By Ochereome Nnanna
PRESIDENT Muhammadu Buhari owes us apologies for the latest hike from N86.50k to N145 of the official pump price for Premium Motor Spirit (PMS) announced on Thursday last week by his Deputy Minister of Petroleum, Dr. Emmanuel Kachikwu.
First, he must apologise to Nigerians, on behalf of himself, his political party,the All Progressives Congress, APC, his foremost apologist, Professor Tam David-West, Labour and the hired “civil society” groups who truncated the deregulation of the downstream sector of the petroleum industry in January 2012.
Second, he must also apologise to his predecessor, ex-President Goodluck Jonathan, who lost his post-electoral “honeymoon” period early in 2012 when he stuck out his neck in an attempt to lay to rest, once and for all, the bogey of fuel scarcity and its attendant high cost and human suffering which have trailed the nation for nearly thirty years. After maligning the Otuoke-born lecturer, he went back to implement a policy that Jonathan would have carried out four years ago if not for irresponsible and unpatriotic opposition.
Whenever the deregulation of this sector is contemplated, people always say the timing is wrong without telling us when the timing will ever be right. Certainly, the timing for this steep hike is wrong. It comes so soon after the equally steep hike in the cost of electricity tariffs which the Federal Government through its Power, Works and Housing Minister, Babatunde Fashola, openly approves of.
It comes at a time when thousands of people are losing their jobs and most employers cannot pay the salaries of their workers because of the parlous economic situation brought about by low oil prices, the crash in the value of the naira and the inability of the Buhari administration to tackle them. To top it all, Labour is priming for a new national minimum wage of between N56,000 to N90,000. Now that the official price of petrol has been nearly doubled, who knows the amount that Labour will now ask for?
If ever there was a right time for the deregulation of the downstream sector, the year 2012 was it. We had just emerged unscathed from the worldwide economic meltdown of 2008/2009. By 2012 our Brent crude was selling for $114.26 per barrel, a trend that was generally sustained until toward the end of 2014 when the tide of transitional political was in full swing. Unlike now when economic activities are low, poverty rate is higher than ever and most investors have fled, there was money in the system then.
The economy was even becoming increasingly “dollarised” as a result of oil-fed liquidity in the system. In fact, it was shortly after this that a review of the nation’s Gross Domestic Product terms showed that Nigeria had emerged as the largest economy in Africa and the continent’s number one investors’ destination. Nigeria could have weathered the shock of deregulation much more easily than now.
But the opposition would have none of it. Labour unions went on strike. In Lagos, some so-called “activist” groups were sponsored by some political interests to stage their “Occupy Nigeria” gigs in the Freedom Square, Ojota, Lagos, which was actually more of a noisy musical jamboree. Former President Jonathan was called the dirtiest names in the world. Soldiers eventually had to be drafted to Ojota to avoid the growing involvement of miscreants, hoodlums and Area Boys who began targeting people and their property.
After about a week of national standstill, Jonathan called off the plan to deregulate. He went back to subsidy payment. The nation paid through the nose. Between 2012 and today, we lost over four trillion naira to a subsidy regime that was blighted by unprecedented graft. This would have been avoided if we had implemented the policy back then. Unfortunately for Buhari, he is now saddled with the grim burden of grappling with the evil day he and his cohorts postponed by opposing deregulation under the Jonathan regime.
The opposition vehemently posited that there was nothing like subsidy. Buhari himself was severally on record saying the subsidy was a “scam”. When he won the presidential election, he vowed to probe the “scam”. Yet he continued to pay subsidies on assumption of office, thus perpetuating the “scam”?
Professor Tam Davis-West, a former Minister of Petroleum under Buhari’s military regime who has become his acolyte and voluntary media megaphone, granted several interviews and insisted that Buhari would reduce the price of petroleum to N40 per litre. While inaugurating his presidential campaign council, General Buhari, waxing populist, promised that under an APC government “no Nigerian would go hungry and angry”.
I remember an interview with Vanguard in which Mallam Nasir El Rufai, a former Minister of the Federal Capital Territory under the General Olusegun Obasanjo presidency said, and I quote him: “If another regime was in power, let us assume that General Buhari was the president of Nigeria, he would not withdraw the subsidy. He will fix the problem. He will audit who is taking the money in the subsidy, who is paying what, how the money multiply (sic) three times in one year and fish out the thieves and deal with them”.
One year into his four-year mandate, Buhari has realised that all that glitters is not gold. We are yet to hear about the “probe” of the “scams” he promised. Prof. David-West has gone mute. El Rufai has since climbed on the back of Buhari to become the Governor of Kaduna State. We expected David-West to teach Buhari (the Minister of Petroleum) and Kachikwu (his Minister of State) the magic formula of making petrol price to come down to N40. Or better still, Buhari could have appointed the Professor who will be 80 in a couple of months as his Special Adviser on Petroleum to actualise this wonderful feat. Instead, Kachikwu told us that all his learning in Ivy League schools where he made first class did not include how to wave a magic wand to produce results. David-West is hiding somewhere while we are made to pay N145.
Funny, Asiwaju Bola Tinubu, who was widely believed to have sponsored the “Occupy Nigeria” party in Ojota in 2012 to truncate the deregulation, was among the first to jump forward and tell Nigerians that the pain of price hike is “necessary”. If there is any scam, it is the Buhari administration and the party that brought him to power that have perpetrated it against Nigerians. This is yet evidence that they obtained power through false pretences.
One of such was the promise to make the Naira equal to the US Dollar. Today, the official rate is static at N198/$1, while the black market rate remains well over N330/$1. Experts gloomily predict that with the fuel importers now free to look for foreign exchange from anywhere to import, the Naira is likely to head towards the N500/$1 mark! One year later, we are yet to see anything they did differently and better than the Jonathan administration, especially in the energy sector.
We are waiting for the apologies, and hope that Nigerians will be wiser when politicians come with sweet but empty promises next time.