigerian people and not the narrow partisanship of party or regional consideration.
It is a message that would continue to resonate for a long time to come.