THE All Progressives Congress, APC-led government of President Muhammadu Buhari has kicked the can for the decision on petrol subsidy removal down the road by 18 months. Which is the same thing as saying that when it is again time to cross that dangerous bridge, the president, if not the party he leads (for the APC would surely want to retain power even after Buhari’s return to his Daura farm), would have safely navigated his way out of danger.
In spite of the fact that all Nigerians have had to say and complain about Abuja under Buhari’s watch – talk about the parlous state of the economy with inflation in double digits even as the government does its best; the pervasive state of insecurity that has left many parts of the country divided under the control of Boko Haram and their cousins-in-crime, the so-called bandits.
Despite that all Nigerians have had to whine about in almost seven years of the Muhammadu Buhari presidency, the government has managed to escape (save the #EndSARS protests) the occasional outbursts and crippling effects of labour agitations that had been the lot of the president’s predecessors in office. The present government has been very fortunate in this regard.
It has been domineering and always had its way on major fronts, including the national legislature under the leadership of Ahmed Lawan that had pledged to give speedy assent to executive requests for as long as they originated from President Buhari.
With the judiciary bound to its customary silence and rendered almost comatose and slumbering in its material poverty that has worsened the heavy effect of its near-irrelevance, the country seems under the control of an imperial presidency that is itself controlled by a few power cells run by close associates and subordinates of the president.
Otherwise, it has been smooth sailing for the government and it looked like it would be so till the president completes his term in May next year. But everything suddenly became uncertain once conversations around the removal of petrol subsidy got more acrimonious towards the end of last year and last week.
After the Petroleum Industry Act was assented to by President Buhari, it was taken for granted the days of petrol subsidy were at an end. The oil industry is to be totally deregulated and the present government had set a February 2022 deadline for the removal of subsidy from petrol.
As January gradually drew to an end, so did Abuja and labour unions led by the Nigeria Labour Congress, NLC, and the Trade Union Congress, TUC, increase their respective campaigns and mobilisation for and against the removal of the subsidy.
Just when it looked like government was set to announce the removal, then came a sudden turnaround with Abuja backtracking on its earlier position that petrol subsidy would go in February this year.
We are in February now and government has not shown itself to be in any hurry to remove the subsidy which more and more Nigerians are coming to accept is untenable and should go if they are not to continue their perambulation in the wilderness of unbearable government debt.
The issues around the debate are not as complicated as they may seem but for the lack of transparency that the present government brought into the matter right from when it was still an opposition party.
Then, President Buhari boldly proclaimed their position that the previous Peoples Democratic Party, PDP-led government of Goodluck Jonathan lied with its claim that it paid subsidy on petrol. It was a major talking point of the campaign that brought Buhari back to power. Buhari himself could have easily sworn under oath, or at least he gave the impression he could, by the way he rejected any notion of subsidy being paid on petrol. Nigerians, the opposition then said, were being scammed by a corrupt administration.
Today the APC-led government has seen the light and knows better than to say that petrol subsidy does not exist. What it has failed to say convincingly is why Nigerians should buy its own idea of subsidy or how, beyond rhetoric, it hopes to ameliorate the effect of the removal of petrol subsidy on the people.
It has made promises but it has not been convincing. Which was why it had to back down on its plan to cut subsidy while pretending to have taken into consideration the plight of Nigerians and had, therefore, decided to take a second look at the matter.
There is no doubt that Abuja is very aware of the terrible effect the poor economic climate has had on Nigerians. The facts are undeniable and the writing on the wall on the probable outcome of any announced removal of subsidy now could not have been more ominous or lost on government.
It was time to play safe and allow President Buhari a peaceful exit, especially within a year of another election to bring in his successor. A labour union that has lost the respect of Nigerians knew it had to act for the sake of the people.
It was the only way to save face following the belief by Nigerians that labour has been bought over and lacks any relevance in their lives. It could not back down. In the rub-my-back-I-rub-your-back way of government and labour, it was the turn of Abuja to back down this time and allow labour some face-saving room.
Next time, labour would tout this latest victory as a basis for a compromise that would allow the next administration, upon which the Buhari administration has gracelessly thrust the hard decision it couldn’t take, to remove petrol subsidy. Then would Nigerians be expected to pay between N340 to N350 per litre on petrol.
For now, Abuja continues with its so-called regime of under recovery, splitting hair about and explaining to the rest of us civilians the discrepancy between the “landing cost”of petrol at about N264 per litre and the pump price that is pegged at between N162 and N165.
This gives us a difference of about N102, all coming to about N6 billion per day or some N2.5 trillion for the 18 months period the subsidy is expected to be extended for.
As long as a Nigerian government will have to confront the hard decision of petrol subsidy removal some day, the present extension of the removal date cannot be considered a victory. It is playing the ostrich and pretending the evil day is gone.
But it has only been deferred to another day and time down the line for another government and leader, perhaps less spineless and less unimaginative than the present one that has found itself in a bind of its own making, tracking the ghost of a petrol subsidy regime they once claimed did not exist.