By Dr. Ugoji Egbujo
Some said he went off script. They said the script said ‘end of June’. They argued he should have consulted with labour unions and worked out the cushions before pulling the subsidy rug off the feet of the masses. But it seems Jagaban has not come to play. He wobbled a bit but didn’t backtrack. Effectively, he has taken two mad bulls by the horns. Petrol subsidies and multiple naira exchange rates have long tormented the fatherland. All that remains is how he guides the bulls through to the abattoir with minimal collateral disruptions.
The troubles of Nigeria are naked. They are not occult. They don’t come as masquerades. They are bare-faced. The failure of our governments to confront them is a bizarre real-life tragedy. The petrol subsidy has been a bull goring the country into penury. At the cost of about 4 trillion naira a year, we didn’t need soothsayers. In a country whose entire revenues can do no more than service its debts, sobriety should abound. Yet the previous govt cuddled the bulls while Nigeria choked. The wide gulf between the official and parallel market exchange rates destabilized the economy and fattened wolves in high places. Where on earth do sane folks allow such a wide disparity in exchange rates to exist and yet cry about forex racketeering and corruption?
It’s pathetic we don’t know know our actual petrol consumption figures. But does it even matter? In the main, we are a rural country. Our borders are porous. We lack the will to bring gluttons to book. Consequently, we have been feeding the entire West Africa with cheap petrol since time immemorial. But we are no longer whom we used to be when we built Festac town overnight. We can’t continue to fritter away our resources because we are perilously broke.
It doesn’t matter whether the subsidy figures are real or fictitious. Successive governments have not been able to solve the maths. We can’t hire juju priests to help us out. Anything that sucks the giant of Africa dry, into ridicule, must be exorcised. Buhari could have dispensed with the subsidy when the ovation was high in 2015. But they perhaps told him petrol would be much more expensive in Katsina and Niger republic than in Lagos. So he hesitated. By the time reality compelled him to rethink, his government had been castrated by the EndSars youths and didn’t have to guts to risk another nightmare.
A president must be decisive. Buhari was decisive in 1984. Jagaban is showing decisiveness in 2023, albeit with some wobbles. However, It appears he came prepared. He must not backtrack. He might have got the timing wrong. But backtracking will complicate the situation. It is incontrovertible that the government has become incapable of managing the petrol subsidy to the overriding benefit of poor Nigerians. The program has become so infested with corruption and its effect so debilitating to national economic health that it’s now anathema.
There will be an initial heavy toll on the poor. Prices of basic services and commodities will jump. Life will be more miserable for many. There will be restiveness. It’s a harsh pill. So, the govt must establish barricades of succour against the tide of inflation. The government must show conflict resolution acumen and problem-solving dexterity. The govt must show empathy.
A good govt exhibits empathy. But empathy in this circumstance isn’t merely to open the vault and throw money at the problem. Yes, the workers trekking to work must have their wages raised. Yes, a forward-looking system that cares must work out mass transit options to cater for many whose cars have been retired by high petrol costs. Then the money realized from the subsidy withdrawal must be used to create the infrastructure that would raise the standard of living and enhance business to attract investments and create quality jobs. In addition, the money the govt has borrowed to cushion the social impact of the removal must be used judiciously and creatively wanton dissemination of cash gifts like Father Christmas will be lazy, thoughtless and wasteful.
The loan comes to about a billion naira per local govt. That can fund three decent rural clinics with mobile ambulance vehicles and a year’s stock of free drugs. A billion per LGA can be used to meet the most pressing needs of the rural people as articulated by the people themselves. That can fund a sustainable cooperative society for farmers in a local govt bringing in equipment, improved seedlings and fertilizers at cheaper rates. That can drill 500 boreholes in a local govt and banish water shortages in dry places.
But empathy in this circumstance goes beyond telling the suffering masses to come and chop or to persevere. There is the important emotional aspect.
If the govt officials realize the enormity of the problems the withdrawal will impose on the people they would show substantial contrition. Since the intervention is ultimately therapeutic, it shouldn’t be stopped. But to console and assuage those bearing the brunt of the policy, the government must begin a drastic trimming of government size and expenditure. True empathy means identification with the victim and his predicament. So workers can’t tighten belts and trek to work while big govt officials ride in elongated convoys and live fat lives. Belt tightening must start from the top in conspicuous ways.
Empathy is solidarity. But since these austerity measures began, the public has watched politicians live like the national barns are full. Politicians are fat and chubby. Politicians have staged parties. Politicians have trooped to Daura to greet Buhari. The public has watched governors junket the country and hold sybaritic dinners in the name of inauguration. If the government and its big officials continue living like the biblical prodigal son while cutting off subsidies and worsening the pain of inflation, then they could be deemed mischievous and cruel.
So to be truly decisive, Jagaban and his men must practice what they preach. They must prescribe to themselves a double dose of the pills they have dished to the masses. The people are watching. Empathy isn’t empty slogans and tired cliches. Empathy is honesty. Jagabans’s decisiveness must not stop at the removal of subsidies and unification of naira exchange rates. He must be decisive with the reformation of the security architecture to eliminate the insurgencies crippling the nation and stinting rural economy and agricultural output.
More importantly, he must realize that on this second coming he hasn’t come with the reputation of a NADECO activist. The public is no longer romantic. He has come with the baggage of a political godfather and all that it contains. So to retain the credibility his initial decisiveness has earned him, he must disabuse minds and disappoint cynics. To realistically renew famished hopes, he must, in words and deeds, be ruthless against corruption.
If the public watches the president nominate or support roguish persons whom the EFCC have indicted to the higher national office then nobody will have any confidence in his sermons. Because removing subsidies and then placing fat parasitic cats in high places to feast on salvaged funds would be utterly treacherous. An exercise in comprehensive deception and futility. A harbinger of apocalyptic doom.
The Igbo say, he who makes haste makes luck and avoids calamties. Jagaban has taken the bulls by the horns. He came prepared. But to renew hope, Jagaban’s govt must seize corruption by the balls and live frugally.