Subsidy removal: An avoidable affliction

 

President Ahmed Bola Tinubu has seemingly commenced governance on a wrong footing when he gleefully told Nigerians during his inaugural address on May 29 that their much-cherished petrol ‘subsidy is gone’ forever in one fell swoop. Tinubu made the announcement, which has literally touched on the nerves of most Nigerians, without any consultation with Nigerians, labour, students, market men and women and stakeholders in the oil sector. The newly minted president did not reckon with the backlash that simple pronouncement would have caused in the polity. Immediately, he dropped the bombshell, the petrol marketers readily reacted and adjusted the pump price of petrol arbitrarily. Although they bought the product at subsidized rate, they are reaping off Nigerians at inflated rates. They are profiteers cashing in on the panic buying of frightened Nigerians. Some Nigerians bought the black gold from prices ranging from N450, N530, N600 to even over N1000 per litre across the country. His blunt statement on fuel subsidy jolted the petrol market and threw the nation into panic.

Tinubu’s announcement on abolishing the dual exchange rates in place of one exchange rate caused a stir at the official and Aboki exchange markets. Nigerians trust the Aboki exchange rate more than the official rate which is not readily available. The Aboki rate is higher but it is equally available at short notice. While the official exchange rate takes months, time and much documentation to obtain, the Aboki exchange rate is cash and carry. Both exchange platforms have their pros and cons. But having one exchange window will be better for Nigerians and the economy than having the official and Aboki exchange markets at the same time. We shall return to this theme later in the article if space permits.

While some commentators have blamed Tinubu for that inaugural address blunder over fuel subsidy removal and being undiplomatic and tactless in his pronouncement, some others in the minority said Tinubu reechoed the reality of the situation. They also reminded us that former President Muhammadu Buhari had already removed the fuel subsidy before leaving office on May 29 to tend his obedient cows in Daura, Katsina State. However, Tinubu defenders refused to acknowledge that initially that Buhari subsidy will end in June 2023. If it will end in June, Tinubu made a tactical blunder by saying subsidy is gone on May 29. His inaugural address should have avoided the petrol subsidy wahala or broached it without causing panic in the petrol market. The ensuing palaver or affliction is avoidable.

Former President Buhari is an interesting character both in office and now that he is outside. He has seen clearly now the Nigeria he presided over the past eight years. He can now judge himself and award merited marks if any. After all, it is easier for him to manage his cows than Nigerians. In other words, Nigerians are troublesome and hard to manage. Other Nigerian leaders had alluded to such sentiments of presiding over a difficult people but not the way Buhari expressed it. Buhari also said that if Nigerians trouble him, he will exile himself to Niger Republic, a country sharing borders with Katsina State. Buhari constructed a railway corridor to Maradi, a town in Niger that has border with Katsina. Some people in some parts of Daura share blood relations with some people in Niger. The colonial flag divided the same people into two, one part in Nigeria and the other part in Niger. The colonial boundaries are artificial and arbitrary. But this is not enough for a past Nigerian president to elect to go and live there if we, the troublesome lot, worry him. I think Buhari was cracking a joke. As an old man, he likes cracking jokes. He was one of the luckiest Nigerians ever born to rule the country twice as a military despot and as a born-again democrat. He has joined the rank of former Nigerian President, Chief Olusegun Obasanjo. The two may likely end up being the only Nigerians that Nigerians will treat with such a luxury of crowning them twice as military and democratic leader. It will not happen again. Even if it wants to happen, Nigerians must do everything possible to thwart it. Still on fuel subsidy removal, Tinubu can remove it but it is wrong to remove all of them in one fell swoop. As it is done in other countries, subsidy removal is done gradually so that the impact will not be felt so much as poor Nigerians are groaning now under high cost of all petroleum products. Fuel subsidy can be removed within a period of ten years. A phased removal of petrol subsidy would have been accepted by most Nigerians, including the organized labour that will always kick against any plan by the government to toy with subsidy, which APC chieftains describe as a monumental fraud.

Tinubu should not commence his governance with the tremor the subsidy removal has caused. The confusion is avoidable. It is being mismanaged. I agree with labour that there is urgent need to return to the status quo ante. It is not yet late for the new president to retrace his steps and consult widely across the country with ordinary Nigerians and other stakeholders on the best way forward. He should not listen to only experts versed in World Bank and IMF economics and development models. He should also listen to us, the ordinary Nigerians who are suffering the after-effects of his inaugural address on fuel subsidy. We wear the shoe and we know where it pinches. Fixing or adjusting the fuel pump price between N488-N537 per litre as the NNPC Limited has done in a deregulated sector can worsen the fuel crisis and impoverish millions of Nigerians. Over 133 million Nigerians have been categorized as being multi-dimensionally poor. Government should build more refineries before removing fuel subsidy. Enough of this fire-brigade approach to policy issues. Tinubu should remember that Nigerians depend so much on fuel for everything they do. Their lives revolve around petrol. Without petrol, Nigerians will not move, eat or dance or even laugh. Nigeria and Nigerians will die if fuel price is rising without control. The confusion in the oil sector cannot be resolved with that single statement by Tinubu. The exchange market cannot be controlled with just a mere pronouncement on having one exchange rate. Although one exchange rate is desirable, it takes more to achieve it. Curbing inflation, producing more foods, providing more jobs and increasing our non-oil exports can do more to make us have a more realistic exchange rate than official pronouncement by the new leader, especially the one said during his inauguration.

During his inauguration, Tinubu promised to channel the subsidy funds into education, health, job creation and others. He should subsidize food production to encourage agriculture. But he did not expatiate on the modalities and timelines to achieve that objective. He also envisioned a six percent GDP growth, which is very ambitious, accessible and affordable electricity, which is laudable, and the removal of inhibitions to the inflow of foreign investments. He equally promised to create one million jobs on digital economy, which needs more explanations, and the convergence of the exchange rates, which I have dwelt so much in the article. He wants to deepen the credit culture in the economy and prioritize security. Tinubu wants to rejig the security architecture as well as offer best training for security personnel. His other juicy promises or templates of what to expect from our new leader include being the president of all Nigerians, and fairness to all. He said that Nigeria’s unity is not negotiable and his African-centred foreign policy.

Let me start from the last, we don’t need an African-centred foreign policy, what we need is a Nigeria-centred foreign policy. We are the most populous black nation on earth. We have the largest market on the continent as well as the biggest democracy in Africa. If Nigeria gets its act right, Africa will be on the right path. If Nigeria fails, Africa has failed. Nigerian unity is negotiable. It is not yet perfected. Without restructuring, Nigeria will die a natural death. The new president is aware of this fact. The APC is also aware of this fact. His vision to be the president of all Nigerians is given in the constitution. What he needs to do is to put it in practice. Time will indeed tell us if he is truly a president for all Nigerians or a president of his region or other mundane identities in Nigerian politics. His mentor and predecessor made similar statements but later derailed and became more clannish and nepotistic with his appointments. Rejigging the security architecture and offering better training for the personnel should be prioritized. Let Tinubu’s appointments, domestic and national, reflect the federal character principle as enshrined in the constitution. He came to the stage when Nigerians are more divided than ever. This is the time to heal the wounds generated by the vexatious and highly contentious 2023 general election.

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