By Owei Lakemfa
The price of Premium Motor Spirit, PMS, also known as petrol, or fuel is ever on the increase in our oil-soaked country. But it has its own logic which is usually wrapped in layers of deceit. It has become an endless political game. General Ibrahim Badamosi Babangida who ruled for eight years, has been the most gifted of the players while Chief Ernest Adegunle Oladeinde Shonekan who has had the shortest reign (82 days) has been the most inept.
By the time Babangida seized power in 1985, the issue of the International Monetary Fund, IMF and its conditionalities of enslavement had become a contentious issue. He ‘solved’ this by putting it to ‘democratic debate’ which acknowledged that Nigerians in their overwhelming majority rejected the IMF, but went on to implement what the people had rejected!
He increased the price of fuel a number of times but always sought to disguise his actions. For instance, when he increased the price in 1986 by 97.5 percent, he claimed it was to free funds for rural development. He gave the impression that those who lived in the urban areas are elites and that it was time to give back to the rural areas. He went so far as to issue a decree establishing a “Directorate of Food, Roads and Rural Infrastructures for the mobilisation of rural communities and the development of the rural areas in Nigeria”.
When he wanted to increase prices in January 1989, he accused private car owners of milking the economy by owning many cars and buying fuel at cheap rates. He said private car owners will pay for their profligacy by buying fuel at a new price of 60 Kobo while commercial vehicles will buy at the prevailing price of 42 kobo. Eleven months later, he imposed a flat uniform rate of 60 Kobo for both private and commercial vehicles. When in 1991, he increased the price to 70 Kobo, he introduced a ‘cushioning effect” for the masses by decreeing an Urban Mass Transit Agency.
When free and fair presidential election was conducted on June 12, 1993, Babangida who never wanted to leave power, annulled it. When he was forced out on August 26, 1993, rather than hand over power to Chief Moshood Kashimawo Abiola, the winner of that election, he set up a contraption called an Interim National Government, ING, to run the country. The ING was headed by one of his cronies, Chief Shonekan who had been the figurehead Chairman of his imaginary Transition Council.
Shonekan was seen as a wise choice that could neutralise the agitation to de-annul the June 12 election; he was Egba and Yoruba like Abiola and was not a soldier, but a ‘bloody civilian’ like the rest of us. However, Shonekan was a drab politician who did not seem to have a flair for leadership, was not charismatic or bright looking, was not pronounced as Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces and was generally regarded as a lame-duck. Besides, serious challenges to the ING had been mounted not only in the streets, but also in court. There was also an open talk of another military coup.
It was in the midst of these that Shonekan made one of the most inexplicable moves in the country’s history: he increased the cost of fuel from 70 Kobo to N5, a 614 percent increase; it was like a man people want to set alight, pouring petrol on himself. The masses were livid, and even the few who seemed indifferent or showed some support for the ING were up in arms.
For us in the Pro-Democracy Movement, the price increase was God-sent. We mobilised to the court to hear her Lordship, Justice Dolapo Akinsanya declare the ING illegal. I counted over two dozen buses and mini-buses filled with protesters as they left the High Court speeding towards Abiola’s residence in Ikeja. As one of the organisers, I had stayed back to ensure almost all the protesters left; we even had hopes that with the rising of the masses, Abiola would be sworn in to fill the vacuum and give hope to the masses as he had promised. We had also mobilised people to move to his house.
As I approached Abiola’s house with other Pro-Democracy leaders like Dr. Beko Ransome-Kuti, rather than the sea of heads we expected to see, there were lots of people leaving. We stopped one of our organisers to enquire and he told us a sad story. When the crowds got to Abiola’s house, they were told their hero was absent. When they threatened to bring down the gate, the late democracy icon, Mrs. Kudirat Abiola had appeared to assuage them. She was not allowed to speak, rather, the crowds gave her five minutes to produce her husband or they would burn down his house. Chief Abiola appeared and assured the crowds he would be their president. They asked him to make pronouncements on certain matters like the fuel price hike. This was the dampener: he told them that as an accountant, he thought the price of fuel was ridiculously low and that if he were the President, he would have increased the price. There was an uproar, and some of the activists took him on. The crowd was shocked, disappointed and dejected; they poured out their minds and started leaving. The story was unbelievable. Some of us, including Beko and Femi Falana, went in to meet Abiola. He confirmed what we had been told. He saw nothing wrong with his position. In minutes, he had demobilised the crowd. On the lacuna created by the court judgement, he joked that he was too young to commit suicide. He said Shonekan was holding a sword, and that it was better to persuade him to hand it over rather than try to snatch it as it could be dangerous. Beko grinned and asked Abiola whether he was sure that Shonekan’s sword had a blade. Abiola roared with laughter.
On November 17, 1993, General Sani Abacha with his colleagues gave the ING a slight push, and the contraption crumbled like a pack of cards. In order to hoodwink the populace and garner support, five days after the coup, the new regime reduced fuel price from Shonekan’s N5 to N3.25. After buying legitimacy and consolidating power, Abacha one year later increased the price to N15, a 361.54 percentage increase. But when the masses cried out, the dictator, reduced the new price to N11.
Again, the people were taken for a ride; while some saw the regime as having a listening ear, the reality was that it had effectively increased fuel price from N3.25 to N11 per litre. The people had once more, been taken for a ride.