Chido Onumah

Justice is the first condition of humanity – Wole Soyinka, The Man Died

Fifty years gone in a twinkle: how time has flown
Fifty years gone in a bubble: how a nation’s grown
Time to reclaim the nation. Time to end the plunder
Time to bask in harmony that beckons, that endures – Chiedu Ezeanah, Golden Jubilee Stanzas

Late last month, the governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN), Sanusi Lamido Sanusi rolled out figures about the parlous state of the education sector in Nigeria. Speaking at an event in Kaduna to mark the 80th birthday of Prof. Adamu Baike, a former vice chancellor of the University of Benin, Sanusi noted that “although there are no comprehensive data on the number of Nigerian students abroad, recent data have shown that there are about 71,000 Nigerian students in Ghana paying about N155 billion ($1.03 billion) annually as tuition fees as against the annual budget of N121 billion ($806 million) for all federal universities”.

If those figures were intended to shock us, I am not sure many Nigerians were shocked. We have become inured to the waste, brigandage, and purposelessness of our ruling elite. And Mr. Sanusi should know what I am talking about. Not too long ago, it was reported that the CBN which Mr. Sanusi supervises spent almost N20 billion ($133 million) of taxpayers’ money for a piece of land (originally belonging to the federal government) in Abuja to build “a world class international conference centre”. The CBN, and its governor, have yet to offer any plausible reason for such wanton waste of public fund. And chances are that nothing will come out of a public enquiry, if at all any is held.

That is the sad story of Nigeria. Everywhere you turn, there are mindboggling excesses of official corruption and abuse of office. Recently, the amazon of the oil industry, and Minister of Petroleum Resources, Diezani Allison-Madueke, told the House of Representatives committee investigating the non-remittance of N450 billion ($3 billion) to the federation account by the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) that the corporation was “too big for the federal government”. "NNPC is not subjected to the consolidated fund of the federal government. It cannot depend on federal budget because it runs very capital intensive operations beyond what government can finance,” the minister said. "The NNPC budget is not an appropriated budget. We function largely like a private commercial enterprise." Even if the NNPC is run as a private commercial enterprise, does that excuse it from being accountable to its owners, the Nigerian public?

For those wondering whether we have a government in Nigeria, you need not look any further than the explanation offered by Allison-Madueke. It is a perfect metaphor for the sorry state of the country. Nigeria, not just the NNPC, functions largely like a private commercial enterprise. It is in this light that we must view the planned removal of fuel subsidy, an action that will test the will of the Nigerian people and its readiness to reclaim the country. 

The removal of oil subsidy will be the greatest affront by the present administration and it appears the battle line has been drawn. “The People’s Democratic Party (PDP) has said though the removal of fuel subsidy will be painful for Nigerians, there is no alternative to it,” Punch newspaper (11/4/2011) reported the acting national chairman of the party, Alhaji Kawu Baraje, as saying.
According to the report, while the PDP “was not against the public debate either for or against the proposed subsidy removal, it however condemned the opposition who it said was using it to advance its ‘warped and unrealistic arguments, using populist sentiments to misinform the people’, and “as the custodians of the peoples’ mandate and the resource base of the ideas that inform government policies, the party owed it a duty to Nigerians to break its silence on the matter”.

The PDP’s position is that “the removal of the subsidy was the only way to revamp the economy”. “Nigerians are aware that the federal government is  deeply committed to tackling decaying infrastructure, provision of jobs to the youth, stimulation of investments in critical sectors and provision of security. Baraje said, “They want their roads safe and motorable; they want quality education for their children; they want to see affordable and efficient health care delivery systems; they want security of lives and property; they also want a guaranteed supply of petroleum products at affordable cost. These are achievable only if resources are harnessed to finance these major developmental programmes.

