By Obi Nwakanma
In 2012, the Federal government of Nigeria under the administration of President Goodluck Jonathan announced plans to end the regime of fuel subsidies in Nigeria. It led to public protests and an organized action led by the political opposition to challenge Jonathan’s oil policy with regards to subsidies.
Among the key figures that publicly opposed the removal of fuel subsidies were the now incumbent President Muhammadu Buhari, one-time minister of Petroleum in his military administration, Dr. Tamuno David-West, a former Professor of Virology at the Ibadan Medical School, Bola Tinubu, former Governor of Lagos, and of course, the current regime spokesman, Lai Mohammed, amongst many. Their argument, when they made it, was quite correct and unimpugnable: the government of Nigeria has no business removing subsidies because in fact, no subsidies exist.
The so-called removal of subsidies is an indirect form of energy tax routinely imposed on Nigerians, who do not derive the direct benefit of such high taxation on petroleum products. Besides, in fact, this question of subsidy removal has become a round-robin policy for Nigerian administrations. Each starts from where the other has left to confuse Nigerians with an unending question about oil and subsidies.
Government’s economic policies and its literatures are often crafted not to reveal itself and enlighten Nigerians, but with the sole purpose of “mumufication” – that is to make “mumu” out of a vast number of Nigerians until they succumb willy-nilly to the pressures of government. Part of the process of the “mumufication” of Nigerians is to overwhelm them with such force that the great number begin to ventriloquize the single word and the single idea behind causes and the effects that the government of the day wishes to press home and achieve.
One of such pressures have always come with these cyclic ideas to tax Nigerian in their use of energy: it is called “subsidy.” Nigerians also routinely forget, in the loud and raucous debates and disagreements that often accompany the announcement of another “oil subsidy removal,” that the Federal Government has removed all the oil subsidy there is to remove, and that there is no more subsidy to remove. Ibrahim Babangida was actually the first to announce the removal of the oil subsidy in 1988. The Petroleum subsidy removal announced by the Military regime under the administration of Ibrahim Babangida spiraled into public riots and street protests led by students of Nigerian Universities, and it started, I should say from the University of Jos in 1988. I am proud to say that I was one of the organizers of that protest as an undergraduate for which we were accused by General Babangida in his national broadcast, of a “civilian attempt at Coup d’état.” Universities were shut down for three months – in the case of Jos, for four months, and a human-hunting of the organizers commenced by the ‘Six Six Six” as I used to call them: the old SSS, until reason prevailed, and the regime relented.
But those were the years when undergraduates of Nigerian universities knew the issues, organized radically, read the great writings of the great revolutionaries in history, were ideologically clear, and took themselves seriously as agents of humane change in their society. It was the years that produced my dear friends and the poets Olu Oguibe now a Professor of Contemporary African Arts at the University of Connecticut – who as University Valedictorian at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, boldly took on Admiral Augustus Aikhomu, the chief guest at convocation, and gave him a bitter tongue-lashing; he had to be smuggled out of campus by the likes of the now late Chima Ubani, who took over from him. Or Oga Ifowodo, who led the protests a year later again during the Petroleum subsidy riots at the University of Benin, for which he was suspended at the University of Benin by the Vice-Chancellor Grace Alele-Williams in 1989. Now Ogaga is an APC party member, and I wonder what he’d say now in response to Adams Oshiomole, his current party ally– who says he no longer backs Labour on its current position on the fuel subsidy issue.
Oshiomhole was for years leader of the Nigerian Labour Congress.We also should not forget that Obasanjo removed the oil subsidy too in 2003. Nor that President Buhari, who was vehement against subsidy removal by Jonathan, had been Chairman of the Petroleum Tax Fund. PTF was the result of the excess income derived from Sani Abacha’s own removal of the subsidy, and his attempt to create an independent Fund out of the derived excess to invest in public infrastructure. It does seem that each turn of events lead us to the same point of departure, until there is no departure, or a return, except in the case of Umar Yar Ardua, who returned pump prices to N65 per litre, and the heavens did not fall.
It is important to really note that the key figures of the current regime were publicly opposed to Jonathan’s policy to remove oil subsidies, and in hindsight, the first wave of public disenchantment with Jonathan, who came with the fresh and at that time different public profile: an educated man; a minority president, and so on, began with the announcement of the plans to remove subsidies. The public protest organized in Ojota which drew a huge crowd was forcefully dispersed, and Jonathan’s street-cred began from that moment to thaw. Nigerians take this oil tax seriously. Nigerians understand that they could never trust their leaders on this matter of petroleum subsidy because too many lies have been told in the name of subsidy. Too much stolen from the public. Nigerians suspect that this subsidy issue, always put to policy after every meetings between Nigerian policy makers and the IMF is a form of taxation without benefit. Pressed to address this question, however, Nigeria’s Minister for Information said Nigeria was removing subsidy because “Nigeria is broke.” Nigeria did not become broke today! But even as Nigeria is broke, government officials still enjoy high levels of privilege unknown anywhere else in the world: free accommodation, large retinue of official cars, travel allowances that are beyond generous; and so much indeed that governors still have “security votes” that are simply too ridiculous to contemplate, especially as they are not required to render any account about the use of the “security vote.” Nigeria is not broke, or why would Mr. Lai Mohammed want to travel to Beijing, China for a “Conference on Tourism for Development?” Please! No minister of any serious nation would be found in this conference, except Nigeria’s.
And for this middling conference Minister Mohammed sought to borrow money from the Broadcast Agency under his ministry. In what universe can this not be called corruption? Well, only in Nigeria, where all things sane have flown out of the window. It is quite clear what is happening: President Buhari’s policy summersaults – we are told he’ll soon announce the devaluation of the Naira – the fact that he has broken every promise he made in his election campaign, and reversed every position – indicate a level of confusion in his administration that should have Nigerians really worried and prepared for the worst.