By Yusufu Musa
During his inaugural address, President Bola Tinubu made what appeared to be a bold statement – ‘fuel subsidy is gone’- which I received, as many people who advocate for channelling public resources to nation building, in an inexpressible ecstasy. Though discontinuing subsidy payments made the list of his campaign promises, like his close rivals, the duo of Peter Obi of the LP and Atiku Abubakar of the PDP, the declaration came sooner than expected.
After watching his debut speech as president, many people were unsure when the order would come into force. For instance, a news item made the rounds in the first quarter of this year, suggesting that the immediate past government had dropped its plans of removing the PMS subsidy. The then minister for finance, Zainab Ahmed, swiftly issued a release to discredit the story. She said the public misunderstood their stance.
According to her, the government only expanded the hitherto planned implementation of the subsidy removal team to allow for the participation of representatives of the incoming government. She insisted that the federal government made estimates for subsidy payments until June 30, and there would be no funds for that after this date.
We gathered that Nigerians would continue buying fuel at the subsidised rate of N195 per litre. We misinterpreted it. A day later, the NNPCL raised its pump price to N550. But, had the company waited until July 1 to adjust, Nigerians would have spent long hours in petrol retail outlets. Marketers would have hoarded the fuel to create an artificial scarcity to ‘cash out’ after July 1.
It took Nigerians not long to feel the attendant effects of the policy. Transport fares immediately tripled, and prices of consumable goods have been on the increase. However, an average Nigerian is convinced that the action is necessary and is for our collective good. So, we are ready to make sacrifices for the nation. Two, a worker in Abuja who boards a cab to go to his workplace and visits his hometown only during festive thought that big men fuel their motorcades and the government only subsidises their ostentation.
From Jonathan to Buhari, corruption in the system is the loudest criticism against the subsidy. Critics of it argued, and still do that it benefits a handful of people, ‘the oil cabal’. For instance, Malam Isah Yuguda, a chieftain of the APC, disclosed that one of the cabal members approached President Buhari to say they were tired of making money [from subsidies]. Another reservation is that some marketers illegally export the product to our neighbours such as Niger, Cameroon and Benin, thus placing a heavier burden on our government to pay subsidies for what other countries enjoy. They told us that our daily consumption was not consummate with our needs.
In 2012, Ngozi Iweala, the then coordinating minister of economy, was in Lagos to tell proponents of subsidies that the subsidy funds would reduce maternal deaths in the country and the infrastructural deficit. Sanusi Lamido Sanusi followed the same pattern of thought. Their articulate points could not help convince Nigerians that paying subsidies was evil.
President Buhari was the fiercest in putting forward arguments against subsidies. He is credited with a question he did not answer in his eight years as our president – ‘Who is subsidising who?’ One of those being subsidised was in his office, but he did not take the opportunity to ask him questions. Nonetheless, his administration undertook to let the subsidies go, but in phases. The plan was to go after the PMS subsidy in the final phase.
Governors, who budget billions of naira in the name of security votes whose details are never in the public space, were angry that Buhari was too slow in abolishing subsidies for the health of the country’s economy.
With borrowing that became a ritual under the last government and the constant blame on the subsidy as the greatest impediment to our development as a nation, we were looking forward to departing from the tradition to set the economy on the path of prosperity.
Four months after making one sentence, which we believed ended the subsidy regime, several papers reported that the government paid about 162bn for subsidy in August. Onlookers have a reason to ask whether this removal will answer its purpose. Despite the hardship in the country, this news is utterly bad for Nigerians.
If the system encouraged corruption in the past and the government did away with it, how does it intend to convince Nigerians that large-scale corruption would not continue now that the subsidy is back? What assurance would the Tinubu’s government give Nigerians that importing the product to other countries will no longer continue?
Continuing to vote for such a big figure in enriching oil titans, it repeatedly pointed out they are the actual beneficiaries of subsidies, which means it has no satisfactory cause to starve the poor Nigerians any longer. The philosophy has been thrown out. The amount is not much different from what the previous governments were paying. It should unconditionally reverse the policy.
Suffering is pronounced in towns and villages. Practical strategies to alleviate the hell are not forthcoming. The government, last month, considered distributing food items to the poor. It went as far as handing funds to state governors. That is not sustainable. It would be difficult, if not impossible, for one man to take more than a sack of grain home. This man has, say, five wards under his roof. There is another chapter of life after the palliative is gone.
Yusufu Musa writes from Kaduna.