BY CLIFFORD NDUJIHE, DEPUTY POLITICAL EDITOR, CHARLES KUMOLU & GBENGA OKE
FACED with a groundswell of opposition to his administration’s removal of fuel subsidy, President Goodluck Jonathan on Monday raised a committee of prominent and credible Nigerians to manage and invest savings from the controversial policy in critical areas of the economy.

With the move, Nigeriais headed towards a familiar path she treaded in the past with contentious gains, first under General Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida (rtd) via the Directorate of Food, Roads and Rural Infrastructure (DIFRRI) on the backdrop of the Structural Adjustment Programme (SAP) of the 80s; and secondly with a more direct analogy through the Petroleum Trust Fund (PTF) of the late Genral Sani Abacha era in the 90s.

Known as the Subsidy Re-investment Programme Board (SREPB), the panel is to be headed by Boardroom guru, Dr Christopher Kolade with Major General Mamman Kontagora (rtd) as his deputy. Other members of the panel include two representatives from the National Assembly and Organised Labour.

*Kolade and Jonathan

The  National Union of Road Transport Workers (NURTW), Nigerian Union of Journalists (NUJ), Nigerian Women Groups, Nigerian Youths and civil society organisations would contribute a representative each.

Subsidy savings

From the government side are the Coordinating Minister of the Economy and Finance, Minister of National Planning, Minister of Petroleum Resources, Minister of State for Health, Special Adviser to the President on technical Matters and six individuals from the six geo-political zones out of which three would be women.

Among others, the body is saddled with the task of overseeing the fund in the petroleum subsidy savings account and the programmee specifically to improve the quality of life of Nigerians in line with President Jonathan’s transformation agenda.

A statement by Presidential Spokesman, Dr Reuben Abati, said the board would  “determine in determine, in liasion with the ministries of Finance and Petroleum Resources, the subsidy savings estimates for each preceding month and ensure that such funds are transferred to the Funds’ Special Account with the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN), approve the annual work plans and cash budgets of the various Project Implementation Units (PIUs) within the Ministries, Departments and Agencies (MDAs) and ensure orderly disbursement of funds by the PIUs in order to certify and execute projects; and monitor and evaluate execution of funded projects, including periodic Poverty and Social Impact Analyses (PSIA).

However, before the panel is inaugurated, it has started facing high hurdles. Some critical segments of the polity like Labour that are supposed to contribute members have distanced themselves from the committee over the manner the government went about removing fuel subsidy while negotiations had not been tidied up.

Some observers also queried the legality of the panel and wondered whether or not it would not create another cabal in the petroleum industry, which subsidy removal was meant to address. Another fear is whether it would surpass the achievements of past panels like the PTF.

Origins of SREPB

Late October, Petroleum Resources Minister, Mrs Diezani Alison-Madueke said in far-away Perth, Australia, that fuel subsidy would not go again in January until due consultations had been held with Nigerians.

Speaking with journalists at a Business Forum holding as part of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Australia, she explained that because the government wanted to ensure openness and transparency in the disbursement of the proceeds of the subsidy removal, it would not handle the implementation of the benefits.

According to her, a special body would be set up to handle the savings  to prevent the proceeds getting “bogged down in the usual manner of processes and procurement issues.” Indeed, the SREPB is the special body, which may mark the return of another PTF

How PTF fared

General Abacha set up the PTF head by retired Major General Muhammadu Buhari to handle accruals from the fuel price increase from N3.25 to N11 per litre in October 1994.

PTF,  the public intervention agency was to rehabilitate the country’s deplorable infrastructure: roads, buildings, education, health, school books, among others. From its inauguration on March 21, 1995 with initial capital of about N60 billion to May, 1999, PTF under Buhari touched many lives nationwide in  four years.

It revived comatose pharmaceutical, paint and printing industries, supplied drugs to hospitals and books to schools, rehabilitated hostels and lecture theatres in a few universities and, above all, created jobs. However, the agency was also not without controversies including inequity in the siting of proceeds across the country and alleged N2.7 billion graft. Upon assumption of power in 1999, President Olusegun Obasanjo scrapped the agency saying among others that retaining PTF was like running a parallel government given the enormous funds it handled.

Will SREPB deliver?

Some stakeholders, who spoke to Vanguard, said the panel might achieve little or nothing. Among those who spoke were eminent lawyer, Mr Emeka Ngige (SAN), Rights Activist Festus Okoye and National Democratic Coalition (NADECO) chieftain, Mr Ayo Opadokun.

Nothing good can come out of it — Ngige

Speaking on the matter, Ngige said: “The committee is not the answer to the issue. This is not even the kind of committee we expected in the face of what is happening. The kind of committee we expected is the one that will revitalise the refineries and bring them back to life so that we can have fuel and that would have been done earlier before now.

If that was done, then they can go ahead with their subsidy. Better still, if they would subsidise,  the price of fuel would have been pegged at N80, because if they could put the price atN141, nothing stops them from reducing it. From what I am seeing, nothing would come of out the committee, we are used to having committees in the past.

You can recall in the Directorate for Foods Roads and Rural Infrastructure, DFRRI under Babangida, was as a fallout of Structural Adjustment Programme, SAP riots. Under Abacha the same thing happened, when Petroleum Trust Fund, PTF, was established after Abacha increased fuel  pump price. As far as I am concerned, the committee will be diversionary, the best thing is to revert the price to a bearable level.

Committee ‘ll create a new cabal — Okoye

To Festus Okoye, “the nebulous, illegal and unconstitutional structure put in place by the government for the management of the fund to accrue from subsidy removal would only create new cabals and new avenues for corruption.

It will also serve to give new visibility to those whose actions and inactions in government led Nigeria to the present sorrow state. In a democratic system of government based on the will of the people, government is expected and in fact required to consult citizens through a referendum on major decisions that will alter their ways of life.”

It’s deceitful — Opadokun

On his part, Opadokun said: “Without any disrespect to the chairmen of those committees, the thinking behind such moves is deceitful, it is chasing shadows rather than the real object. It is also a disrespectful move towards the citizens of this country.

Government is only using such shadow tactics to buy off time for themselves. Majority of the Nigerian people have objected to this removal of subsidy, rather than listen to that and revert back, the government is asking some people to sit down with Labour to negotiate, it is totally deceptive and government is taking the Nigerian people for a ride.

“This government is deceiving Nigerians that they will utilize the money recovered from subsidy to take care of infrastructures and other social services, they know they are not truthful. Every year, they make provisions for all these in the budget, where is the evidence of the provision they have made all over the years?

I challenge the Nigerian people not to allow the government to get away with this, Nigerians should stop their opportunity collaboration with the pretenders in government.”

Disclaimer

Comments expressed here do not reflect the opinions of vanguard newspapers or any employee thereof.