To all the 2012 hypocrites now turned today’s yes-men – Abati

Editor’s note: The government of President Muhammadu
Buhari has last week announced the removal of fuel
subsidy and the hike in fuel price. This move caused a short
strike by the Nigeria Labour Congress. Reuben Abati,
former presidential spokesperson of Goodluck Jonathan,
shares his views on why Buhari’s decision differs from that
of Jonathan in 2012.

Protest against fuel price hike
A decision to deregulate the downstream petroleum
sector in 2012
This thing called democracy, particularly the Nigerian
brand, never ceases to throw up new and intriguing lessons
about the relationship between government and the
people, and the larger, complex socio-political
environment. I had gone to Lagos on an assignment in the
last two days of the year 2011, when around midnight I
received a phone call from someone close to the corridors
of power, informing me that a meeting had just been
concluded in Abuja where a decision had been taken to
deregulate the downstream petroleum sector, and thus, in
effect remove the subsidy on Premium Motor Spirit (petrol).
I told him I was aware of plans to that effect, since the
president had been holding a series of meetings with
various stakeholders and constituencies on the same
subject, but as at the time I left for Lagos, no final decision
had been taken. The fellow insisted he knew what he was
talking about and that in the morning, the Petroleum
Products Pricing Regulation Agency (PPPRA) would make
the announcement.
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Sometimes in the corridors of power, informal stakeholders
could enjoy faster access and be even more powerful than
persons with formal responsibilities. There are persons and
groups whose livelihoods are so dependent on government
and the people in power that even a whisper at the highest
level resonates immediately as an echo in their ears. I
learnt very early never to underestimate such persons.
The end of the honeymoon with the Jonathan
administration
As it turned out, Nigerians were greeted with the Happy
New Year news of deregulation of the downstream sector
on January 1, 2012 and if you’d remember, hell broke
loose. It was the end of the Nigerian people’s honeymoon
with the Jonathan administration, the beginning of a long
nightmare, and an opportunity for the opposition to launch
an unending campaign of blackmail, name-calling and
abuse against the administration. I received an early
morning summon to leave Lagos and return immediately to
the Villa.
The Jonathan administration was definitely not the first to
seek to deregulate the downstream sector and end a
regime of subsidy, as a means of ensuring greater
transparency, efficiency and competition. Since 1987, every
administration had tried to manage this aspect of the curse
of oil. Nigeria is the sixth largest producer of oil in OPEC,
and the second largest exporter of the product in Africa, at
a time after Libya, at other times, after Angola. But the big
problem has always been making the product available to
Nigerians at home, in an efficient manner and as they say,
at an “appropriate” or “correct” price. The mismanagement
of oil resource, which accounts for about 90% of the
country’s exports, is at the heart of corruption in Nigeria.
The collapse of the country’s refineries
Years of inefficiency and graft had resulted in the collapse
of the country’s refineries, from low capacity utilization to
eventual collapse, persistent scarcity of the product, large
scale smuggling, the rise of an oil industry cabal, violence in
the Niger Delta, oil theft, pipeline vandalism, and all the
evils of irresponsible leadership. From being a major
exporter of crude oil, Nigeria soon became a major
importer of finished petroleum products, and as
international spot prices were volatile, government
provided private importers of refined products, a subsidy
that took care of landing costs that could have been passed
on to the people. But the subsidy continued to grow out of
proportion, becoming a major drain on the country’s
finances – from 1.42% of GDP in 1987, it grew to about 3%
of GDP in 2011.
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Every administration sought to check the resultant crisis
through price controls or gradual deregulation. The
people’s counter-argument and the source of the angry
protests that always followed was that Nigerians should not
be made to pay heavily for a God-given resource, and that
if the refineries were to function efficiently and government
officials would moderate their greed, Nigerians would not
need to buy petroleum products at the most expensive
rates in OPEC. The Nigerian Labour Congress (NLC),
supported by other groups in civil society, led the protests
against every attempt at deregulation, compelling virtually
every administration since 1987, to review proposed
increases in the pump price of fuel in order to pacify the
people. Only Diesel (AGO) and Low Pour Fuel Oil (LPFO)
were successfully deregulated in 2009. By 2011, the regime
of PMS subsidy had become unsustainable. The decision to
fully deregulate the downstream sector in 2012 was the
boldest policy move by the Jonathan administration but it
was also the costliest.
