The Frontlines By Joseph Ushigiale
Across the country today, everywhere you go, from Uyo, Akwa Ibom State to Bama in Borno, Yenagoa in Bayelsa to Birnin Kebbi in Kebbi state, the stories are the same. Nigerians are groaning under the unprecedented hardship they are going through.
This is despite the chest thumping and self praises being heaped on the administration by its official who are claiming that President Muhammadu Buhari is the best thing that has happened to Nigeria.
There is no doubt that the President means well for the country and the people but good thoughts alone that do not transform to food on the table to feed a hungry population is just what it is: wishful thinking.
Given the seething anger that pervaded the polity following the decision of the Organised Labour to cancel its planned strike initially slated to protest against the hike in price of petrol and electricity tariffs, there were expectations that the President’s anniversary speech would be toned down and conciliatory.
Regrettably, perhaps either the President and his handlers were quite insensitive or deliberately refused to gauge the mood of the nation; they went ahead to add salt upon injury with such a combative speech which condemned all past leaders except himself as incompetent including drawing parallels on petrol pricing in other countries.
What then drew the angst of Nigerians? Most Nigerians were spoiling for a fight to replicate the role played by Buhari in 2011, when he led a revolt to protest against fuel price increase during former President Goodluck Jonathan’s administration. They were ready to protest and damn the consequences and test the will of the Buhari administration to tolerate protests just like Jonathan did in 2011.
The other reason is that the agreements reached with the federal government by the organised labour which outlined some palliative measures to cushion the effects of the deregulation of the downstream sector, the timeline for revamping of refineries, suspension of newly introduced reflective cost regime in the electricity tariff were viewed as a sellout and an anticlimax to the shadow boxing and fist thumping by labour leaders who had earlier vowed that the strike must force government to rescind its decisions.
Apart from the fact that previous governments, caught in this same fuel price increase debacle always ended up agreeing to the provision of palliatives to the masses, most Nigerians are tired and perceive this government as not being sincere and economical with the truth.
Take for instance its promise of revamping the four major refineries in the country. Recall that Buhari had dismissed subsidy regime under Jonathan’s government as a scam and vowed to scrapped it as soon as he assumed office.
But that did not happen as the subsidy regime in which it is estimated that over N1tr was being spent annually continued for five years till last month.
One would have thought that with this hindsight, on assuming office, the President would tackle the problem head on by fixing the refineries to ensure that Nigeria stopped importing petroleum products and end subsidy payments to criminal elements in the system.
So the question now is: why wait for five years to fix the refineries? What informed your decision to abandon the refineries in the past? Is government abandoning the refineries to give leverage to a competitor?
Vice President Yemi Osinbajo recently declared that government had no business in running a business like refineries. If that is the case, why is government fixing the refineries instead of privatizing them? Is it sincere and would it be held accountable in this latest agreement signed with the organised labour?
While Nigerians were still smarting from what some of them considered a sell out by Labour to government, it was the tone of the President’s Independence Day broadcast that further dampened morale as it showed that this government lacks a human face and empathy towards the NIGERIAN people.
According to the President, “Petroleum prices in Nigeria are to be adjusted. We sell now at N161 per litre. A comparison with our neighbours will illustrate the point; Chad which is an oil producing country charges N362 per litre; Niger, also an oil producing country sells 1 litre at N346; In Ghana, another oil producing country, petroleum pump price is N326 per litre; Further afield, Egypt charges N211 per litre. Saudi Arabia charges N168 per litre. It makes no sense for oil to be cheaper in Nigeria than in Saudi Arabia”.
In drawing these comparisons, the President deliberately ignored certain basic facts. First, these countries do not sell their crude oil to import petroleum products. He also failed to tell us that these countries maintain their refineries that work 24/7 to service local needs of consumers.
The President’s attempt to hoodwink Nigerians with such voodoo statistics into believing that government is running a welfare subsidy regime for the citizens is misleading, unjust and callous. The Buhari administration must take full responsibility and admit that it has failed woefully in addressing the challenges in the oil sector and stop blaming Nigerians.
With the President announcing that “In the circumstances, a responsible government must face realities and take tough decisions”; I am urging Buhari to lead this country by example. The time for successive governments to sit in their high horses enjoying the perks of office should be done away with as both the leaders and the led should face the realities of the tough decisions.
As Buhari rallies Nigerians to further sacrifice for the good of the country, I am urging him to embrace the change he promised Nigerians by denying himself the perks of office which extends to members of his family, appointees etc. In charging the President to lead by example, we want to see this reflect in a reduction in the cost of governance.
Therefore to set the tune, the President should relocate to his village in Daura, bereft of any official vehicles, security guards, stewards etc and work virtually form his village using his own resources including his salary to run government. He is also expected to direct all ministers, appointees, governors and all elected and appointed official who currently feed fat from the commonwealth the adopt the same lifestyle going forward.
This would give them first hand opportunities to see how Nigerians have resorted to self help by building roads, houses, providing security, potable water, medicare and means of livelihood for themselves without government assistance and yet still pay taxes.
Buhari would not be the first President to adopt such an austere lifestyle. Former Uruguayan leader José Mujica, was dubbed “the world’s poorest president” for his modest lifestyle. But it was his down-to-earth lifestyle and refusal to live in the presidential palace that attracted adulations. He donated most of his salary as president to charity and the only possession he had when he took office in 2010 was his 1987 Volkswagen Beetle. The light-blue, beat-up Beetle became so famous he was offered $1m (£780,000) for it in 2014, but turned the offer down because he said he would have no way of transporting his three-legged dog without it.
There is a lesson to learn in the President and his cohorts adopting this lifestyle. Apart from reducing the huge cost of running government, the current scenario where government officials and politicians live off tax payers money creates a distortion to the point that they are cut off from the real realities.
If the President, politicians and government officials who take most of these insensitive decisions against the people, are compelled to work from their villages without the usual security paraphernalia, with their families exposed to insecurity that the ordinary Nigerians are exposed to daily, they buy the same bag of rice at N36 per 50kg, buy fuel at N161 per litre, the realities would dawn on all of them to fix this country and stop the rhetorics.
So Mr. President lead us by example, we are ready to follow you.