“While declaring support for the federal government’s determination to deregulate the downstream sector of the petroleum industry, Baraje said the PDP was also encouraged by President Goodluck Jonathan’s decision to constitute a committee of reputable Nigerians to advise on the management of the income accruable from the removal of subsidy.”

The PDP may delude itself that it has the peoples’ mandate, but it is only the people who will decide where power lies ultimately when the time comes. If the party was really interested in a public debate about subsidy removal, and not just engaged in doublespeak, then it should know that overwhelming majority of Nigerians (four out of every five Nigerian, according to a report to be released next week) are opposed to the so-called removal of oil subsidy.

Clearly, Nigerians are no longer interested in the oil subsidy debate because it is quite evident that oil subsidy, so-called, is nothing but a ruse. We are interested in knowing from Mr. Baraje, and the PDP, why none of the four refineries in the country is working after twelve years of PDP rule. We need to know why Nigeria exports crude oil and imports petroleum products. The collapse of our refineries is an indictment of the PDP that has been in power for twelve long years – a period that has witnessed the largest inflow of fund to the Nigerian state since independence, fifty-one years ago. Finance minister, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, an active supporter of subsidy removal, said last week that fuel subsidies would cost Nigeria at least N1.2 trillion ($8 billion) this year alone. That money, I am sure, is more than enough to fix our refineries. This will solve the subsidy conundrum, and provide employment for thousands of Nigerians. 

Nobody is enthused by the plan of the government to constitute a committee of “reputable Nigerians” to manage the income from the removal of fuel subsidy. Since the government can’t manage income accruable to it, then it should hand over power to a consortium of managers in the spirit of running the country as a private commercial enterprise. If the government can’t manage refineries, is it the purported trillions that will accrue from the removal of subsidy that it will manage well?

The PDP has been in power since 1999, and all we have witnessed is the withdrawal of services that benefit the common people. We have had three PDP governments in more than a decade and they have not been able to provide any tangible service. The real sector of the economy has collapsed; our education sector has crumbled; our hospitals are death chambers; unemployment is at an all time high; poverty and insecurity stalk the land. All this, in a country that has earned trillions of naira since 1999.

The last time we learnt of the huge amount accruing to the PDP-led governments was in 2005 when then finance minister, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, revealed that the federal government received and disbursed N11 trillion ($74 billion) from June 1999 to December 2005. She noted that the figure did not take into account money generated by other tiers of government (state and local). In a country that ranks among the most corrupt in the world – where last year alone, according to Transparency International, civil servants took N450 billion ($3 billion) bribe -- you can be sure that Okojo-Iweala figures didn’t tell the complete story. So let’s just assume, for the purposes of argument, that the PDP-led governments received and disbursed N4 trillion ($27 billion) between 2005 and 2010, Mr. Bajare should tell us where all that money went to since, clearly, it did not go into providing safe and motorable roads, quality education, and affordable and efficient health care delivery systems, things Mr. Baraje and the PDP are now seeking to do with proceeds from the removal of oil subsidy.

Under the PDP-led governments things have gone from bad to worse. The contradictions in the country are sharper today than they were in 1999 when the PDP seized power. The ethno-religious divisions have gotten worse; prebendalism has become the directive principle of state policy. It is on record that since 1999, the Nigeria Police (under PDP-led governments) has not been able to successfully solve a single case of murder in the country. The current violence sweeping the country is the product of PDP’s corrupt and irresponsible leadership over the years.

So, when the likes of Baraje talk about the PDP as the custodians of the peoples’ mandate and the resource base of the ideas that inform government policies, they need to be confronted frontally. The time has come for Nigerians to call the bluff of the government and the PDP. As it is, it doesn’t look like there is a government in place in the country, or if anyone is really in charge. The president has been AWOL; a commander-in-chief in retreat, as the country is besieged by militants of every hue. 

