President Bola Ahmed Tinubu did what may define his presidency. He served notice on his assumption of office on May 29 that he is not afraid of taking calculated tough decisions. Not for him, I hope, the endless prevarications compounded by hypocrisy that have characterised the decision-making process at the highest level of government in the land; not for him the progressive failure of leaders to confront problems and solve them; not for him the policy of pleasing the few but destroying the many.
He has inherited a monumental mess. Cleaning it up and pulling the nation back up from the pit of indifferent leadership require focus, determination, and the courage to take and stand by and defend tough decisions.
His administration is currently mired in the controversy over the removal of fuel subsidy. The president did not end fuel subsidy. He inherited it from his predecessor, President Buhari, who did not provide for it in the current federal budget. The choice before Tinubu was to either borrow more money to fund the wealthy lifestyle of the oil cartels and their collaborators in government or bite the bullet. He chose to bite the bullet. He was not unaware of the implications or the consequences for him so early in the life of his administration. When a leader ignores the howling of the hordes and bites the bullet in pursuit of his moral obligation to do what is right for the country and its people, he gives leadership its true meaning – genuine public service.
Fuel subsidy removal is a sensitive matter that easily pits the government against the people. It has hobbled every federal administration. It was a problem Buhari could not tackle for his eight years in office. His decision to pass the buck to his success was hostile in intent and a booby trap in implementation. He cannot escape the charge that he intended to set up the people against the government and powder his own face in contented retirement.
NLC leaders were promptly up in arms and called on their members to go on strike, in protest to force the president to back down and continue with a policy riddled with open theft and corruption that has done more harm than good to the labour union leaders and their members. No surprise there. The court stopped them. Labour has a pathetic record of its inability to protect its members from the ravages of incompetent, indifferent and mediocre leadership. Still, its leaders continue to indulge in the sickening modus operandim with a weapon that has lost its potency. They never seem to appreciate the harm that strike actions do to the economy and the people they purport to protect. Each time labour goes on strike and returns, their members pay a stiff price in increased food prices and transport fares. It is always a loss-loss for labour.
Twenty-eight state governments owe their civil servants and pensioners huge arrears of salaries and pensions. I have not heard labour picket such state governments. They watch as their impoverished members live and die in penury. Labour is a critical contributor to how a nation is governed and the direction of its development. It has responsibilities over and above the infantile resort to strike actions, just to massage the ego of its leaders, some of whom settle with the enemy and betray their members and the cause they purport to pursue.
Fuel subsidy is a huge social, economic, and developmental problem. Every president, in khaki or agbada, has approached it with trepidation. It is not in the nature of human development for a country and its leaders to carry problems on their heads while looking for their solutions in their sokoto. The World Bank has advised against fuel subsidy; the IMF has advised against it; informed and knowledgeable people within and outside the country such as the intrepid Emir Sanusi II have all advised against it and shown with indisputable statistics that the policy was corrupt, wasteful, anti-people but pro-oil cartels and unsustainable. They were all ignored.
Before he assumed office in 2015, Buhari described the fuel subsidy as a scam. I thought he should know having been minister for petroleum resources in the Murtala/Obasanjo military administration. Everyone knew it was a huge scam and we expected Buhari to end the scam, free good money from the corrupt system and channel it to areas of our national challenges such as power, water and security.
On assumption office, Buhari played the social psychology card. He grandly announced that fuel subsidy had become history. Except that it had not. He ended up spending much more -N11 trillion- on fuel subsidy than any one of his predecessors. His courage failed him when he found he had to choose between minting new billionaires and ending what had become an albatross for the nation. In eight years, he, as the minister of petroleum resources, could not fix even one of our four dilapidated refineries. Had he had the courage to end the fuel subsidy, my guess is that he would not have been driven to manage the economy from internal and external loans and saddled it with N77 trillion debt.
The scandalous fuel subsidy regime has run its course and must be allowed to find its place in the rubbish heap among policies conceived with good intentions, implemented with hypocrisy and killed with graft. It was rooted in faux welfarist sentimentalism, to wit, Nigeria is an oil-producing nation; its people are entitled to the benefits of nature’s gift by paying less for fuel.
Even when the economy could no longer sustain it, our successive leaders chose to live the lie and the fiction that everything was normal. This is the logic of the palliatives intended to cushion the effect on the people each time a portion of the subsidy was removed. It seems unusual to tell a man that a contemplated action will badly affect him but not to worry, some balm will be given to him to soothe his pain.
Oodles of easy money have been made from fuel subsidy. Tens of our countrymen and women are wealthy today, thanks to fuel subsidy. Those have powerful connections in government became fuel importers overnight. In the Jonathan administration, fuel import licences were issued indiscriminately to men and women who had no experience in the oil industry. Most of them did not import a drop of fuel but were generously paid in the well-oiled system of corruption that has sustained the fuel subsidy regime for so long.
The administration of the palliatives has been held hostage by confusion and corruption and the same people and the same cartels have been the beneficiaries of what was intended each time to benefit the people. One of President Ibrahim Babangida’s palliatives was the pump price differentials that gave commercial vehicle owners lower prices to persuade them to charge lower transport fares. It failed to achieve the intended objective.
President Obasanjo’s palliative was to flood the market with commercial vehicles to be sold to commercial vehicle owners at subsidised prices in the hope that those who bought them, including Keke NAPEP, would pass the benefit to the people. It failed, as indeed, it was bound to do – and dragged good money into the gutter with it.
We do not know how much federal and state governments have spent on the so-called palliatives because the administration of the palliatives is opaque. It is a fair guess that as much money must have been spent on the palliatives as on the fuel subsidy regime itself. Sometime in 2021, I think, the Federal Government announced that it would “replace N1.8 trillion subsidy with N2.4 trillion palliatives.” Surprised? We will never know the facts because you cannot see through what is opaque. Heads, we lost; tails, we lost.
Those who argue that the president acted hastily miss the point. No one time is a good time for ending a policy that has gone past its potency date. If the president had waited for the next two years to act, his action will still draw blood. Fuel subsidy is not our country’s shadow; it ought not to be allowed to continue to follow every administration.