Monday, January 30, 2012

Pains and gains of January 2012 protests

The January 2-16 people’s revolt against fuel subsidy removal is a clear testimony that Nigerians are no longer docile. The uprising shows that my compatriots no longer enjoy ‘suffering and smiling’. Since 1980 or thereabout when the former President Shehu Shagari’s administration introduced austerity measures down to 1986 when the Structural Adjustment Programme was inaugurated by former military president Ibrahim Babangida, it has been only the masses that have been making all the sacrifices, tightening their belts, while our leaders loosen theirs due to their bulging tummies. Never again shall we suffer the fool. There is a saying that “you can fool some of the people all the time, all the people some of the time, but you cannot fool all of the people all of the time.” It is true that some people died in the course of the two weeks protest; many, including government, lost huge revenue (the National Bureau of Statistics estimated that Nigeria’s economy lost N207.4bn ($1.2b); property were destroyed by rioters in states like Niger and Kano; many people also had to postpone their long planned events such as conferences, workshops, marriages, funerals, etc. These are some of the pains of the rebellion.

However, the gains far outweigh the pains. It is unprecedented that Nigerians across economic divides will unite to fight a cause. In the January ‘Harmattan Protest’, both the bourgeoisie and the proletariats united to fight our common oppressor, which is the government which though claimed to feel our pain, decided to add to our economic burden. Apart from many cities in Nigeria such as Lagos, Abuja, Kano, Kaduna, Owerri, Benin, Niger, Port Harcourt, Ibadan and Bauchi, Nigerians in the Diaspora in countries such as Ghana, South Africa, the United States, and United Kingdom also defied chilling cold weather to stage their own protests.

Other palpable gains of the protest are the forced commitments of the Federal Government to reduce waste and fight corruption. In his first televised broadcast on January 8 aimed at preventing the commencement of the strike by organised labour and civil society, President Goodluck Jonathan made the following pledges: 25 per cent cut in the basic salaries of all political office-holders in the executive arm of government to begin from this year; review of the number of committees, commissions and parastatals with overlapping responsibilities with a view to restructuring them; and a directive to all ministries, departments and agencies to take steps to reduce their overhead expenses. Others include the speedy launch of a mass transit intervention programme to bring down the cost of transport nationwide to be implemented in partnership with state and local governments, labour unions, transport owners, and banking institutions while funds (N15bn) would be given to transport stakeholders at zero per cent interest; a promise to grant import duty waivers on all needed parts for locally made mass transit vehicles, as part of the efforts to create additional jobs in the economy; directed all MDAs to execute projects designed to cushion the impact of the subsidy removal in the short, medium and long-term as outlined in the Subsidy Reinvestment and Empowerment Programme document; the mobilisation of contractors to rehabilitate the Port Harcourt-Maiduguri railway line and to complete the Lagos-Kano railway line; the immediate commencement of a public works programme that will create jobs for 10,000 youths in every state of the federation and the Federal Capital Territory, thus creating 370,000 jobs nationwide.

In his January 16 broadcast, President Jonathan made further concessions. These include the reduction in the price of a litre of petrol from the earlier announced N141 to N97. Furthermore, he promised that the legal and regulatory regime for the petroleum industry is to be reviewed to address accountability issues and current lapses in the industry. In this regard, the Petroleum Industry Bill will be given accelerated attention. The report of the forensic audit carried out on the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation is being studied with a view to implementing the recommendations and sanctioning proven acts of corruption in the industry.

Many committees have also been constituted to assist with the implementation of some of the promises. These include the Justice Alfa Belgore committee saddled with the responsibility of interfacing with organised labour and other stakeholders with a view to resolving issues that may arise from the removal of the subsidy on petrol and the Dr. Christopher Kolade-led Subsidy Reinvestment and Empowerment Programme Board. The board is to oversee and ensure the effective and timely implementation of projects to be funded with the savings that will accrue to the Federal Government from subsidy removal. Another committee is the Senator Udo Udoma-led Special Task Force for the quick passage of the Petroleum Industry Bill.

The Hon. Farouk Lawan-led Ad hoc committee of the House of Representatives on petrol subsidy which commenced sitting on Monday, January 16 is also among the numerous gains of the revolt. Startling revelations being made by different ministries and agencies of the government at the public hearing surely validated the long held view of many Nigerians that our oil industry is a cesspool of corruption. Some of the disclosed sharp practices include the prevention of the Nigerian Customs Service from asking for proper documentation from the oil importers; the diversion of mother vessels to Cotonou and Lome before using smaller vessels to bring in the imported petroleum products; the non-subtraction of the volume of locally refined crude oil from the imported one in the calculation of the subsidy.

Others include, the licensing of companies that do not have storage facilities and other basic requirements to import petroleum products; the application of rule of the thumb rather than proper authorisation by the Ministry of Finance to the NNPC for subsidy payments; the alleged importation of 59 million litres of PMS when in actual fact Nigerians consume only 35 million litres per day thereby encouraging smuggling of petrol to neigbbouring countries. All these mind-boggling revelations and more have come to the fore since the probe panel began sitting. That the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission has been called in to examine the books of Petroleum Product Pricing Regulatory Agency and other agencies involved in the subsidy scam is also a direct benefit of the struggle against the removal of fuel subsidy.

I have gone to this length to highlight the many assurances that helped to extinguish the ember of revolution that was kindled by the removal of fuel subsidy so that we all can hold government accountable to all these promises. Eternal vigilance is the price for liberty!