Six months ago, President Jonathan tried to seduce us with his transformation agenda. But the only things that appear to have been transformed are the fat bank accounts of those that are closely associated with his government. The president was at his comical best during the just concluded 17th Nigerian Economic Summit Group (NESG) in Abuja, when he told his audience that investors that failed to take advantage of the investment opportunities in the country because of the spate of violence would regret it. I am sure his statement did elicit more than a chuckle, considering that the event was disrupted for thirty minutes due to power outage, causing panic about a possible terror attack at the Transcorp Hilton, venue of the event.  

This is how The Guardian of November 11, 2011, reported the story: “The smooth conduct of the 17th Nigerian Economic Summit Group (NESG) in Abuja was yesterday disrupted for more than 30 minutes following power outage at the Transcorp Hilton Hotel plant, which sparked a melee as the audience thought a terror attack was under way. The development forced some dignitaries, including the United States (U.S.) Envoy to Nigeria, Ambassador Terence P. McCulley, to hurriedly flee the hotel despite being scheduled to address the media at the end of the session, which was cut short by the power outage. President Goodluck Jonathan had declared the summit open with a speech and had left the venue before the power cut. However, the hotel’s public relations manager, Sola Adeyemo, attributed the outage to ‘a very high voltage’ from the Power Holding Company of Nigeria (PHCN), forcing the hotel’s power generator to switch off. But by the time power was restored some dignitaries, including the Governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN), Lamido Sanusi, who were discussants at the interrupted session were gone”.

If this was an isolated incident, you wouldn’t mind when the president talks about wooing investors. But those who live through the Nigerian nightmare everyday know that power failure is an essential part of daily existence. What kind of investor will invest under this condition of insecurity and uncertainty?  But this is just an aside.

Now that President Jonathan and the PDP have shown that they do not care about Nigerians, it is only appropriate that we respond accordingly. This is a long drawn out battle, and the government has shown how intolerant it is of opposing views with the repression of young Nigerians who assembled at Unity Fountain in Abuja on November 11 to protest the removal of oil subsidy.

The president is chasing shadows, while the country burns. How else can one describe his recent meeting with Mr. Alain Juppe, the French Foreign Minister where he sought to resurrect the seven-year single tenure agenda.  He said his proposed seven-year single tenure for Nigeria’s president “has been misunderstood by those who think he wants to add that term to his current one”.

“My proposal for a single seven-year tenure is anchored on the need for an incumbent president to focus maximum attention on the execution of his development programmes, instead of expending vital energy on re-election issues, though this has been misunderstood to mean I want additional seven years”, he told Mr. Juppe. Does the president need a single seven-year term before he can settle down to govern? Perhaps, he was hoping that the French government will put in a word for him on his seven-year agenda, just as the EU did on the oil subsidy issue through its Head of Delegation to Nigeria and ECOWAS, Mr. David Macrae.

Sometimes, I wonder if the president and his cronies are the only people who fail to see that we are headed on the road to Afghanistan or Somalia, the poster children of failed states. So what is to be done, now that it is clear that President Jonathan and the PDP are unrelenting in their quest to subjugate and continue the impoverishment of ordinary Nigerians?

The first task will be to aggregate the discontent of the suffering masses of Nigeria: the ones who die when a bomb explodes in a market square; those who subsist on less than one dollar a day; those who die from preventable diseases. We all  must learn to overcome our differences and confront our common enemies. Hunger does not have a tribe; poverty has no religion; disease has no state of origin.

In the weeks and months ahead, we shall through this medium, and other public platforms, intimate Nigerians about how we hope to engage the present administration in the battle to reclaim Nigeria. In this battle, we will count on the support of our compatriots within and in the Diaspora. Nigerians should prepare themselves mentally and psychologically to occupy every public space, from the local government to the national level, as well as our embassies in Washington, Ottawa, Paris, London, and other major cities around the world when the time comes.

Governments are supposed to serve the people. But when they renege on that task, the people have a responsibility to assert their citizenship rights.  We have seen it happen before our very eyes in North Africa and the Middle East.
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