The Fuel Subsidy Trigger
By Dr. Aliyu U. Tilde
President Jonathan represents a paradox. He is always quick to plead for leniency in expectations. "I am not David...or an army general", he declared in a church service two months ago. He only abides by the Hidden Hand of destiny that made him the President, he explained. With this property, one expects him to be passive and less ambitious than his predecessors who attempted to play God.
His actual ambitions, however, defy his unassuming mien. He has so far proposed two projects that have demystified three powerful generals before him. Amidst serious national security challenges that confined him to the Villa, the President proposed to the National Assembly the one-term elongated tenure bill. Though I reliably learned that the proposal was indeed borne out of his long standing conviction that second tenure kills executive initiatives and that he does not intend to benefit from it, the President was just too simple in hoping that his good intention alone was enough to overcome the public skepticism that would kill the bill even before it reaches the floor of the parliament, particularly when the memories of Obasanjo’s Third Term agenda are still fresh. Where does the bill stand right now? What made the President hope that he would succeed where the generals failed?
Removal of fuel subsidy is another task that has defeated generals before Jonathan. This ambition has so far survived every President since Babangida, except Shonekan and Abdulsalami Abubakar whose sleeps were too brief to entertain the dream. In the end, those generals consoled themselves with increasing pump price when they failed to remove the subsidy completely. This President is again giving it a shot and his attempt is already greeted with deafening protests from every Nigerian outside the executive arm of government. Nigerians are neither attracted by the pretext of his argument nor lured by its promise.
Telling Nigerians that money 'saved' from the subsidy will be used to advance their welfare is an old tale narrated by previous administrations. It was told by moonlight; by dawn it was gone. Nigerians are not ready to squander their hope on what they perceive as another empty promise, especially given the lightening speed with which the notorious Governors Forum approved it.
The pretext is more compelling to rejection. The teacher in the President exposed him to divulge that the removal is necessary to deny the syndicate of oil importers the bumper harvest of N800billion annually. This invited Nigerians to wonder why a President and Commander in Chief would choose curb a corrupt practice by punishing its victims and pardoning the culprits.
His meeting with members of National Assembly yesterday was an eye opener to the impossibility of his task. They will kill it on the floor of the house as they killed the 'Sad Term' of Obasanjo. Other Nigerians will be waiting. Labour in particular has made it categorically clear that it will fight the increase to the last man. Ordinary Nigerians may take to the streets. The President may not find supporters even among the clergy that dignified every mistake he committed before. The support by the President of the Christian Association of Nigeria was met with immediate dissociation from his members. The cleric had to disclaim it unreservedly, realizing that unlike during the elections, Nigerians cannot be persuaded to empty their pockets at the altar of religious sentiment. It seems that the President has crossed the line.
There are unverified reports that the President is even threatening to resign should the proposal fail. I am not worried that much because in spite of his strong conviction on the necessity of removing the subsidy the President will soon yield to abandon it. As he retreats, he may find consolation that even generals have retreated from that front. Or as Abu Zaid would coin it in The Assemblies of al-Hariri:
"If your request is turned down, do not feel ashamed. Verily Musa and Khidr were turned down before."
As they sleep in the cozy beds of the Villa, Nigerian Presidents are bound to have all sorts of dreams, good and bad. That of removing fuel subsidy is a bad one, Jonathan must know. He must also be wise enough to make his ambition a function of his capacity. He must know his limits and abide by them. By this measure, a wise counsel will tell the President to forget removing the fuel subsidy. Instead, he should use the instrument of law to fight the cartel that is feeding fat on the blood of the lean Nigetian masses. It is better to die a martyr of a just cause than waste his time pursuing a bad dream.
However, should the President persist and effect the removal, I am afraid that it may just be the Bouazizi trigger we waiting for so long. In that case the paradox of the President would be a blessing to celebrate. So much fuel has accumulated on the floor of the Nigerian political forest. The spark needed to start its conflagration may just be around. From its ashes a better nation may sprout again.