Nigeria Matters

Quizzing President Jonathan: Beyond Fuel Subsidy

Those who last April hailed President Goodluck Ebele Jonathan as a consummate democrat and people’s man must now solve the puzzle of how their man shed his tame demeanor for the armor of violence. It is remarkable that, despite the provocations of a failed, inept and corrupt state, Nigerians exhibited extreme restraint during their protests against raised fuel prices. By contrast, Jonathan – who has accumulated no funds of trust since finding himself the president – decided to unleash soldiers on largely peaceful protesters.

Significantly, Mr. Jonathan, who fancies himself a transformational leader, is staunchly against lifting a finger against the cabal of fuel importers that defrauded Nigerians of hundreds of billions of naira in the name of fuel subsidy. If our president ever sends a soldier to the doorstep of some member of the cabal, it would be to protect the scam artist. But when dehumanized Nigerians, their backs against the wall for decades, demand accountability and a curtailment of corruption, Mr. Jonathan suddenly remembers he’s commander-in-chief. He deploys his well-armed forces on a mission to maim and kill the victims of his (and past) government’s contemptible, self-serving policies.

Even if the protests cease, Mr. Jonathan – who seems obsessed with looking strong and decisive in dealing with impoverished Nigerians – would be mistaken to gloat. Nigeria has entered a different phase in its history, a phase in which anything can happen. A president who has depleted his goodwill, as Jonathan has done, will find himself utterly alone – and sorry – if (or when) he faces a serious test.

Transformational leader – indeed! We have on our hands a president with a knack for prescribing the wrong antidote. The major ideas of his short presidency have been uniformly off the transformational mark.

His first significant political proposal was to change the constitution in order to allow a single term of seven years for the president and governor. He sought to sell that non-starter as the panacea for the sundry maladies that plague our political space, from violent, rigged elections to corruption.

Then, faced with the scourge of terrorism that’s had a chilling effect on Nigerians in several northern cities and towns, including Abuja, and now threatens to plunge Nigeria into a sectarian war, Mr. Jonathan proposed that we pray and then patiently resign ourselves until such a time as the terrorists in our midst reach saturation point and choose to abandon their gory pastime! It was only belatedly that the president came up with the idea of targeted declaration of a state of emergency in selected local government areas. Nobody can quite say what purpose that measure is serving; nobody knows how it curtails terror.

And now, in a country roiled by the gruesome killings of worshipers leaving a Catholic Church on Christmas Day, Mr. Jonathan decided that it was a priority to remove so-called fuel subsidy on New Year’s. That singular action – thank God! – has opened Nigerians’ eyes to the essential scam and organized fraud that pass for governance in our would-be nation.

President Jonathan has entrusted the defense of his unpopular policy to the tag team of Finance Minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Petroleum Minister Diezani Alison-Madueke, and Central Bank Governor Sanusi Lamido Sanusi.

The threesome has done a wretched job of justifying the removal of subsidy. At best, their argument – made most eloquently by the CBN’s Sanusi – is that licensed fuel marketers have made a sport of defrauding Nigerians of hundreds of billions of naira in fuel subsidy. That conclusion is so impeccable that Nigerians, I conjecture, would unanimously accept its truism.

Most Nigerians part ways with Jonathan and his team only with regard to their bizarre insistence that the logical – indeed only – answer is to remove fuel subsidy. More than anything, that solution signifies a government that’s so ineffectual as to be non-existent.

So here are a few questions for Mr. Jonathan and his troika of advocates.

You have the police, the SSS, the Ministry of Justice and other law enforcement and security apparati at your disposal. How many fuel marketing fraudsters have they ever interrogated, arraigned, and prosecuted? Does it make sense to presume to run a government that permits alleged criminals to walk? Where’s the justice of imposing a burden of higher fuel prices on Nigerians instead of going after the cabal – or mafia – that gobbles up the subsidy?

Your government has accused unscrupulous Nigerian officials (NNPC, the Customs, and PPPRA) of colluding with fraudulent fuel marketers to falsify fuel import data in order to fleece the country. Again, with all the agencies at your disposal, how many of the conniving officials have you ever unmasked, fired or tried? How many have you forced to refund their ill-received gain? Why can’t your government check apparently fraudulent claims of fuel shipments against the records of the foreign refineries (that sold the fuel) and the shipping companies (that reportedly freighted them to our shores)?

