Still Carving on Rotten Wood in Subsidy Communication

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THE PUBLIC SPHERE with Chido Nwakanma

Eight years after the national uproar over hikes in the price of an essential item, Nigerians are back to the same spot and preparing to repeat. Citizens agitate over the double whammy of increases in the pump price of petroleum products and the electricity tariff. More significantly, there is a communication challenge.

As in eight years ago, the Federal Government, through its agencies, has released a tonne of information. Checking the feedback on various channels, it seems it will take a while for that message to become communication.
It is currently a tangled web. “Oh, what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive!”. (Sir Walter Scott, 1808). Many citizens are disbelieving of the numerous reasons that supposedly informed these actions. The government itself skirts around it.

The truth will bring clarity and make the messaging more credible. The fuel price increment is a tax! It was a tax in 2012 and led to the establishment of SURE-P. It was a tax in 2015 when the new Buhari government raised fuel prices. It took the admission of Lai Mohammed then that the government needed more money to douse the tension.
The energy tariff increments come five years late. The Federal Government is now under pressure from its poor handling of finances and external funders to do what both the Jonathan and Buhari governments failed to do since 2015. Why are they not admitting and saying so? The truth will set the nation free, cause some anger, but will change the narrative positively to a solution orientation.

Déjà vu. The rest of this article recalls the scenario in January 2012 when I wrote on the matter. The title was “Carving on rotten wood in fuel subsidy communication.”
“The uproar over the increase in fuel price imposed on Nigerian citizens by the Federal Government has raised questions about what communication took place or its effectiveness. While the Federal Government has released much information output, communication has yet to happen, hence the breakdown and descent into riots and strikes.

Reform efforts come under change communication. The United Nations and its agencies call them development communication; they emphasise the integration of strategic communication in development efforts. All communication seeks to influence the behaviour of target audiences, but it is even more imperative in communicating change or reform, such as the removal of fuel subsidy.

Because the goal in change communication is to achieve stakeholder buy-in through strategic engagement, experts assert that it is not enough to disseminate information, educate or raise awareness about an issue. It requires understanding the perceived or real barriers the people see to adopting the change, listening to their feedback and responding appropriately.

Managers of the communication effort on subsidy removal face many challenges in the message, the platforms for message delivery and the choice of delivery. These have been the areas where they have also made mistakes.
The message concerning the removal of subsidy is garbled. Government officials speak of the removal of subsidy and deregulation in the same breath as if they are the same thing. There is also talk of increasing revenue for the government to enable the provision of infrastructure. There is yet another message about fighting corruption. What is the real message?

Beyond the content is the question of message delivery. This message has no owner. Sundry groups have taken over the newspapers and airwaves supposedly selling the message of removal of oil subsidy as part of the Jonathan Transformation Agenda. The President himself took responsibility for the message that forms a key plank of his reform only after it had generated negative responses. There is no central spokesperson for the government, and no central message, with up to five spokespersons: Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Diezani Alison-Madueke, Sanusi Lamido Sanusi, and Labaran Maku. Atedo Peterside weighs in on behalf of a committee. Reuben Abati has advisedly stayed off messaging on the matter given his anti-removal advocacy on the issue in his earlier capacity as an ordinary citizen.

Then there is the matter of messaging platforms. Government and its agencies are losing out in the social media platform, and this has turned out to be one of the main playing fields for stakeholder engagement on the fuel subsidy matter. Active publics on the issue are utilising these platforms to devastating effect. Note also that the social media platform is a double-edged sword: in the absence of regulation, users deploy it to both excellent and obnoxious ends, thus requiring active monitoring and engagement.

All of which leads to the matter of message credibility. Unfortunately for the government, what it did on January 1 reinforced the citizen’s scepticism about deregulation. History shows that deregulation for Nigerian governments has always meant only one thing: fuel price increase, with promises of delivery of benefits but no delivery of the promises. The Federal Government made no effort whatsoever to show any difference in its approach or objective, even when government officials admit the lack of credibility of the government. They followed the same script. The government thus played into the existing mass sentiment or general social consensus that sees only price increase and hardship in deregulation.

The Christopher Kolade Committee, for instance, reprises the Petroleum Trust Fund, save that in the case of PTF General Sani Abacha admitted that the price increase was nothing but a fuel tax from which government would make additional income. In the period between broaching the issue of removal of subsidy and actual implementation, also, opponents have successfully cast doubt on the integrity of government’s claim as to the actual cost of Nigeria’s PMS and justification for an increase. No one has addressed those doubts at all!

Communication scholars identify various publics concerning any issue: non-publics, latent, aware and active publics. Non-publics are those for whom the issue at hand has virtually no effect. Latent publics have no awareness of their connection; aware publics understand the importance of the issue to them but have not acted, while active publics are doing something about it.

The critical issue, therefore, is that communication of the subsidy removal lacks credibility with stakeholders other than the government. It has the challenge of ensuring that opponents of government do not convert all the other publics to active publics against the government’s stance on the issue.

Government’s communication managers need to go back to the drawing board to clarify the message, the messenger, the delivery mechanisms as well as the platforms. It is an incredibly tricky challenge because as the Chinese say, you cannot carve on rotten wood. The fuel subsidy matter in Nigeria has taken the form of rotten wood.