By BASHIR ADEFAKA
Babafemi Ojudu, a senior journalist elected senator for Ekiti Central District in the April 2011 National Assembly elections, is Vice Chairman, Senate Committee on Public Service and Establishment. Ojudu will forever be remembered for his good days either at the National Concord or The News and Tempo magazines for his arrests, torture and detention several times during the Sani Abacha regime (1993–1998).
He was detained for three days at the Shangisha facility of the state security, Lagos on 11 August 1996 for his article in The News on former petroleum minister which alleged that the erstwhile minister was giving government contracts on behalf of the NNPC to his family and friends.
He brought his journalist and activist thing to play in this interview with Sunday Vanguard as he speaks on the fuel subsidy removal and why the Senate of which he is member can’t probe former President Olusegun Obasanjo. Excerpts:
You carpeted the subsidy removal proposal at the last Ondo NUJ conference in Akure. President Jonathan made through his plan to remove the subsidy, which plunged Nigeria into a loss of over N500 billion (take it from the N1.3 trillion acclaimed annual subsidy fund), loss of lives of protesting citizens and untold hardship on the masses. They fixed petrol price at N141; now it is 97. What is your disappointment of the whole scenario? Do you see what FG has done as true deregulation; I mean in which civilization in the world could you point to, where government deregulate and still determine price (apart from price control, which they never did)?
The whole thing is a charade. We have just paid for our lack of vigilance. When last year the PDP spent money on the presidential campaign as if we needed to empty our treasury and we failed to raise questions, I knew we were in for trouble after the elections. If you budget N250 billion for a so-called subsidy and, by October, you have spent N1. 3 trillion, you know somebody will be asked to come and pay the difference.
It is that difference we are now being called to pay. As somebody once creatively put it, it is Robbin Hood in reverse, that is robbing the poor to pay the rich. You probably are aware that during the PDP primary to elect their presidential candidate, each of the delegates was openly paid money. We don’t know how much the big wigs collected.
In the week of the elections, traditional rulers across the country were handsomely paid. Unions, and civil society organizations were not left out. Musicians, Nollywood actors and actresses, youth groups were all handsomely paid.Who paid for the thousands of billboards erected across the country? What was the cost of the adverts in the newspapers, television and radio? It is the price of that bazaar of 2011 we are being asked to come and pay.
Nigerians felt that the president added salt toinjury when he ordered deployment of soldiers on the streets of Lagos, claiming that protesters were hoodlums, using the instrumentality of government to force N97 per litre of petrol on the already impoverished people and blackmailing them into submission. Is this the kind of Nigeria of your dream, one; as a journalist and two; as one most senior law maker of the seventh Senate?
It is wrong. Those who are defending the deployment of forces to prevent peaceful protest today should also have done so or should have condemned our protests then against the cabal who insisted that Jonathan would not become the acting president of Nigeria when Yar’Adua was away for treatment in Saudi Arabia.
Scores of our people flew in from Lagos to Abuja on two occasions to be part of the protest and I remember that, after the resolution of the crisis, Jonathan hosted the leadership of the movement to thank them for supporting him. It is this same people he is vilifying today for giving expression to their opposition of a government policy considered hard to bear.
I have witnessed several protests in Nigeria. This last one was perhaps the most peaceful. Yes a number of people died, which is bad enough, but do people know how many Nigerians were killed and properties torched during the SAP protests under Gen Ibrahim Babangida? Nothing, in my opinion, calls for the deployment of soldiers to prevent peaceful expression of anger by the people of this country. What Jonathan has succeeded in doing by his action is to diminish his presidency. He will need to do a lot to regain the confidence of Nigerians.
The Senate ad hoc committee on the probe of BPE of which you were a member has responsibility that is relevant in the current national discourse. You told me last time that there would be no sacred cows. You have submitted your report indicting Obasanjo and others but the larger Senate developed cold feet, rather than act, it started beating about the bush. If you are called upon to do similar job in future, is this not demoralizing enough to make you decline?
No! I will not decline. You do not stop struggling because you failed at one attempt. I think despite what might have happened, we all should continue to ask questions and we must continue to demand answers. In spite of what happened, I think the document that emerged is strong enough to serve in the process of asking strong questions and calling for actions.
Unfortunately, in Nigeria, we have a very weak opposition, an opposition that is not attentive enough to latch on to these little gains to demand vigorously for a more transparent Nigeria. On this issue of privatization , it is certain that posterity will have several questions to ask General Olusegun Obasanjo.
Now labour has called off the strike and protests have been halted. What is next?
What is next? Oh Nigerians should demand a public probe of the so-called subsidy account. They should hold all of the pro-subsidy campaigners to their promises of the Eldorado. Again, talking about vigilance, the economic tsar of this regime, Madam Okonjo Iweala, made some promises of gain the nation was bound to make if we paid our foreign debt.
That was when she was serving in Obasanjo government as finance minister and she joined her boss on his first tour of duty. Where is the gain today? We have never asked her to account for the shortfall of the documented promises she made to the nation then. It is in the same way, a year or two from now, we would have forgotten all of the promises they, including the same woman in another government headed by no more than Dr. Goodluck Jonathan, are making now.
Let nobody be deceived that, in this last battle, Nigerians have been defeated. They have not. In fact, Nigerians have woken up to the possibilities of the people power. It is left for us politicians and elected leaders to begin to put on our thinking caps and address the wishes and aspirations of the people.