Between Policies and Poisonous Chalice

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Emmanuel Onwubiko
Recently, some supposed Lawyers from Northern Nigeria, namely, Nuhu Ibrahim, and Abdulbasit Suleiman basking in the euphoria of their self importance or perhaps, craving for cheap fame, but clearly actuated by rather parochial and conceited motives, declared their intention to float a “New Nigerian Bar Association” in a widely circulated press release over what they described as “the recent rumblings from the Nigerian Bar Association”.

What is Nigeria to me?

Millions of Nigerians, who woke up few days back and witnessed the cruelest policy of a government represented by the sudden hikes in electricity and petrol pump price, understandably are seeking the best answer to the question: what is Nigeria to me?
Professor Chinua Achebe, easily one of the best literary gifts God gave to the black world, attempted a response to this question in his collection of essays titled: “The Education of a British Protected Child”. His words; “Nigerian nationality was for me and my generation an acquired taste-like cheese. Or better still, like ballroom dancing. Not dancing per se, for this came naturally; but this titillating version of slow-slow-quick-quick-slow performed in close body contact with a female against a strange, elusive beat. I found, however, that once I had overcome my initial awkwardness I could do it pretty well”.

Achebe continued:“Perhaps these irreverent analogies would only occur to someone like me, born into a strongly multiethnic, multilingual, multireligious, somewhat chaotic colonial situation. The first passport I ever carried described me as a “British Protected Person”, an unexciting identity embodied in a phrase that no one was likely to die for. I don’t mean it was entirely devoid of emotive meaning. After all, “British” meant you were located somewhere in the flaming red portion of the world map that covered a quarter of the entire globe in those days and was called “the British Empire, where the sun never sets. “It had a good ring to it in my childhood ears – a magical fraternity, vague but vicariously glorious”.
To the contemporary Nigerian, Nigeria is a country that cares more for the political class than for the commoners, because politics has largely turned into the ‘survival of the fittest’ just as ‘might has become right’. Government churns out policies without bearing in mind the import of government as encapsulated in the Nigerian Constitution, which is to secure Nigerians and to guarantee welfare of the citizens. The law made these, the primary purpose of governance.

In the face of this challenge, it is important that President Muhammadu Buhari does not push Nigerians to the wall, apparently hoping that members of the security forces would always be favourably disposed to be used as disposal agents of mass killings, to stop aggrieved citizens from voicing out their rejection of these spate of evil minded policies which will inevitably push millions of Nigerians to the precipice and cast the citizens into a state of poverty, penury and pain in the shortest possible period, if these hikes in the prices of petrol and electricity are not immediately annulled.
This reminds us all of the whole essence of appropriate use of governmental power, to promote public good.

This theme was reflected in the work of a law scholar of Harvard
University and erstwhile Executive Chairman of the National Electricity Regulatory Commission (NERC) Dr. Sam Amadi in his book titled: “Privatisation and Public Good: the Rule of Law Challenge”.

In that book, the public policy analyst said: “But, all the gains of privatisation can become chimera, if the regulatory environment is not clarified. The success of privatisation, or its appeal, is based on the proposition that a competitive market ensures better allocation of resources. Where the market works efficiently, that is, where the assumptions of a perfect market exist, there is little doubt that the market will ensure a more effective allocation than ration or any other mode of settling the problem of scarcity. But, in reality, a perfect market rarely exists. In Nigeria and other underdeveloped economies, functional markets rarely exist. Regulation is one process of ensuring that something close to a perfect market exists after privatisation, including that privatisation may become a process of creating a monopoly or entrenching an unfair market power. From the perspective of poverty and human rights, regulation is important as a control on privatisation to ensure it does not work to aggravate poverty”.
It is doubtful if this is the approach of the current Federal Government in Nigeria.

Responsibilities of Government to Citizens
All this also bring us to another equally important question of what are the responsibilities of a government to the citizens.
When these responsibilities are stated out, we can then proceed to assert that it is insensitive, irresponsible and a show of crass lack of proper appreciation of good governance for President Buhari to effect punitive price hikes of fuel and electricity, when Nigerians have not even emerged from the economic adversities foisted on them by the global pandemic of Covid-19, just as it is also relevant to recall what other nations are doing in aid of their citizens to ameliorate the excruciating hardships imposed on them by the global healthemergency.

