| By Dan Agbese |
NO protests and the sky has not fallen? It beggars belief. Yet, listen to this: fuel subsidy, one of the major sources of corruption and easy wealth in the oil industry, became history from day one, month one, in this new year, 2016, on the Gregorian calendar. It is safe to say it is now chained to the millstone of our recent, dark, thieving past.
This was one rogue everyone thought was both impregnable and larger than life. It was not for nothing. Anyone who tried to step on it found there were powerful toes along the path. Those toes belonged to powerful men and women in the commanding heights of our political and economic leadership. Political survival always advised the wisdom of leaving such toes alone to avoid incurring the deadly wrath of their powerful owners.
Over the years, the fear of removing fuel subsidy became politics 101. It taught you elementary lessons on the clear and present danger of touching the anointed and possibly unleashing unimaginable social, economic and political repercussions on the country. And so, for many years, we lived under the shadow of powerful men, women, their children and their business compradors who presided over the fuel subsidy empire. They were the untouchables.
Yet, here is what 2016 has brought us: the end of the fuel subsidy regime. Add to it the surprising availability of petroleum products at lower prices – and you have a fair idea of what change, real change, means to this hapless country and its people so cynically raped by those to whom they trusted their protection. President Muhammadu Buhari has wrestled this monster to the ground. I can almost hear people, including labour leaders, shout hurrah!
The removal of fuel subsidy this month may mark a watershed in our long but so far unimpressive battle against corruption. This country will never know what it has lost to fuel subsidy. It flowered under President Goodluck Jonathan with the 2011 elections marking its apogee. We cannot even talk of recovering part of the money. When the scandal broke, EFCC under Lamorde stepped in to put the many fake fuel importers on trial for taking money but rendering no services. I think when the commission found where the trail led from the approving authorities to those who authorised the payments, it advised itself that discretion was the secret of survival in a sensitive public office such as the chairmanship of the commission. The trail went cold.
Buhari makes the difference today in this messy business because he has what it takes to lead.
The will to fight and the will to win and the will to rescue our country from the clutches of the venal and the corrupt should give us some hope that with a man of uncommon will leading us, no matter how long the bad guys hold sway, feeding fat at our collective expense, every evil, being man-made would also be destroyed by man. I did not expect this to sound preachy.
But let us not entertain any illusions about this. This, certainly, is not the end of the story. Evil has a tendency to fight back. This one will for the simple reason that big men and women do not like to be turned into former big men and women.
It has been a long struggle to make the petroleum industry do right by the people of this country. We are victims of its vagaries and price instability in the international market. For years, we wrestled with the proper prices for these products. Each time government contemplated increasing the pump price by as little as one Naira the do-gooders who loved the poor, managed to persuade government to put in place some palliatives to cushion the effect on the poor. Former President Ibrahim Babangida once responded to this by creating petroleum price differentials: lower prices for commercial vehicles and high prices for private motorists. It did not work.
General Sani Abacha created the Petroleum Trust Fund, PTF with about one third of the price increase. I found that pretty creative. The fund, headed by Buhari, did titanic things – fixing roads, rehabilitating schools and hospitals, etc. If the fund had not existed and if Buhari had not executed its mandate the way he did, nearly all the federal roads in the country would be in such a sorry state of disrepair today that road travel would be worse than the nightmare it is now.
Yet, as successful and as right-headed as PTF was, it was an ad hoc state response to a messy interplay of market forces in the down stream sector of our petroleum industry. In other words, it was still a palliative whose survival was subject to the whims of the next powerful man to chance along, as indeed, it was the case with its fate under Obasanjo.
Obasanjo increased the pump prices of our petroleum products three times in eight years. Each time he did, he trundled across the path some palliatives he believed would protect the poor from the effects of higher food, transportation and other costs. He set up a committee under the then deputy senate president, Alhjai Ibrahim Mantu, to advise him on how his third time increase in petroleum prices would not hurt the poor. That committee recommended that federal and state governments should purchase mini buses and Keke Napep for sale to bona fide transporters at subsidised prices and who would then pass the same to the poor. Obasanjo, of course, knew this would not fly but but he was mindful of the fact that when you waste money in the name of the poor it is assumed it translates into empathic governance.
So, no one cringed at the thought of wasting so much money to tackle a problem caused by the government in the first place. State governors who believed in Obasanjo’s omniscience, bought hundreds of mini buses and Keke Napep. There were no takers. The only people who laughed to the banks were, as usual, the contractors. Once again, the poor for whose sake the money was wasted were cheated in several ways. In their names, contractors and transporters became richer. It is the way the cookies have always crumbled.
We have all been victims of mass deception. For years, we mouthed the interest of the poor as the reason for the phantom fuel subsidy. Labour was persuaded that subsidy was the only rightful share the poor were entitled to from the largess of their country’s oil wealth. And labour leaders put up strenuous fights to prevent anyone from removing fuel subsidy. It is interesting that although none of us could point to how the poor benefited from the fuel subsidy, we still defended it with our might and main.
As you can see, it takes the will to make the difference. Obasanjo molly-cuddled his own conscience in the name of protecting the interests of the poor. Fuel subsidy became the defining article of faith in the Jonathan government. It flourished. Billionaires and millionaires were minted in the time it took to say subsidy. It all left the poor and our dear country poorer. Yes, you got it: what was lacking was the will to tackle the unpleasant. I suppose the scale has fallen from our eyes. May we, the people, never be deceived again into supporting and perpetuating fiction to our collective detriment.
— Jan 11, 2016 @ 14:30 GMT