Governments’ attempts to assuage the consequences of oil subsidy removal are too disorganised to succeed, writes Monday Philips Ekpe

If things were to be anywhere near well, the people would have been grateful to the three tiers of government. And thankful to the God they cry to constantly mainly because of the serial failure of governance even in little things. Palliatives are temporary by nature, stopgap measures taken to ameliorate dire, despondent conditions while waiting for the ultimate and more enduring solutions. When they’re being administered, the recipient and giver are aware of the limitations. The sense of expectancy particularly on the part of the beneficiary is managed in such a way that the expected outcomes are not exaggerated. The expertise and sincerity of the administrator determine to a large extent the success of the exercise. This occurs in medicine and other fields. Pain-relieving drugs usually hold back the hurt as efforts are made to get to the root of the illness.

The present situation in Nigeria is a lot more distressing than what obtains in medical circles. On May 29 this year, Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu who had just been sworn in as president, casually told his bewildered audience that the subsidy on fuel had ended. He didn’t initiate the scheme, of course, neither was it a popular concept because of the opaqueness of its management. Its scrapping was actually one point that united the main candidates in the last presidential election even when they differed on the procedures.

Four months after what was supposed to be a brave (many Nigerians see it as mean, hurried and ill-conceived) policy declaration on inauguration day, some analysts are still at a loss about its real value. Many more are now saddled with counting the cost at macro and micro levels. One may need the services of necromancers, soothsayers, witches and marabouts to determine the positives, if any. Political economists must be finding it difficult to relate the current sad realities with the pledges made during the campaigns and the capacity of the citizens to bear the biting brunt. That we’ve now woken up to the shock of the government returning to its vomit, paying the same subsidies unannounced through the back door, hasn’t helped our understanding of the web we’re in.

Four dictionary meanings of the word, palliate, the lexical root of palliative, take us straight into the heart of what majority of the Nigerian people are compelled to hope for at this very trying period of their lives: “to reduce the violence of (a disease)”; “to ease (symptoms) without curing the underlying disease”; “to cover by excuses and apologies” and “to moderate the intensity of”. Successive governments have augmented the prices of petroleum products for as long as most living Nigerians can remember. Despite the fact that periodic increment in the charges has been registered over and over again which has become worse in recent times, since no administration before now, except briefly by that of former President Olusegun Obasanjo, terminated it, Tinubu’s pronouncement has left a unique deep cut for which some alleviation is being sought.

So far, the steps said to have been taken are viewed more through accounts from the media which largely sound either eerily familiar or distant; but aren’t designed to mitigate poverty. Truck-loads of rice headed for state capitals and Abuja with warehouses as their destinations remind everyone of the Covid19 era when the effects of that pandemic were worsened by the disorder and cruelty that characterised the distribution of the materials meant to soothe largescale human suffering. Storages suspected to contain much-needed commodities were vandalised and looted. Not minding the risks involved, both young and old struggled to secure bags and cartons of essential goods. Limbs were broken. Lives were lost. And many of the items were destroyed in the course of those savage scrambles. Such shameful scenes have already been recorded all in the name of relieving the despair caused by the subsidy removal.             

Those sights that resemble pictures from unruly refugee camps don’t portray the government as implementing well thought-out programmes. Even though they’re not meant to achieve lasting results, the palliative packages – plans and execution – should serve as indicators of better things to come. Unfortunately, critical areas like data sourcing and management, logistics, fairness and probity are grossly inadequate. Sadly, there isn’t much in our immediate past to give hope for sterling performances this time.

Excuses and apologies. I’ve witnessed some of the battles of the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) and Trade Union Congress (TUC); some epic, others not so gallant. The ongoing rancorous engagements with the government over how best to cushion the negative impact of the proclaimed disposal of subsidy are among their most daunting and wearying actions taken so far in the public interest. If they secure appreciable bargains for workers and, hopefully, the other chunk of Nigeria’s desperate population, we’ll all join in shouting that a true glorious moment for the downtrodden is here!

But before then, like the rest of the people, the labour leaders are left to their own devices to figure out the actual intentions of government in this matter. As time drags on, the zeal of the citizens to protest peacefully in order to vent their grievances wanes. So is the capacity of the unions to embark on industrial strikes successfully, thereby undermining the credibility and clout of their executives. The government may then go to town to congratulate itself for taming dissent. Such gloating would, however, be unfortunate as that could signal the decline, if not demise, of the nation’s socio-political engineering, a condition no one would gain from in the end. 

Like in music, cacophony can’t be a virtue in public affairs. Tens of millions of Nigerians who look forward to what could keep them alive for just a day more have had to contend with conflicting information from government people. The $800million loan secured by the then outgoing administration of President Muhammadu Buhari primarily for onward transfer to the country’s “poorest of the poor” to shield them from the anticipated harshness occasioned by this gruelling economic transition has remained a subject of speculation, especially in terms of the qualified beneficiaries and modalities for disbursement. Is it N5000 or N8000 monthly for six months per indigent individual or family? Let’s assume, for the sake of storytelling, that this amount can sustain an ant for that long. Don’t even bother about the current state of the naira, the worst since its debut in 1973, a status unthinkable only a year ago. Somehow, the number of the homes/people to benefit from the scheme has grown from the initial 12 million to above 15 million. How do these figures fare in comparison to the confirmed over 100 million multidimensionally poor Nigerians? What has changed to make Nigerians trust the national social register that was used by the Buhari government for its Conditional Cash Transfer programme, even with the announced review? It was perceived to lack transparency then and so it is now.

The very act of sharing monies and materials equally to states betrays federal government’s unreadiness to rise above throwing resources at challenges, a clear invitation to corruption and ineptitude. Outside constitutional equality, the federating units possess uneven profiles. Dependable data, proper procurement and safe distribution chains are still problematic.

These institutional loopholes have complicated our snowballing dilemma. What should we be resolving now? Whether the subsidy has truly returned? Or whether to prosecute both the promised and released palliative stuff judiciously? Or, even, to genuinely probe how the country descended to this level of penury and pity?    

Dr Ekpe is a member of THISDAY Editorial Board

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