Sir Rabindranath Tagore, the Nobel Laureate (1913) who penned: Bigotry tries to keep truth safe in its hand with a grip that kills it ((Fireflies (1928)) hardly could have distinguished issues and a reversal of roles in the drama plaguing our country, Nigeria. Removal of fuel subsidy as an economic reform is presented with much truth but bad presentation, to the extent that what to believe is obfuscated.
The reaction to remove oil subsidies, in my opinion, is not an intelligent one. It is laden with sentiments for which the average citizen and even those better informed seem not to understand the arguments. The emotions of a near failed state and bad administration by government officials have so far hindered emergence of a framework to alleviate anticipated hardship, and investigation of past misdeeds of fuel marketers and their collaborators.
The Economic for Africa (ECA) in a 2007 African Governance Report states that in a democracy the elected leaders and the appointed civil servants are accountable for their actions and are expected to be transparent in making and implementing their decisions. The elected leaders should be responsive to the needs and wishes of the voters. The appointed civil servants are expected to conform to the codes and conduct of public service.
Both the elected leaders and appointed civil servants are expected to conform to the constitution, the rule of law and due process of law in the performance of their functions.
The legitimacy of the state is undermined if the executive fails to perform its functions. Similarly, the failure of the executive to deliver on its electoral promises is likely to undermine popular trust in government. The executive must therefore have the institutional capacity and political will to perform its functions efficiently and effectively. Failure to conform to the constitution, the rule of law and the traditions and political culture of the people is also likely to erode the legitimacy of the state and undermine the trust in government.
Mr. Larry Diamond in his paper presented at 7th Global Forum on Reinventing Government: Building Trust in Government by Improving Governance defines Trust between citizens and their government officials and elected representatives is a vital element of a well governed society.
In the absence of trust, citizens become cynical about their political system and disaffected with the existing order. Distrust may produce alienation and withdrawal from the political process, leaving behind a shallow, fragile state that cannot mobilize national resources or shape a collective vision for national development.
If it festers for very long, widespread and intense distrust may eventually generate a backlash against the political order and a search for more radical, anti-system alternatives. Failed states, revolutions, civil wars, and other related traumatic failures of governance all share in common the absence or collapse of trust: between citizens and the state, between different political factions or parties, and between ethnic, social or class groups at the mass level.
The level of distrust of our government is endemic. It cannot be attributed only to the administration of Mr. Goodluck Jonathan alone. His predecessors are equally as liable. Should we therefore be surprised at the citizens’ reaction? There is need to re-engage our people. This “Trust” issue is set to hinder our national development.
In this singular issue, it is a given that both sides agree on the usefulness of subsidies, even in the Oil sector. The Governor of Central Bank, Sanusi Lamido Sanusi presented what appeared as a reasonable argument. His position is not to do away with subsidy as an accounting or economic item. The issue is that what the Nigerian Government currently pays is the sustenance of rent seekers. He makes the point which at close scrutiny is tenable. Although, its force is lost because those who benefit from the filthy lucre are in his immediate constituency. Rather than respond to the issues, the arguments and debates have become non-focused and abstracted.
In a televised debate titled: “Removal of Subsidy – In Whose Interest”, Mr. Lamido Sanusi, aforementioned Governor, Mrs. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala and Mrs. Diezani Allison-Madueke, Ministers of Finance and Petroleum, respectively, appeared for the government; Mr. Olisa Agbakoba (SAN), Mr. Isa Aremu (Labour), Mr. Adams Oshiomole, Governor of Edo State, Mr. Femi Falana (Legal Practitioner) and Mr. Ben Bruce, for civil society.
The level of seriousness of the debate was damaged by this choice of Mr. Bruce to represent poor Nigerians. His ill-thought through psychedelic presentation equally matched the agitation of a square peg in a round hole. Though, the Minister of Finance alluded to some points made in his presentation. Mr. Bruce had better be advised that flattery is a synonym of mockery.
Apart from the strong performance of Mr. Falana which saved the counter argument; the contemporaneous ad-lib of Mr. Oshiomole was less creative, non academic and sounded like a regale at a beer-parlour; even the supposedly brain-box of Labour movement, Mr. Aremu was not geared for the ocassion. For that reason, his presentation was embarrassing.