Anne-Marie Slaughter who is President and Chief Executive Officer, New America, has provided the universally acclaimed responsibilities of government to the citizens. We will quote her in greater detail, so as not to miss out anything.
The analyst further stated that, it is providing an infrastructure of care to enable citizens to flourish socially and economically, in the same way that an infrastructure of competition does. It provides a social security, that enables citizens to create their own economic security.

The most important priority of government as investor, is indeed, education, but education cradle-to-grave. The first five years are particularly essential, as the brain development in those years determines how well children will be able to learn, and process what they learn for the rest of their lives. The government will thus, have to invest in an entire infrastructure of child development from pregnancy through the beginning of formal schooling, including child nutrition and health, parenting classes, home visits and developmentally appropriate early education programmes. The teenage years are another period of brain development, where special programmes, coaching and family support are likely to be needed.

Investment in education will fall on barren ground, if brains are not capable of receiving and absorbing it. Moreover, meaningful opportunities for continuing education must be available to citizens over the course of their lives, as jobs change rapidly and the acquisition of knowledge accelerates.
The author argued that, even well-educated citizens cannot live up to their full potential as creative thinkers and makers, unless they have resources to work with.

Quoting futurists and business consultants, John Hagel III, John Seeley Brown and Lang Davison who argued in ‘The Power of Pull’ that successful enterprises no longer design a product according to abstract specifications and push it out to customers, but rather, provide a platform where individuals can find what they need and connect to whom they need to be successful, the writer underscores the important role of government as an investor in talents.
“Woven all together, citizen-enterprise in every conceivable area can create a web of national economic enterprise, and at least, a good part of a social safety net”, she further argued.

But, in the case of President Muhammadu Buhari, he has visited the citizens with the poisonous chalice of fuel price hike and electricity price hike, even when other nations are busy introducing palliatives for their citizens.

France
The French government has detailed its 100 billion Euro ($118bn) stimulus plan to erase the economic effects of the corona virus crisis over two years, lining up billions of Euros in public investments, subsidies and tax cuts.
The plan – dubbed “France Relaunch” – earmarks, in particular, 35 billion Euros ($41bn) for making the Euro zone’s second-biggest economy more competitive, 30 billion Euros ($35bn) for more environmentally friendly energy schemes, and 25 billion Euros ($30bn) for supporting jobs, officials told the Reuters news agency ahead of its official presentation late on Thursday.

With the plan equating to 4% of gross domestic product (GDP), France is ploughing more public cash into its economy than any other big European country, as a percentage of GDP, one of the officials said.
French Prime Minister, Jean Caltex, said he hoped the economic recovery plan would create 160,000 jobs by 2021.
Speaking on RTL radio, he also said the plan aimed to erase the economic impact of the coronavirus crisis over two years, as well as helping to avert widespread job losses.

USA
In the United States of America, President Donald Trump’s $600 federal weekly unemployment benefit bonus from the CARES Act, expired on July 31. Democrats and Republicans didn’t make a deal for another relief package leading to President Donald Trump signing an executive memorandum on August 8, to restart the additional extra weekly funds but at $400 instead of $600.

“I’m taking action to provide an additional, or an extra, $400 per week in expanded benefits,” Trump said during a press conference at his golf club in Bedminster, New Jersey. “States will be asked to cover 25% of costs, using existing funding such as the tens of billions of Dollars available to them through the coronavirus relief fund. Under this plan, States will be able to offer greater benefits if they so choose, and the federal government will cover 75% of the costs.”

According to the executive memorandum, the $400 amount would start for the week ending on August 1 and will last until December 27.
When asked at a White House press briefing on last Monday when unemployment benefits recipients would receive the $400, Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany said, “We hope to see it quickly and close to immediately”. She says the speed of getting the funds to those eligible will depend on the States, as it is the States that will have to kick in $100.

Treasury Secretary, Steve Munching, said during a second White House press briefing last Monday that, most of the States would be able to start the $400 unemployment benefits “within a week or two”. President Trump
said the 25% funding from the State could be terminated, depending on the State.
Along with the return of the enhanced unemployment benefit, Trump also signed three other executive actions, for a payroll tax holiday, federal student loan assistance, and eviction protection. Like the $400 unemployment benefits, there are questions on the legality of these orders.