What happened next?
The NLC and the Trade Union Congress (TUC), and their
affiliate unions together with civil society groups took to the
streets and shut down the country. The main opposition
party, the then Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN) went into a
propaganda overdrive, throwing every possible mud at the
president and the administration. In Ojota, Lagos, the
opposition organized anti-Jonathan and anti-government
rallies. “Paid” and mobilized youths and musicians, wearing
designer T-shirts, voiced expletives, danced, and screamed;
in other parts of the country, the protests resulted in
violence and the death of many. This was the season of the
Arab Spring, and those who launched what became known
as the #OcccupyNigeria movement was convinced that this
was the best time to demonstrate the superiority of people-
power over government policies. Every day in the villa, at
the time, we agonized over what had become a frightening
assault on the administration.
President Jonathan was the country’s first Facebook
President, the first president to use the social media to run
an election campaign, globally he was second only to
President Obama in terms of Facebook followership, but in
the face of the 2012 fuel subsidy protests, that same online
advantage became his nemesis.
Young people, excited by the idea of an “Ojota Spring”
deployed online hashtags to tear down the administration.
Government officials also took to the media to explain the
deregulation policy to the people. Ministers were
dispatched to their various political constituencies to
explain, communicate and convince, thus: defending the
government became a test of loyalty. In my case, before
going to work in the public sector, I had written an article in
2009, in which I opposed deregulation and predicted that
the government was so wrong it would soon mislead
Nigerians to such a day when we, the people, would soon
start trekking or riding bicycles, no thanks to official voodoo
economics and incompetence. Access to more detailed
information about the extent of the corruption in the oil
and gas sector later made me to review my initial
objections to the policy of deregulation. Nigeria would be
doomed if it continued to rob the poor to enrich the rich
and thus through subsidy payments sustain a tradition of
theft and wealth without work.
READ ALSO: After the first day of strike read what NLC plans
to do next
That article was dredged up nonetheless and circulated
widely and I got called all kinds of names, including being
called a “turn-coat”. It was a trying time for the Jonathan
administration: myths over-shadowed reason. The
government was accused of acting hastily and failing to
consult widely. But that was not true. Weeks before a
decision was taken, President Goodluck Jonathan
personally met with state governors, labour leaders, media
chiefs, youth groups, civic and cultural organizations,
leaders of thought, traditional rulers, oil marketers and
importers. Behind closed doors, labour leaders and leaders
of the ACN did not oppose the deregulation policy. I recall
the union leaders only asking for palliatives and the ACN
submitting a detailed policy implementation paper.
Let us now fast forward to 2016:
The present administration has again, like the Jonathan
administration, announced a removal of subsidy. The
pump price of petrol is now officially N145 per litre. The
objectives and the arguments are the same as in the past.
But the context is different. Those who fuelled and funded
the protests of 2012 are either quiet or openly supportive
or apologetic as they now defend the principled position
they once abandoned. The labour unions are factionalized,
there is no co-ordinated protest, the media, the people and
the civil society are indifferent, the government is not under
any pressure to convince anyone: same policy, same issues,
but different politics! My prediction that one day, we
will all ride bicycles or trek to work has now come to pass.
But if that is the sacrifice Nigerians have to make to end the
outright brigandage in the downstream sector, so be it,
please. Putting the subsidy thieves to shame, ending a
subsidy regime that encouraged round-tripping, rent
collection, smuggling, instant gratification, theft, insincerity,
blackmail, and cabalism may well become President
Buhari’s most important legacy. This could have been done
since 2012, but the politicians, desperately seeking power
and office, failed to put Nigeria first, and looking back, it
seems all the young men and women who died in that
season did so in vain. Politicians must learn not to play
politics with people’s lives for reasons of selfish
convenience. President Buhari must stand firm but let him
also take steps to ensure that local refining is restored and
let him keep an eye on those saboteurs who always
manage to find a way around every public policy. And to all
the 2012 hypocrites now turned today’s yes-men: una do
well o.
This article expresses the authors’ opinion only. The views
and opinions expressed here do not necessarily represent
those of NAIJ.com or its editors.
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