June 4, 2023

How Nigerians voted to remove petrol subsidy, by Adebayo

Petrol scarcity

By Olalekan Bilesanmi

Chaos immediately followed President Bola Ahmed Tinubu’s announcement during his inaugural speech on May 29 that the petrol subsidy is gone. The price of the product instantly went up as Nigerians across the country resorted to panic-buying while many retailers who were caught unawares shut down their stations.

In this interview, Mr. Adewole Ebenezer Adebayo, a lawyer and businessman who contested the 2023 general elections on the platform of the Social Democratic Party (SDP) as its presidential candidate, says Nigerians voted for the removal of petrol subsidy as far back as February 25, 2023.

You said the statement of President Tinubu on petrol subsidy removal was wrong. On what basis did you arrive at this conclusion?

What I said was wrong was the announcement. The announcement in a presidential inauguration, I think, was a mistake as it was not the right moment. What the President has done was to state what the policy is under the law. Never mind the argument the Labour is giving because they are living in the past.

Why did you say so?

There are two laws (on petroleum) in the land: Petroleum Industry Act and the Appropriation Act 2023 both of which say fuel subsidy is not lawful anymore. TUC (Trade Union Congress) and NLC (Nigeria Labour Congress) were around when the presidential candidates were campaigning ahead of the general elections. It was only the SDP that said we would not remove subsidy but would rather remove the corruption in the subsidy. But every other candidate, including the President, clearly stated in their manifestos that subsidy had to go unconditionally. Labour Party said the same thing. PDP said the same thing. And if you look at the votes, you would see that the voters voted overwhelming for political parties who said they were going to remove fuel subsidy. They voted for APC, PDP and Labour in that order. SDP on whose platform I ran as candidate got less votes than each of the candidates of the three parties.

You wanted subsidy to stay…

Yes, I wanted subsidy to stay and attack only the corruption.

You also stated that the laws of the land back official removal of subsidy. So you are anti the law. What would you have done differently if you were the President?

If I had been elected President, I would negotiate away from those laws. For example, pass a new budget, amend the Petroleum Industry Act but I don’t want us to be inconsistent. My other argument against the President is that he was coming to office on the first day and announced that subsidy is gone. That is poor policy communication. What people would understand is that the policy which Buhari government left behind says the subsidy would go by the end of June 2023 and people were expecting you to come in and put some palliatives and other measures in place between now and the expiration of the regime. There are two steps to this argument. Do you want a subsidy to go or not? Those who don’t want subsidy to go are in the minority like me because an election had been fought over it and those who want subsidy to go had won the election. So, you cannot blame them for doing what they promised they were going to do because even if Labour Party had won, the subsidy would have had to go.

When you criticized the President’s subsidy removal statement through your tweet, some people said you were only jealous because you lost the election. Assuming you had won, would you have run a government that would continue to pay for what it cannot afford?

For those who said I was jealous, of course, I was jealous on the day of the inauguration because I wished I was the one being inaugurated but that was not the reason for this. I am now jealous about the welfare of Nigerians and about my own welfare. I concede that it will be late now to be litigating on the issue of subsidy because we spent one year litigating it and voters have voted for a President who said “I would remove subsidy”. My point of view is that the argument of Mele Kyari (NNPC GMD) is like internal bookkeeping of government. Unlike what Labour is saying, I agree that there is a consensus between the electorate and government that subsidy should go. Over time when the subsidy goes away and there are other problems that come over it and the fiscal anemia of the government still doesn’t get cured, people might go back and say SDP and Adebayo were right when they said the subsidy should not go at that time. The point I am making now is that the announcement has caused a lot of panic in the system because the President hadn’t taken the time to sit down and have meetings with people like Mele Kyari to put things in place.

But there are those who said that the action of the President is what they see as hitting the ground running…

With due respect, that is not hit the ground running because at the time he was taking the oath of office, the law of the land is that subsidy is gone. There is what is called in policy management the three unintended consequences. You would know that the President of Nigeria who is the most important Nigerian today, his pronouncement affects every market such that his pronouncement can even affect somebody’s marriage. So, when you are in that office, your pronouncement must be so calculated and well structured because you know that people would react.

Remember that it is not only one market that reacted. Also, the foreign exchange market reacted because by the time he said he going to unify the exchange rate, you start to see movement in the other direction. Labour knows that to deal with the issue of subsidy removal, you must also deal with the issue of foreign exchange. And on the foreign exchange convergence, I hope the convergence is towards the North rather than towards the South. For me personally, I have given up on the argument whether subsidy should be removed or not because he (President) has won the argument but it must be done in a way that there are structures in place.

The reason we have been dragging this issue for a while is because of a lack of clarity. The people in the Labour movement were not overseas when the Appropriation Act 2023 was passed. Where were they to engage on that issue? When the debate was still in the open as to whether we should form a government that would remove subsidies or not, they went with the people that said they would remove subsidies. For as long as we continue to allow people to take advantage of the leadership of Nigerian workers, we would not address this issue. There are two positions you can take on subsidy. Remove or not to remove. They were on the side of removing.

They were also around when the immediate past government passed the PIA. PEGASSAN, the industrial union representing them, was supporting it. PEGASSAN met in Calabar and said the subsidy must go. In the course of electioneering, the Appropriation Act was passed, they didn’t fight or argue with the government and the government passed the law. The reason why we are discussing this now is because of what I consider a mistake from the President to make a policy statement on that sensitive issue in an unclear way in his inauguration address which has now caused panic before the policy would take effect.

The Labour is now behaving as if they are looking for negotiation and discussion; when the government that made that policy was around, they didn’t go for negotiation. I think there must be discussion now but at the same time there must be palliatives in place within a short period to ensure that the effects are not much on the people.