House Speaker, Nancy Pelosi, and Senate Minority Leader, Chuck Schumer, released a joint statement on August 8 in response to Trump’s executive actions, and called on Republicans to return to the negotiating table.
“Today’s meagre announcements by the President, show President Trump still does not comprehend the seriousness or the urgency of the health and economic crises facing working families”, the two legislators said. “For instance, not only does the President’s announcement not actually extend the eviction moratorium, it provides no assistance to help pay the rent, which will only leave desperate families to watch their debt pile higher. Instead of passing a bill, now President Trump is cutting families’ unemployment benefits and pushing States further into budget crises, forcing them to make devastating cuts to life-or-death services”.

The weekly $600 benefit, part of the Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation program, was a popular feature of the initial coronavirus relief legislation package that extended federal unemployment aid to help those affected by the Covid-19 pandemic. With the HEALS Act (which stands for Health, Economic Assistance, Liability Protection and Schools) officially proposed, Democrats and Republicans are working through a political stalemate.

Before President Trump signed the executive memorandum to restart the unemployment benefit bonus, Democrats and Republicans were unable to make a deal on the next stimulus package. Negotiations fell apart last Friday after a “disappointing” meeting, as described by Schumer according to a report from CNBC
Last Monday, Mnuchin told CNBC the White House and Republicans were open to begin negotiations with the Democrats again.

Since the President’s signings, Democratic leadership has spoken out on whether the executive actions taken were constitutional, but they have yet to declare if a lawsuit would be filed to block the orders from being carried out.
“My constitutional advisers tell me they (executive actions) are absurdly unconstitutional”, Pelosi said last Sunday. When asked about whether negotiations would continue, Pelosi said she hopes they will.

California Governor, Gavin Newsom, said that his State doesn’t have the funds to facilitate the 25% of the weekly $400 bonus, according to a report from the Los Angeles Times. Newsom said the amount needed to cover the State’s portion, would total $700 million.
Another issue State Governors will have to face, is the time it takes to implement the unemployment benefit. Pennsylvania Governor, Tom Wolf’s administration says the President’s executive action will require the creation of an entirely new program.
“This is not something that any State will be able to do quickly”, his administration said in a statement recently reported.

States that apply for funding with the Federal Emergency Management Agency and set up a system to distribute the money, will have access to $44 billion a Labour Department official told The Wall Street Journal last Wednesday. However, if all States tap into the fund for the current recipients of unemployment benefits, then it will last for five to six weeks, which would be far sooner than the December 27 expiration date of the executive memo.

The U.S. Department of Labour sent out guidance on the new unemploymentbenefits President Trump created in his executive memo– referred to as Lost Wages Assistance (LWA) — on Wednesday. The guidance adds eligibility requirements, in particular, there will be a minimum $100 from a State’s unemployment benefits program required to receive the additional $300 federal funds. This would affect one million people, according to the New York Times Thursday.

I ask again, What is Nigeria to us?
The above interrogatory becomes consequential when one realises that the current administration has continued to defend the insensitive and irresponsible actions of hiking costs of fuel and electricity at this critical time of Covid-19 challenges, confronting millions of Nigerians in the past five months or so. To demonstrate this near infinite insensitivity, President Muhammadu Buhari last week Monday for the first time, personally defended the recent hike in price of Premium Motor Spirit (PMS) popularly known as petrol and electricity tariff.

President Buhari spoke on the decisions, which had attracted widespread criticisms from millions of Nigerians.
Represented by Vice President, Prof Yemi Osinbajo, SAN, the President claims that the Covid-19 pandemic, which had affected economies globally, compelled his administration to make some necessary far-reaching adjustments, for long-term gains with some initial pain.
Buhari, who listed negative consequences if government should resume the business of fixing or subsidising PMS prices, said it would mean a return to the costly subsidy regime with the potential return of fuel queues.

The President, who said there was no provision for fuel subsidy in the revised 2020 budget, assured citizens of the government’s determination to remain alert to its responsibilities, by preventing marketers from raising prices arbitrarily or exploiting them.

