ON 1st January 2012, the government of former President Goodluck Jonathan set out to remove the fuel subsidy that had drained the coffers of the nation for decades (as successive governments made us believe). Predictably, protests greeted the move, and most cities were grounded as a result. Days into the debacle, the regime buckled and settled for an easy way out. Instead of full deregulation, Jonathan settled for a price hike of petrol pump price from N65 to N97.
More than four years later, the Jonathan government had given way to the President Muhammadu Buhari regime after the 2015 elections. On 11th of May 2016, the Federal Government announced the “deregulation” of the downstream sector of the oil industry, which pushed petrol pump prices to N145 per litre. Again, the measure was hit by nationwide protests. Though organised Labour was fully involved in both instances, the intensity of opposition to the Buhari policy was far less than the attempt by his predecessor.
Recently, an argument blew up between the Jonathan and Buhari camps as to why it was possible for Buhari to succeed where Jonathan failed. The “Jonathanians”, who fired the first salvo, alleged that Buhari succeeded because Nigerians were afraid of his government. The “Buharists” retorted that they succeeded because Nigerians “trusted them” more. Now my question: why did Buhari succeed in “deregulating” the downstream oil sector or removing the petrol subsidy, and why did Jonathan fail in the same endeavour? I put deregulation in quotes because experts insist that Buhari has not fully deregulated the sector; subsidies may return as the price of crude continues to rise, but that is another issue.
Was it because of trust or fear? To get the correct hang of this issue, matters have to be put in their proper contexts. I do not believe that Buhari succeeded merely because he was trusted or feared. Buhari succeeded because of two main factors: (a) he was more decisive, and (b) the opposition against him lacked bite, and I will explain as we go along.
If fear was a factor, it was not the Nigerian people who were afraid of Buhari or any government. It is a bit dumb to say such a thing. If anything, it was Jonathan that ran his presidency and the affairs of this nation with fear and feeble-mindedness. This was a president who complained to Nigerians that there were Boko Haram elements in his government. He said he was not a Pharaoh or army general. He was always ready to please people, even his political enemies. He thought by being over-generous to the North they would love him and allow him to complete his second term, but in laying himself wide open and vulnerable, the conspiracy to get him out by all means became a walkthrough.
Jonathan did not exude the mystique of power that Presidents Olusegun Obasanjo, Umaru Yar’Adua and Muhammadu Buhari were able to project. He did not project enough presidential auras, and a lot of people successfully rode him and got away with it. This factor was responsible for the of the newly-formed All Progressives Congress, APC, coalition to shoulder him aside and take over the Presidency. It was also the main factor in Jonathan’s failure to power through his deregulation bid. It was Jonathan’s fear of his political enemies that robbed him the opportunity to effect petrol price deregulation and eventually bundled him out of power.
It was Jonathan’s fear of his political enemies that robbed him the opportunity to effect petrol price deregulation and eventually bundled him out of power
According to Buhari in his response to Jonathan’s accusation that his successor rules by lies and propaganda, between N800 billion and N1.3 trillion (or N3.2 and 5.2 trillion) was spent annually between 2012 and 2015 as a result of Jonathan’s failure to carry through his deregulation attempt. This amount went into the pockets of oil marketers in a manner that bred unprecedented corruption during the Jonathan regime. If Jonathan had summoned enough courage to power through the deregulation policy and channelled the proceeds of petrol subsidy to massive infrastructure upgrades nationwide, nothing would have stopped him from winning his second term bid. Nigerians have already forgotten the pain of Buhari’s “deregulation” policy.
There was a major reason behind the gale of opposition that Jonathan ran into which paled in comparison to what Buhari faced. As I said earlier, it had very little to do with “trust”, though his packagers have relentlessly drummed Buhari’s “sainthood” down the throats of gullible Nigerians. Thank goodness, most Nigerians now know better. You must have noticed that when Buhari deregulated, the Ayuba Wabba faction of the Nigerian Labour Congress, NLC, was the only organised group that came out to protest. When they found they did not have the usual support (in fact, some columnists and panelists from Tinubu’s media stable openly mocked them) they had to call off their strike.
The reason for this unusual tepid opposition to fuel subsidy removal was that the usual groups that backed up such protests were now with the Buhari government. The protesters that staged the big parties at the Chief Gani Fawehinmi Freedom Park in Ojota, Lagos, in 2012 were funded by the Chief Ahmed Tinubu faction of the present APC Federal Government. One of the great successes of Tinubu in politics is that he infiltrated (or heavily invested in) the media, the judiciary, civil society, sections of the clergy and even elements of the underworld, especially motor-park touts, etc who were absorbed into his political machinery. Tinubu has control of “the streets” of Lagos.
With his party now as part of the Buhari Federal Government, there were few people in the Lagos/West axis to make the fuel deregulation protests count against Buhari. It was this factor, not “trust” or even “fear” that allowed Buhari to get away so easily with his deregulation policy where Jonathan failed; added, of course, to Jonathan’s own political weaknesses.