Last Saturday, President Goodluck Ebele Jonathan addressed Nigerians for the second time in as many weeks. This time, he attempted a multi-pronged defense of his decision to remove fuel subsidy. It was a woeful failure.
Mr. Jonathan’s defense reeked of platitudes that rang false and rhetoric that came across as cheap and unfelt. Did the president expect Nigerians to buy his statement that he “feel[s] the pain that you all feel,” and that he “personally [felt] pained to see the sharp increase in transport fares and the prices of goods and services”? Did even his speechwriter believe that the president shares “the anguish of all persons who had traveled out of their stations, who had to pay more on the return leg of their journeys”?
Jonathan is far removed from the pain and anguish of the vast majority of Nigerians. In fact, he might as well inhabit a different planet from the rest of us. Even if the price of fuel rose to N10,000 a liter, the Nigerian president won’t feel a pinch of it. We, the people of Nigeria, buy all the fuel he uses – and his wife’s to booth.
Ensconced in the island of luxury that is Aso Rock, the man has no real access to the grim desperation that defines the lives of millions of Nigerians. It must be abstract for him. If his powers of empathy were engaged, Mr. Jonathan would not have been in such callous haste to remove fuel subsidies – without touching his own (and his coterie’s) perks and privileges.
Even if there were an excellent case for removing subsidy, what kind of statecraft justified raising fuel prices on the first day of the year? And, with the country still reeling from the Christmas Day bombings that killed and wounded many and shot the nerves of millions, how come Jonathan couldn’t wait for a week or two – even if the case for removing subsidy was unassailable?
The president and his economic team have never made a strong case for the removal of fuel subsidy. What they’ve done, however, is to brilliantly articulate the necessity to commence a fierce – as opposed to feigned – fight against the monster of corruption and the culture of official waste.
Jonathan’s current unpopularity owes to two reasons. One is his unwillingness to declare a war against those he and his team have identified as the enemies of Nigeria – a cabal that’s been sucking Nigerians’ blood for their self-aggrandizement. The other reason is that, in a bizarre twist, he chose to declare the equivalent of an economic war against hapless Nigerians.
Jonathan and his aides have called the small gang of fuel importers all the terrible names in the dictionary. The presidency has stated that most of these importers have criminally defrauded the rest of us. Nigerians, decimated by these vampires, have no doubt that the cabal steals from them, takes food from their mouths.
But then, curiosity of curiosities, Nigerians also know that many of these same leech-importers are friends, allies or associates of the president – and of his aides. Last Saturday, Mr. Jonathan told Nigerians “tough choices have to be made to safeguard the economy and our collective survival as a nation.”
A president bent on making tough choices might have started by arresting and prosecuting those who stole billions of naira of Nigeria’s resources. That’s a test of toughness. A tough president would have ordered the Inspector-General of Police and the director general of the State Security Service (SSS) to unmask rogue importers who engaged in “round-tripping” and other scams, and asked prosecutors to put them in the dock. A tough president would have had corrupt officials of the NNPC fired, arraigned and stripped of their loot. There are government officials who collude with fuel importers to falsify import records – thereby facilitating the exploitations of Nigerians. A tough-minded president would have seen to it that these unscrupulous officials were booked, shamed, and forced to disgorge their illicit hauls.
If a president who commands all the sectors of the armed forces, the police, and secret agency cannot figure out how to deal with a small band of profiteers, how does he expect Nigerians to trust him with husbanding the savings from subsidy removal?
In fact, to remove subsidy on fuel is actually evidence of presidential softness, of a leader unwilling or afraid to make tough choices. Nigerian leaders always find it attractive and easy to take it out on the so-called “ordinary” Nigerian.
In a sense, the Nigerians protesting Jonathan’s policy on fuel subsidy are asking him to give the poor a break – for once! They are demanding that the government go after the enemy – the profiteering parasites – rather than piling more misery on the heads of already pauperized Nigerians. They are pleading with Jonathan to, for once, focus on the subsidies that need cutting – those enjoyed by the likes of the president, governors, ministers, local government councilors, and commissioners.
Last week, Jonathan announced: “The interest of the ordinary people of this country will always remain topmost in my priorities as a leader. I remain passionately committed to achieving significant and enduring improvements in our economy that will lead to sustained improvement in the lives of our people.”
There’s a singsong quality to that promise, and Nigerians have heard that many, many times before. They have heard variations of that pledge from their various governments since 1960. Six times, former President Olusegun Obasanjo reduced fuel subsidies. Each time, the argument was that the savings would be invested in projects that would improve the lives of Nigerians. Where, Nigerians ask, are those projects? If the Nigerian president cannot point to evidence that Mr. Obasanjo kept his word, how does he expect us to have faith in him?
Mr. Jonathan’s answer was to slash the salaries of his ministers by 25 percent. But that’s a token gesture, at best. In last Saturday’s speech, Jonathan declared his determination “to leave behind a better Nigeria…” Then he contended that this would entail striving “to have the resources and the means to grow our economy to be resilient, and to sustain improved livelihood for our people.” Then this: “We must act in the public interest, no matter how tough, for the pains of today cannot be compared to the benefits of tomorrow.”
Determined to take him at his word, I hereby propose that he support the removal of more objectionable subsidies that are not only indefensible but also injurious to his goal of creating “a better Nigeria.”
First, he should immediately withdraw his budget proposal to feed his family and the vice president’s with close to one billion naira. A billion naira is – wait for it – more than six million dollars! The American president is paid $400,000 a year, and he must pay for his family’s meals from his pocket. The Nigerian president should not only offer to buy his own food, he should also nudge governors to do the same.
Mr. Jonathan should also champion the removal of obscenely corrupt subsidies called security vote (for himself and governors) and constituency allowance (for Nigerian legislators). On average, each Nigerian governor collects N300 million each month as security vote. That sum is enough to pay the minimum wage of N18,000 to more than 16,000 Nigerians! The so-called security vote should be used to train and equip the police, the military and other security agencies, not handed to public officials – who then route the cash to their bank accounts.
Even if Nigeria were awash with wealth, it would still be offensive to splash sums of $1.4 million (for members of the House) and $1.7 million (fo
r senators) each quarter in the name of constituency allowance. If anything, given the size of the National and state legislatures, a cost-conscious Jonathan should advocate having lawmakers work part time. There’s no compelling reason to maintain thirty-seven full time legislatures in Nigeria.
I’d like to see President Jonathan push to sell off all the airplanes in the presidential fleet. If the British Prime Minister doesn’t own a jet, nor does a relatively rich Singapore, then there’s no excuse for the president (and other officials) of a country as economically wretched as Nigeria to have several planes.
Finally, Jonathan should demonstrate his tough-guy image – and his commitment to a better Nigeria – by empowering Nigeria’s law enforcement agencies to go after the country’s corrupt elements, including the profiteering cabal gorging on fuel subsidy. And he should show that he wouldn’t shield his corrupt friends or associates from prosecution.
Endnote: Nigerians should be disturbed by Jonathan’s recent public statement that Boko Haram has infiltrated every sector of Nigeria – among them, the legislature, judiciary and, even, the president’s circles. Is there any worse indication of a country that has collapsed unalterably? Even if Jonathan’s claim were true, should a president give his imprimatur to such damning, grim disclosure? Can one imagine the Pakistani or Afghani president telling the world that Al Qaeda had entrenched itself within official machineries of the state? Having confessed to Boko Haram’s deep entrenchment, Mr. Jonathan might as well have signed the instrument of surrender!