Buhari, while speaking on the hike in electricity tariff, said that he was not happy with the quality of service being offered by the Distribution Companies of Nigeria (DISCOs).
The President said: “The other painful adjustment that we have had to make in recent days is a review of the electricity tariff regime. If there is one thing that we have heard over and over again, it is that Nigerians want consistent and reliable power supply. So, the power sector remains a critical priority for the administration.

“Protecting the poor and vulnerable, while ensuring improved service
in the power sector, is also a major priority for Government. And our policies, like the social investment programmes and other socio-economic schemes to benefit Nigerians, show that we remain focused on improving the welfare of the common man.
“In addressing the power problems, we must not forget that most Nigerians are not even connected to electricity at all. So, as part of the Economic Sustainability Plan (ESP), we are providing Solar home systems to five million Nigerian households (impacting up to 25 million individual Nigerians), in the next 12 months.

“We have already begun the process of providing financing support through the CBN for manufacturers and retailers of Off Grid Solar Home Systems and Mini-Grids, who are to provide the systems.
“The Five million systems under the ESP’s Solar Power Strategy will produce 250,000 jobs, and impact up to 25 million beneficiaries through the installation. This means that more Nigerians will have access to electricity, via a reliable and sustainable solar system.

“The support to Solar Home System manufacturers and the bulk procurement of local meters will create over 300,000 local jobs, while ensuring that we set Nigeria on a path to full electrification. The tariff review is not about the increase, which will only affect the top electricity consumers, but establishing a system which will definitely lead to improved service for all, at a fair and reasonable price.

“There has been some concern expressed, about the timing of these two necessary adjustments. It is important to stress that, it is a mere coincidence, in the sense that the deregulation of PMS prices happened quite some time ago, it was announced on 18 March, 2020, and the price moderation that took place at the beginning of this month was just part of the on-going monthly adjustments to global crude oil prices.
Similarly, the review of service-based electricity tariffs was scheduled to start at the beginning of July, but was put on hold to enable further studies and proper arrangements to be made.”

Refineries
However, in the last five years, this Federal Government under President Muhammadu Buhari has been unable to fix any of the refineries, even when billions of Naira have been claimed as expenses for the so-called turn around maintenance, and sadly, there is no pragmatic proof that any kind of repairs were done, because Nigeria has continued to depend on imported refined fuel for domestic consumption.

To think that Muhammadu Buhari has been the Minister of Petroleum for five whole years, and yet the same government has grossly failed to account for the resources voted and released for the turn around maintenance of the moribund refineries, means that the government has no moral high ground to claim any kind of credit for introducing suffocating economic programmes of fuel and electricity price hikes simultaneously, and at a very inauspicious time.

A report by the National Resource Charter (NNRC), stated that NNPC spent a whopping $396.33 million between 2013-2017, to carry out repairs works under the Turn Around Maintenance (TAM) scheme on its refineries. Also, NNPC has spent N276.872 billion on operating expenses of the refineries between 2015-2018, even as $36 billion on importation of Petroleum products between 2013-2017.

Unfortunately, the President, who said the government would not inflict hardship (which is clearly untrue) on the people by being insensitive to their condition at this “very difficult economic situation”, directed Ministers and senior officials to ensure a “vigorous and prompt” implementation of the ESP programmes, to give succour to Nigerians at this difficult time.

“In this regard, the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) has created credit facilities (of up to N100 billion) for the Healthcare (N100 Billion) and Manufacturing (N1 Trillion) sectors. From January 2020 to date, over N191.87 billion has already been disbursed for 76 real sectors projects under the N1Trillion Real Sector Scheme; while 34 Healthcare projects have been funded to the tune of N37.159 billion under the Healthcare Sector Intervention Facility. “The facilities are meant to address some of the infrastructural gaps in the healthcare and manufacturing sector as a fall out from the Covid-19 pandemic, and to facilitate the attainment of the Governors’ five-year strategic plan”, he added.

Conclusion
The fact is that, these price hikes in the supply of electricity and procurement of fuel can be summed up as an economic poisonous chalice that this administration has foisted on Nigerians, just as it is obligatory for Nigerians to resist this insensitive and irresponsible actions of hiking costs of fuel and electricity.