Criminals on earth, sinners in heaven
Some weeks ago, the Federal government came out to inform Nigerians about its intention to ‘deregulate’ the price of petroleum products. One really wonders whether by using the word ‘deregulate’ the government really knows what it is talking about, or if it does, whether it knows the implications of its decision. Let’s put academic detail aside. To the ordinary Nigerian like me, such an ambiguous vocabulary could be reduced to effectively read another official hike in the price of petrol and related commodities.
The spokesman of government on this issue was first Professor Jerry Gana, the Vice-President and finally the President himself. From the speeches of these top functionaries of government and the tone of their response to the reactions of Nigerians including that of the Nigerian Labour Congress (NLC), it is clear that this time government means business. The last time when it attempted to impose an increase in the price of petrol, it was forced by the NLC to swallow its words in humiliation. It went back to recuperate and after a careful study of the options before it, it came out with a strategy that will, in its calculation, silence the NLC. It thought of making NLC part and parcel of the idea to ‘deregulate’ petroleum products in the country. Things were moving on smoothly and government was confident that it has tamed the labour organization. However, just as they were about to conclude the matter, the NLC disappeared and, worse still, cried foul in public, saying that it has dissociated itself from any decision to hike the price of petroleum products.
The administration justifiably felt betrayed and slighted. So it gathered courage to come out and tell Nigerians this time that it has unilaterally decided that it will withdraw the subsidies that Nigerians have been enjoying on fuel. It has assured us that the decision is final. Yet it went ahead to ask us for advice on the best way to go about the withdrawal. The minister, I will remember, specifically called on Nigerians to debate on the issue and proffer suggestions to government. He was clear on the theme of the debate and its limits of academic freedom: Nigerians are only allowed to debate on ‘how’ the deregulation will take place.
Since then I preferred not to contribute to the debate. If the administration did not seek my opinion before arriving at the decision to ‘deregulate’, why the hell should it bother to seek my advise on its implementation? I hope this will serve as a satisfactory explanation to my readers who queried my silence over the matter. Tuwon girma, miyarsa nama. Besides, I have the experience of the IMF loan/SAP debate during General Babangida. It was a fruitless debate. He threw it into the dustbin and went ahead to implement SAP and collect various kinds of loans before leaving office.
Many other Nigerians have chosen to participate in the current debate. However they modified the topic. None of them is advising government on how to go about withdrawing the subsidy; they have instead chosen to lecture the Professor, the Vice-President and the President on the undesirability of doing so. My Zoology Professor once told me about a student who was asked to write an essay about Paul in an examination. Knowing nothing about it, he decided to query the examiners, saying, “Why should I write about Paul, instead of my saviour Jesus Christ?” So he went ahead to write an essay of Jesus (may Blessings of God be upon Him) and of course failed the examination.
That failure is what I fear will happen to those advising government on deregulation of petroleum products; more so when the examiners are failures themselves. They may cancel the script and damn the consequences.
Perhaps seeing the dimension which the debate has taken, government has come out to tell the world why it is deregulating. I do not think anyone has said more than the President. Instead of quoting someone or paraphrasing, I would rather like my readers to hear from the horse’s mouth. Mr. President Sir:
“If the government succeeds in removing subsidy on petroleum, states and local governments will gain an average of 50 per cent in revenue than what they now collect from the federation account.”
So one of the premises is that there is a benefit to be derived from the removal of the subsidy. Government revenue will increase by 50%. But before we attach any truth-value to that statement, let us examine a much more touted premise. Once more, Mr. President, Sir:
“Government in short has compounded her problems by not only diverting money for development purposes to the rich, but by further widening the gap between the rich and the poor with additional disempowerment of the disadvantaged.”
This second premise is double-barrelled. It projects, one, the familiar argument of government that by withdrawing the subsidy it will rid the distribution of petroleum products of the corruption that has characterised it for a decade now. Two, it is positing the scarcity of fuel in the province of a class struggle between “the rich and the poor”. In that struggle government is claiming to be on the side of the latter. It has calculated, by the logic of the President, that the best way of siding with the poor is to empower them by withdrawing fuel subsidy! Impliedly, there will be no longer be any subsidy trickling down to the only poor to be intercepted by the rich.
It is apparent from the President’s argument that there exists a class of “the rich” that has defied the law and which government cannot bring to book. Instead, the administration is choosing an easier target: the poor, which it claims to represent and protect. It has thus failed to see the problem as one caused by the very existence of “the rich”; in its place it lays its blame squarely on the subsidy, and by inference the existence of the poor to whom the subsidy was targeted.
This is unfortunate. Was this not the same Obasanjo who promised Nigerians on May 29, 1999 at Eagle Square that he would not tolerate sacred cows? If the people he describes as ‘the rich’ cannot be made subjects of the law, what then could they be other than sacred cows? A question worth asking is: Could an Executive President in a developing country claim to be so inept?
The issue at hand is corruption. Nothing else. How could a President that has promised to fight corruption suggest that few corrupt NNPC officials and a handful of marketers cannot be brought to book by that law? Does he lack the legislation that will empower him to fight against them? No. He has a new bill at hand specifically meant for that. Doesn’t he have at his disposal agencies necessary to enforce the law? Yes. He has the police and the custom, and where the two prove incapable, like in Odi, he can draft in the soldiers. He also has the structures required to punish offenders: the judiciary, the prison and, where necessary, the rope to hang anyone that deserves death. Why should anyone then be allowed to live above the law?
We shall return to this argument in the concluding part of the article. Meanwhile let us examine closely the first premise that state and local governments will earn 50% more than their present allocations. I very much doubt the strength of this argument and the accuracy of its arithmetic. From where will this money come? Certainly not from the withdrawn subsidy because the same government has valued the subsidy at N200billion, a figure contested by many Nigerians, among them people who once occupied the position of Obasanjo.
