Hikes in Utilities Charges and Ominous Signs Ahead



By Joseph Ushigiale

It was Spanish Philosopher and writer, George Santayana who first penned the phrase ‘Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.’ Santayana was hitting at the core human frailty of forgetfulness or if you want, lousiness or our inability to take responsibilities when they matter the most.

And because we often fail to repeatedly learn the lessons from history, we have the tendencies of falling into the same traps that we should have ordinarily avoided based on our commonsense.

Today, we are on a threshold of history as those things that happened in 1983, almost 37 years ago are coming back to haunt us big time. But how did we get to this situation? Well in the words of French Philosopher Joseph de Maistre, ‘every nation deserves a government it gets,’ nothing can be more apt than what is currently ruing Nigeria today.

Nigerians are gradually turning out to be the most unlucky set of humans ever created by God going by the way they are being treated by the same people they entrusted and sealed a social contract with – their government.

It is perhaps only in Nigeria that the government is insensitive to the sufferings impacted on the citizenry by the COVID-19 pandemic and is bent on forcing more bitter pills for them to swallow.

In one fell swoop, fuel price has increased, electricity tariffs reviewed upwards by 100%, naira devalued over 300% and exchanging for over N440 to $(USD), a bag of parboiled rice now sells for N30,000; ditto the prices for other foodstuff that have already hit the roof, interest rate on savings reviewed downwards by 50%. The current government insensitive attitude towards the people is emboldening utility providers like South Africa owned Multichoice and Remita, who also know there shall be no consequence, have the effrontery to follow suit by arbitrarily increasing tariff and imposing charges on water bills as is the case with Remita.

How did we get here? This journey all started in 1983, when Muhammadu Buhari, then a Major General and his band of coupists overthrew the democratically elected government of Alhaji Shehu Shagari of the National Party of Nigeria (NPN). Shagari had only been in power for four years and was beginning his second term when Buhari struck.

Justifying the military take over, Buhari said “The change became necessary in order to put an end to the serious economic predicament and the crisis of confidence now afflicting our nation. It is true that there is a worldwide economic recession. “However, in the case of Nigeria, its impact was aggravated by mismanagement. We believe the appropriate government agencies have good advice but the leadership disregarded their advice. The situation could have been avoided if the legislators were alive to their constitutional responsibilities; Instead, the legislators were preoccupied with determining their salary scales, fringe benefit and unnecessary foreign travels, et al, which took no account of the state of the economy and the welfare of the people they represented.”

Hear what Buhari who claimed he was on a rescue mission said he would do in the case of workers who were owed over eight months salaries “Let no one however be deceived that workers who have not received their salaries in the past eight or so months will receive such salaries within today or tomorrow or that hospitals which have been without drugs for months will be provided with enough immediately. We are determined that with the help of God we shall do our best to settle genuine payments to which government is committed, including backlog of workers’ salaries after scrutiny.”

For a regime that was on a rescue mission, by his speech, it was apparent they had no plans to salvage or correct whatever they deemed wrong in the country if the welfare of the people was not a priority.

He went on the accuse the Shagari government of running the economy aground, arguing that “As a result of our inability to cultivate financial discipline and prudent management of the economy, we have come to depend largely on internal and external borrowing to execute government projects with attendant domestic pressure and soaring external debts, thus aggravating the propensity of the outgoing civilian administration to mismanaged our financial resources. Nigeria was already condemned perpetually with the twin problem of heavy budget deficits and weak balance of payments position, with the prospect of building a virile and viable economy.”

Less than two years into his reign, several top politicians were arrested and handed long convictions for alleged corruption; he ruled by the jackboot. People started grumbling as the economy rather than improving was going worse and his government became repressive, curtailing freedom of expression, censored the press with Decree 2 and 4. It was not long, his colleague could no longer tolerate his tardiness. Buhari was overthrown by yet another army general, Ibrahim Babaginda.

In his inaugural nationwide speech, Babangida had this to say about why Buhari had to be shoved aside: “The principles of discussions, consultation and co-operation which should have guided decision-making process of the Supreme Military Council and the Federal Executive Council were disregarded soon after the government settled down in 1984.

“Where some of us thought it appropriate to give a little more time, anticipating a conducive atmosphere that would develop, in which affairs of state could be attended to with greater sense of responsibility, it became increasingly clear that such expectations could not be fulfilled.

“Regrettably, it turned out that Major-General Muhammadu Buhari was too rigid and uncompromising in his attitudes to issues of national significance. Efforts to make him understand that a diverse polity like Nigeria required recognition and appreciation of differences in both cultural and individual perceptions, only served to aggravate these attitudes”,Babangida pointed out.

