We have watched with incredulity the brazen attempt by President Goodluck Jonathan to take the pauperisation of the Nigerian people to even more unprecedented heights by way of a purported fuel subsidy withdrawal. We, as indeed all honest fellow citizens, believe that there is no subsidy on oil products. If, however, it does exist, then it was fabricated by and for those who allocate or own oil blocs and petroleum import licences. It does not subsidise living for the masses who groan daily from the penal servitude of surviving on less than N150 (or one dollar) a day to which their successive rulers have sentenced them.
Ever since the end of the despotic but arguably patriotic Buhari-Idiagbon regime in 1985, every succeeding head of state has indulged in the governmental pastime of oil subsidy withdrawal. The reason is plain enough. Oil is not merely the “mainstay” of the Nigerian economy but also its strength and sinew. Through the easy petro-dollars that flow into the national treasury, and from there to the state and local government purses, oil has become Nigeria’s raison d’être, perhaps the only reason for her existence. It is thanks to oil that the foundational structure of regionalism that became strong federalism at independence in 1960 was very quickly converted into a unitary system in all but name.
It is thanks to oil that Nigeria abandoned any serious interest in agriculture and self-sufficiency in food, an area so crucial to the identity of the emerging nation that it is symbolised in the national flag by the colour green. (As for peace, symbolised by the white, Nigeria has not known it — from the Civil War a mere seven years after independence to today’s bomb jihad of Boko Haram.) And it is thanks to oil that Nigeria has had an unending run of greedy, visionless, and remorseless mercenaries parading themselves as leaders, and who, with every change of government, only succeed in casting us further down the rungs of hell. In short, it is why we have no productive economy, since all our “leaders” have to do is bribe, blackmail, kill and maim to get to high office then sit and wait for oil dollars. Yet, when through their ineptitude and indolence the dollar supply dwindles and cannot match their immeasurable greed, they take one resort. We are told then that the government subsidises our consumption of a commodity of which we are the sixth largest producer in the world. And that if this subsidy were removed, there would suddenly be enough money to do all the things it has failed, so abysmally, to do. As proof of its sincerity, a petroleum trust fund would be created — as if by sheer nomenclature, money would evade their grasping hands.
Only that the story is now so old and tiresome a babe-in-arms would laugh were it the sort of thing she should care about. For a start, the vast amounts saved from previous subsidy withdrawals — call them “graduated subsidy reductions” aimed at getting closer to the alleged “appropriate price” of petroleum products — have not led to any such good results. What has the Education Trust Fund, a by-product of the Petroleum Trust Fund, set up under General Babangida, done to avert the total collapse of education from the primary to the tertiary level?
Where has General Obasanjo’s Police Trust Fund left the police? And why have whole roads been washed away and become death trails?
Where are the hospitals and clinics to cure the simplest ailments, some already banished from luckier climes? We know. As intended, the “funds” ended up in the bottomless pockets of those in the corridors of power. The government has even admitted as much. A powerful cartel which profits from fuel importation, we are told, has been sabotaging every effort to repair the existing four refineries or build new ones. And we have heard or read of import licences awarded in the shadiest manner; of oil blocs given without competitive bidding to friends and cronies with little or no connection to oil production. In other words, we have heard or read of the mainstay of the economy shared out as personal gifts.
But the dubiousness of the oil subsidy claim does not end there. There is a subsidy, the government argues, because it pays more per litre to import fuel from abroad than currently charged at the pump. It is a clear case of seeking to profit from its own wrong; of rubbing salt in the wounds of the victim while inflicting fresh gashes. Says the government: “Yes, we failed to repair our refineries or build new ones. As a result, we refine our crude abroad. We also have to transport home the refined products. Consequently, we incur a higher cost than we would if we refined at home. And though we thereby create an import cartel of millionaires and billionaires, the entire burden of this scandal must be borne by the masses. We intend, however, to embark on massive infrastructure projects that will ameliorate their suffering when foodstuff, transport fares, house rent and other related costs of living rise through the roof.”
That Jonathan and his crew of advisers can peddle this story is proof of their astonishing remove from the abject reality of the people. For, we repeat, whatever comes from the withdrawal of any “phantom subsidy” will serve no common purpose. It will end up where our patrimony has always gone: into the insatiable jaws of the plundering cabal with a choke-hold on the country’s jugular. It will become part of the twenty-five percent of the national budget spent on the highest paid legislators in the world. It will vanish the same way N3 trillion ($20 billion) vanishes yearly from the public sector alone, according to the Senate Committee on Federal Character and Inter-governmental Agencies. It will melt in the maws of state bureaucracies, those administrative units of the unitary government of Nigeria which exist solely as distributive centres of the national cake.
We remind Jonathan and his advisers that the minimum wage is N18,000 ($120) -- for a presumed family of six -- and even this, only for those households lucky to have a breadwinner and living in a state that agrees to pay it. We believe that our crisis of socio-economic development is caused, first and foremost, by a grossly distorted political structure that turns the nation into a “no-man’s land” to be plundered at will, which in turn breeds lazy and visionless rulers. And, subsequently, by the enthronement of corruption as a core policy of government.
Thus, while the government claims to have spent about N3.6 trillion ($24 billion) from 2006-2011 on the importation of fuel, the Senate reveals that an equal amount is lost to corruption in a single year.
There is nothing more to say. And it is our view that if Jonathan goes ahead to bring such catastrophic suffering as a purported subsidy withdrawal will cause on the masses in the name of redressing wrongs not done by them, he will only be continuing the shameful tradition of robbing the poor to further enrich the corrupt. He will prove to be a good student of the King Rehoboam school of government. Remember him, Rehoboam? In 1 Kings 12:10-16, he forsakes the counsel of the elders (read patriots), adopts the wisdom of the misguided youth (read greedy nation-wreckers) and says to the Israelites, “My father made your yoke heavy, and I will add to your yoke: my father also chastised you with whips, but I will chastise you with scorpions.”
We urge President Jonathan not to take for granted the seemingly endless capacity of Nigerians to endure hardship. No evil persists forever, as our past struggles and the Arab spring revolutions currently re-affirm. We urge Jonathan, a good Christian as he avows, to read the sixteenth verse: “So when all Israel saw that the king hearkened not unto them, the people answered the king, saying, What portion have we in David? ... to your tents, O Israel ... So Israel departed unto their tents.” Need we say, for Israel, read Nigeria?
By Ogaga Ifowodo, Abdul Mahmud, Nasiru Kura, Omoyele Sowore, Gbenga Komolafe, Innocent Chukwuma, Kayode Ogundamisi, Ayo Akinfe, Chido Onumah, Lade Adunbi, Ropo Ewenla, Rita Goyit, Abdul Hussein, Chijioke Uwasomba, Benjamin Okonofua, Uche Onyeagucha, Anthony Olusanya, Okey Nwanguma, Francis Abayomi, Seni Ajayi*
*The authors are former student leaders under the auspices of the National Association of Nigerian Students (NANS).