The trouble is whichever way you look at it, either from the perspective of history or that of mathematics, the President has been given a wrong figure. First, how much has been realised from the withdrawal of subsidy during Abacha? We can arrive at that figure by easily asking what PTF used during its three-year tenure. It was a paltry N110billion. Unless the present administration is going to charge Nigerians at over N60/litre, it will be difficult for the government to realize N200billion annually from the subsidy.
Mathematically, within the borders of Nigeria we can reject Einstein’s relativity and safely assume the obvious that 2 + 2 = 4. Now, if government will gain 50% additional revenue, does it mean that the total annual revenue accruing from the oil sector is presently N400billion? There is no way that half of N200million will be equal to half the combined subventions of state and local governments per annum. According to recent government statistics, states and local governments got N77.6billion as subvention for last March. If they were to gain 50% over and above their present allocation they would need something well above N200billion…
The most important question however is how true is it that with the removal of subsidy alone, ‘the rich’ will be compelled to abandon what the president called “additional disempowerment of the disadvantaged?” In logic, the argument is evidently worthless in that it is neither deductively valid nor inductively strong. Those that “disempower” the masses in this country are government officials, and in this case, the corruption starts at the depots, a fact well known to the President. He recently sacked one of the depot chiefs. How are we sure even if petrol were to sell at N100/litre, the same officers will not demand ‘something’ before loading a fuel tanker? How certain are we that the marketer who benefits today from such a deal will not attempt to corrupt the NNPC or depot officials tomorrow? Is the fuel of N100/litre more difficult to divert than that of N22.00/litre of the same volume? Why do we think that the entire swarm of beneficiaries of the present corrupt system, including the roadside ‘yan cuwa cuwa, will give up what has turned out to be the most lucrative profession in Nigeria, simply because subsidy has been removed?
The crux of the matter is distribution, not pricing. The NNPC has repeatedly mentioned that on several occasions there has been enough fuel for all but for the economic sabotage of few individuals the scarcity persists. The issue to tackle is therefore corruption. That is why it has persisted for ten years now. Each time there is a real or artificial fuel scarcity, government seize the opportunity to remove its subsidy. In effect however, the strategy never worked. Some people even proffer that the converse is true. They claim that government deliberately encourage the scarcity such that it can use it as a pretext to increase the pump price of fuel.
We have all along assumed in this article that subsidy does exist, something that the NLC leader has attempted to debunk. The fact is that we need an impartial authority to tell us the cost of a subsidy-free litre of petrol. As a layman I can defend the existence of a subsidy based on inflation in the price of crude oil in the world market or the devaluation of our local currency. What I cannot understand is how subsidy returned after it was wiped out just two years ago by Abdulsalami, to the satisfaction of the marketers. So delighted were the marketers that, according to Abdulsalami’s Chief Press Secretary - Mohammed Haruna - they paid a courtesy call to Aso Rock villa where they expressed their delight and assured government that henceforth fuel will flow. But it never did.
Talking about subsidy could itself be irritating because if America and Britain, as net oil importing countries, have removed subsidies on petroleum products, why should Nigeria, an OPEC country, withdraw same? If subsidy is removed from fuel and fertilizer, what else does the “disadvantaged” benefit from? Security, health, education, social welfare, as found in industrialized countries? Not in this country anymore.
Obasanjo should face the fact. Nothing will save him from failure except proving to Nigerians that he fears no one, that he is ready to fight corruption. All his arguments about the benefits of withdrawing subsidy have proved fallacious in the past. No corrupt NNPC official or oil marketer will desist from his misconduct until and unless law forces him to do so. They have tasted the sweetness of the forbidden fruit. They have become criminals on earth, sinners in heaven. Unlike Adam, they have refused to repent.
Rule of Law is therefore the answer. Once erring officials are sacked and imprisoned, those replacing them will play the safe card. Once tankers are confiscated and their owners sent to jail, people will desist from diverting fuel or smuggling it through our borders. Murtala and Buhari have proved that Nigerians are cowards. Whenever they are sure that the law will exact the maximum from them, they will shrink like snails into their shells.
Someone would argue that this is a democracy, not a dictatorship. The fact is one. The President is free to initiate any law, and Nigerians through the National Assembly, particularly on the issue of fuel scarcity, will be willing to give him any quantum of support. We have suffered too much. We do not mind a law that will prescribe death penalty on economic saboteurs. That is democracy, the freedom to legislate whatever we feel is imperative to our collective good. What we lack is a President that has the courage to enforce it.
The issue at hand is corruption that has perverted not only NNPC and its depot but also government entirely. If the subsidy is removed, one is tempted to ask, through which channel would the money realised reach the common man? Will it not be through the same corrupt government officials at federal, state and local government levels who have always intercepted every good meant for the masses and who have overnight become millionaires, no thanks to the permissiveness of the President?
Nigerians know so much now because they have experienced enough in the past fifteen years. They can no longer be fooled by IMF/World Bank vocabulary or logic anymore. We repeat, the problem is corruption and the President is incapable of fighting it. I cannot remember him fighting corruption when he took over after Murtala. The fact remains that Murtala died with his anti-corruption campaign and the two were buried together. If he were to reincarnate and see the enormous wealth gathered by three of his ‘comrades’ who ruled Nigeria after him, he would certainly prefer the peace of the graveyard.
So let Obasanjo leave us alone in our suffering. If he cannot improve on the situation, we will be glad if, when he leaves office one day – a fact that is as certain as the death of the living – we will not be worse of. Agreed that he has already decided to remove the subsidy, he will nevertheless not prevent historians from writing the simple truth that during his tenure, Nigerians found themselves between greedy officials and one of the most ineffective leadership in their history.
9 March 2001