Your government provides “security vote” for all the ministers. What’s the security vote? Why does any minister need such a vote? Are your ministers – say of information or agriculture – now in the (side) business of combating terrorists as well? If not, why then hand them free cash that’s deceptively couched as “security vote”? Why, in addition, do your ministers have access to as many as ten SUVs each?

To stay with this security vote matter: Do you know of any other country in the world where the president, governors, ministers and local government councilors are given cash that they need not account for – in the nebulous name of handling security? If you were dragged before a tribunal of the people and asked to explain the expenditure of your monthly security votes, would you be up to the task?

Nigerian legislators hold the world record in the salaries and allowances they collect. Every quarter, your government calmly deposits the equivalent of $1.4 million in the account of each member of the House of Representatives, and $1.7 million for senators. These payments are called constituency allowance. Please tell Nigerians how these payments advance the interests of the various constituencies, or foster the ends of development and democracy.

For that matter – yes, let’s make things a bit personal – please detail for Nigerians the impact you have made in their lives since becoming president. What are the achievements of your presidency? If you were asked to set out the achievements of each member of your cabinet, are you confident of making a case that they have served Nigeria creditably? And can you justify what they have received in compensation?

You, Mr. Jonathan, have often made the point that, given its huge population, Nigeria is not really a wealthy nation. Why then do you not realize the oddity of the presidency boasting a fleet of eight (or more) airplanes? Are you aware that many leaders of wealthier nations don’t own one jet, but must travel by commercial airlines?

Nigerian politicians are enamored of pompous titles. Former President Olusegun Obasanjo called himself the “founder of modern Nigeria.” Our senators are “distinguished,” even if they don’t know how to spell the word bill. Our ministers are “honorable,” even when they’re solely adept at dishonorable conduct. Our “excellent” governors are “icons” and boast of “totally reinventing the art of governance.” Every Nigerian political office holder trumpets her/his delivery of the “dividends of democracy” and claims to be moving the nation/state/local governm

ent area “forward.” You’ve styled yourself a transformational leader. And so it goes.

Then this: Nigerian elections are marked by corruption and violence. Do you believe, for a moment, that the politicians who perpetrate all that bribing of electoral officials and all that violence are desperate to have the opportunity to serve us?

On a routine basis, you and other officials fly abroad for medical checkups, treatments – or even to die. Why are you unwilling to enjoy the “wonderful” healthcare system that you and your cohorts have bequeathed to the rest of Nigerians? Why do you and other top government officials expend huge costs on foreign trips to seek medical treatment? If you, your ministers and governors are paying attention to bettering our nation, why are you and your ilk in a haste to send your children and wards to foreign countries for their education?

We’ve touched on Nigeria’s lawmakers, but we must return to them yet again. As arguably the world’s most expensive legislature, what exactly are their members’ achievements? What concrete contributions have they made in close to thirteen years to Nigerians’ well being? If you fit the transformational bill, why aren’t you out proposing that Nigeria change to a part time legislature – with each legislator earning allowances based on the number of sessions that she/he sits?

The immunity clause in the Nigerian constitution shields the president and his deputy as well as governors and their deputies from prosecution even when they commit crimes. Do you agree with this expansive principle of immunity? Why not champion a constitution amendment to ensure that those who commit crimes whilst in office – whether as president or governor – can be docked immediately? Remember that former President Bill Clinton of the US was tried for lying on oath about his relationship with a young intern, Monica Lewinsky. More recently, former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich was sentenced to fourteen years in jail for seeking to auction off President Barack Obama’s vacated Senate seat to the highest bidder.

In sum, why should Nigerians trust you and your government to reduce infant and maternal mortality rates and improve the country’s infrastructure when you can’t handle the simple task of identifying a handful of leeches who’ve been stealing from fuel subsidy funds? Why should the rest of us endure inhuman, serf-worthy privations while you and your inept team live like emperors and unconscionable conquerors?

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