As for Mr. Agbakoba, his example of the British National Health Service was inappropriate. He did not prepare his speech and it was unsurprising that he ended up volunteering to raise money for government, a gesture derided by his host, Mr. Nduka Obiagbena, publisher of ThisDay Newspaper. The leading Counsel, in his presentation, boasted that he could raise trillions of Naira for the Federal Government; this is a Senior Advocate of Nigeria.
Clearly, the team that represented civil society presented no argument to impeach submissions by the three ministers. Their responses were uninformed; not intellectual; they were supported by no research; the so called “brain-box” adviser of Labour movement quoted outdated population figure for the country; the other one sought to make his points by turning the debate into a discothèque. Is it any wonder that we are all confused as to why subsidies should not be removed? Who do we believe?
The presentation by Mrs. Okonjo-Iweala as statistically, graphically impressive and persuasive, as it was, seemed unauthentic. At the risk of stating that her position of now championing removal of subsidy comes across as dubious, is it improper to ask why she did not trumpet a need to remove subsidies when she occupied the same office under Mr. Olusegun Obasanjo? Why did she not reveal the shenanigans of the Oil Marketers and their collaborators? She publicly advocated reduction, not removal.
Is it the case that fraudulent and corrupt practices of Oil Marketers together with the collusion of civil servants, as leaked by Mr. Lamido Sanusi, are novel to the tenure of this governor? Were these practices not evident when the former governor, Mr. Chukwuemeka Soludo was saddled with the responsibilities of the same office and she, a minister? Whilst oil marketers and their collaborators were creaming off annual national revenues, together with Mr. Obasanjo, she was seeking debt forgiveness abroad. Could she, then, not have made the argument she now makes? None amongst representatives of civil society even confronted her. This is not personal. It strikes at the heart of trusting the office of the minister. There is no doubt that she is a honourable person.
This is the simple and clear argument, as volunteered by the governor of Central Bank: If you need to pay subsidies, stop paying a handful of Nigerians whose documentary returns are replete with fraudulent inconsistencies. Remove payments to these handful Nigerians and reinvent how payments are to be made directly to the masses. The message is simple. Pity, it cannot
Why should Nigerians believe Mr. Lamido Sanusi over the practises of Mr. Soludo? Why should we trust Mr. Goodluck Jonathan over Mr. Olusegun Obasanjo, the president who created the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC); under whom the corruption that swallowed national revenue manifested? Why should we trust Mr. Ibrahim Lamorde who in acting capacity heads the Crimes Commission? Was he not the Director of Operations under Mr. Nuhu Ribadu who held fort in the Obasanjo administration? Worse still, why should we trust Mrs Okonjo-Iweala in her latter day conversion?
Even, if by way of generosity, the above named are absolved, seemingly, no one in civil society is protesting about prosecuting the crimes for which there are circumstantial evidence. Two examples of current revelations are where a marketer sought to be reimbursed for more than available storage capacity which may have been a rampant practice; government officials verifying that over thirteen vessels were discharged at the Lagos Port in a day. These are crimes that cannot be time barred and for which documents submitted still exist. Why are there no protests against fraudulent marketers? Why is civil society not vociferous in demanding that protesters go after the culprits?
It may well be that the citizens’ protestations against removal of subsidies is an opportunistic response to reject the status-quo. The reasons for the current protestations are immeasurably deeper, though. Complaints about intermittent supply of electricity, youth unemployment, non-delivery of government services arguably have causal links to sustenance of subsidies as currently paid. So, why protest that a few Nigerians should continue with their fraudulent practise of fleecing our commonwealth?
In closing, the citizens have inalienable rights to protest against their government; it should not be different in Nigeria. However, before setting out to protest about subsidy removal, complain that a few Nigerians are stealing our money and the Federal Government must prosecute them. In so doing, the position of government is reinforced. But, the protest must be sustained, only to awaken a consciousness that the citizen retains the power to call government to account. The interface in this protest is a contest between a minority of selfish Nigerians and the rest of us. Choose today, whose interests should be preserved. As invited representatives of civil society, aside from Mr. Falana were incapable of articulating the issues at stake, why are we despaired that the rest of us are equally confused as to what to believe?