However, in 2001, undaunted by his previous setbacks and apparently convinced he was the messiah who still had something to offer, he began his quest for the presidency. He contested against then President Olusegun Obasanjo in 2003 and failed. He repeated against the late President Umaru Yar’Adua and failed. He ran against then President Goodluck Jonathan and lost. At that point, Nigerians were beginning to see him in the mould of late Chief Obafemi Awolowo as possibly the best President they never have.

However, in 2015, either out of mother luck, providence or both, Buhari managed to clinch the presidency. He did not only clinched the presidency, he made history by defeating a sitting president, a feat that is remarkable by all standards. The victory was significant not only to Buhari, to a large extent, many Nigerians who backed his presidential ambition finally gave a great sigh of relief hoping that at last, the messiah had come. How wrong they were.

It is been five years since Buhari ascended the presidency and rather than smiling, Nigerians are reaping sorrows, tears and no joy at all. First, in the area of security, Buhari with his military background and exploits in the battle field was trusted to be the right person to end the internecine Boko Haram insurgency that has held parts of North-east of the country in a vice grip for several years.

Regrettably, more Nigerians estimated at over 3000 under this administration, according to the international crisis group, have reportedly lost their lives as a result of Boko haram insurgency. The figures are even higher when you kick in the activities of the Fulani herdsmen and other sundry armed militias from neighbouring countries who pour into Nigeria unchallenged some of who take to crime, raping women, rustling cattle, engaging in kidnapping and armed banditry activities.

On the economic front, this administration has failed woefully. It is on record that the country is dipping into recession twice in five years under its watch. Every conceivable economic indices that should make growth possible is on a downward spiral.

With the Central Bank of Nigeria still retaining three exchange rates regimes, the naira has suffered interminable devaluation under Buhari than any other administration before him. After promising to make the naira exchange for one USD, he took over in 2015 with the exchange rate at N200 exchanging for $1.

Today, the naira is exchanging for N440 after previously hitting an all time high of N520 to $1.

Inflation is in double digits peaking at 12.5% according to the latest figures from the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS). The coronary to this is that the ripple effects are already manifesting in other areas of the already battered economy where the world bank recently reported that Nigeria’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) declined by -6.1%.

With growing discontent across the country over the way the country is being run by the administration, how would Buhari respond to a possible backlash to his latest hikes in cost of utilities by the people? Is he going to be repressive, seek dialogue, capitulate or simply throw in the towel?

If we are to follow antecedents, Buhari himself, a veteran in civil disobedience, it would be recalled lead his cohorts of civil liberties organisations to protest the hike in fuel price under the Goodluck Jonathan regime. At that time, the Jonathan administration with full incumbency powers did not roll out the tanks, no one was killed and neither the army no police were called out to the streets to confront Buhari and his co-protesters. It appears history is about to repeat itself.

Let us be clear, Buhari has been the luckiest President who enjoyed the tremendous goodwill of Nigerians. They shunned his glaring shortcomings to gift him the presidency. Under Buhari, Nigerians sacrificed and endured a grueling fuel price increase from N87 to N143 per litre in just one day. The list is endless.

However, as ominous signs are building up as a result of these latest unpopular policies, it has to be put on record what truly irks Nigerians with these latest policies which are perceived by majority of Nigerians as the height of insensitivity and impunity on the people.

Nigerians are angry with the latest fuel price hike because, they failed to see any tangible milestones promised them as reasons for the hike in fuel price in 2015. Most importantly, Nigerians believe that locally refined petroleum products are by far cheaper for them than the imported variant with all the landing charges and cost being passed on to them.

They are therefore blaming the administration for failing in the last five to find a local solution to a festering local problem arguing that had government fixed the local refineries to provide alternative to importation, there would have no need to hike fuel prices because the ex-refineries prices would have still been by far cheaper and affordable than what obtains currently.

On the new electricity tariffs, the anger emanates from the thinking that government has failed to protect the people from incessant darkness that has become the bane of the discos. Now with these new tariffs, what is the guarantee that the discos would supply 100% electricity to the consumers that is commensurate to the new tariffs approved for them?

It has been clear to this administration since inception that those to whom PHCN was unbundled to lack both financial and technical capacities to turn our energy sector around. In five years, it only succeeded in penning a deal with Siemens in a deal many scoff at as amounting to putting one’s eggs in a basket.

Despite the much vaunted rice revolution that the administration deludes itself with all over the place, the truth is that demand remains very high for the staple and the supply is inadequate because the quantum of rice harvested from government intervention is hardly enough to feed Nigerians in a month. Therefore, the price of rice has skyrocketed from N8000 per bag under Jonathan regime to N30000 in the open market today. Yet, government claims it has achieved self sufficiency in rice production. Where and how?

While the Civil Society Organisations, Civil Liberty Organisations and the organised Labour who championed this cause in the past are still in limbo, my word of caution to the administration is to thread very carefully because tomorrow very pregnant. Buhari should reflect quite deeply how he would want Nigerians to remember him. So far, it is not Uhuru.

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