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Unless there is a real change on the part of govt, this promise will go the way of Buhari’s predecessors 

 Tunji Adegboyega

Last week was a harrowing one for many Nigerians. Harrowing in the sense that they were presented two unwanted gifts by the Federal Government. One was increase in fuel prices; and the other like it: increase in electricity tariffs. The fall guy for both is deregulation, with coronavirus (COVID-19) as catalyst.

The Federal Government said it had spent N10.41 trn on fuel subsidy in the last 13 years while the Buhari administration alone has expended N1.7 trillion to supplement electricity tariff shortfalls.

Although the government claimed that both price increases coming simultaneously was a coincidence, whether the First Year Ministerial Performance Review Retreat held last week was also a coincidence is what it did not tell. But it didn’t come to me as such. And, the reason is simple: it is difficult for the government to give Nigerians such bitter pills, especially at this point in time when almost everybody is groaning under the pains of COVID-19 pandemic, without also giving the impression that it was aware of the looming pains, and was, in fact, re-strategising to mitigate the impact. Power and energy are central to human existence in modern times.

The reasons adduced by the government would seem unassailable, at least at face value: its revenue had dropped by about 60 per cent. Of course, this seems commonsensical because we are all living witnesses to the dislocations that COVID-19 has caused globally. Even countries with economies that are better run have been so adversely affected, not to talk of an economy like ours which has perpetually been badly run but has nonetheless refused to collapse. 

But, if we examine the issue critically, we would see that there are many questions begging for answers on this road to deregulation. One is, whose fault is it that our economy has largely been monocultural despite repeated challenges we have had to face due to the vagaries of the price of our only product at the international market? Two, and more fundamental is what business has a major crude producing nation like ours with importation of petroleum products? I know Federal Government officials will stoutly rise in defence of the Muhammadu Buhari government on the former, that their government has done a lot to diversify the economy. To some extent, this is true. But whether what they have done in five years is enough is a different ballgame altogether. I say this with due respect to them, but when we consider the price of even our local rice (which the Federal Government has done a lot to support) we will see that we still have a long way to go. I don’t want to talk about imported ones because that is a different kettle of fish altogether.

Perhaps the biggest question which the government cannot answer is why we have found it convenient to continue to export crude oil at relatively give-away prices only to import its by-products, particularly petrol, at exorbitant prices? This is one question none of the government officials that have been defending the new policies has found convenient to go near.

Not even the Minister of Information, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, who in the course of defending the decisions, to me, merely regurgitated some of the things we have always been told about fuel subsidy right from the military era. Mum has been the word on this important question. A situation where a major crude oil producing country imports petrol is analogous to that of a butcher’s child eating bones, or that of a tailor’s wearing rags. Alhaji Mohammed rolled out what would have been beautiful statistics in support of the government’s position, except that there are holes in some, if not many, of those claims.

According to the minister, “In spite of the recent increase in the price of fuel to N162 per litre, petrol prices in Nigeria remain the lowest in the West/Central African sub-regions. Below is a comparative analysis of petrol prices in the sub-regions (Naira equivalent per litre); Nigeria (N162); Ghana (N332); Benin (N359); Togo (N300); Niger (N346); Chad (N366); Cameroon (N449); Burkina Faso ( N433); Mali (N476); Liberia (N257); Sierra Leone (N281); Guinea (N363); and Senegal (N549). Wonderful, beautiful and marvelous statistics, but they did not address how we found ourselves perpetually importing petrol. Moreover, how many of these countries are crude oil producers? How many of them that produce crude oil are as prodigal and carefree as Nigeria to be importing fuel? How many of them produce the quantum of crude that Nigeria produces? What are these countries’ cost/standard of living? Some of them, like Togo, don’t even produce oil. So, there is no basis to compare petrol price in such a country with Nigeria.

However, if we agree that the information minister is only doing his job by reeling out these statistics, it also gladdens the heart that at least one of the journalists at the press conference he addressed on the issue last week also did his by asking the minister whether the ruling party will now apologise to Nigerians for increasing the price of fuel despite promising during its electioneering campaigns in 2015 that it was going to revert the price to N65 per litre after it was raised by the previous administration to N97/litre, then reduced to N87 (mind you, it is now N162 per litre). Expectedly, the minister declined to answer the question. Rather, he said: “When you said you, I know you were referring to me (general laughter). But I refuse to take your question (more laughter).” Perhaps he would have given the reporter the Femi Fani-Kayode treatment but for the lessons learnt from that ugly incident. Perhaps his restraint was informed by the way and manner he also took the then ruling party to the cleaners in his capacity as opposition spokesperson. Perhaps both.

But the truth is; Nigerian public officials don’t like such probing questions. When they are asked such questions, they want to know who the father and mother of the journalist are. They are comfy with ‘really stupid’ question like ‘how are you enjoying the seat’? To which they tell you the seat is hot. So, what are they still doing there if the seats are as hot as they claim? One would think that someone sitting on a hot seat would be anxious to leave as early as yesterday!

Be that as it may, and with regard to power, there has been some noticeable improvement in supply, especially in recent times, at least in my area. Some other people have reported the same experience as well. But overall, it is still a far cry from what should be. One area that the government has done fairly well is in conflict resolution between customers and particularly the electricity distribution companies (DisCos). But, crazy or estimated billing is still rampant, in many cases without any bearing to actual power consumed. We have an experience with my father’s house in the Makinde area of Oshodi in Lagos, where I have left the matter in the hands of my junior ones to also let them know what people go through in this country, even to access their rights. They must be made to learn that in Nigeria, you fight for your right, it does not come on a platter.

But the way the government was talking about estimated billing, even as at last week, it was as if it is a new development. As in the past, the government’s reaction is to promise to accelerate provision of prepaid meters to consumers. Nigerians have heard this several times before.

Although the Buhari government met the Nigerian Electricity Regulatory Commission (NERC) Forum on ground, it has ensured that more Nigerians are aware of its existence and are indeed taking advantage of it in resolving their issues with the DisCos. I am a living testimony. However, because of the deluge of consumer complaints that the forum handles, especially in a place like Lagos, it takes months before many of the cases are attended to. If the saying ‘justice delayed is justice denied’ adheres, there is need to set up more of the branches in addition to the two in Lagos. Using my case as example, it took me three months to be called by the NERC Ikeja Forum and by the time my matter was disposed of, I had been cut off the National Grid for six months as I also refused to pay the disputed bills. How many Nigerians can hold on that far? Yet, it is not as if all of those who cannot wait have bad cases as we all know how many of those bills came about in the days preceding the privatisation of the sector, and even probably shortly after. I am happy to report that my matter has finally been resolved by my DisCo, but the experience could be less harrowing.

One other contradiction I found in the matter is the reference by the government to the protests that greeted the price hikes as “angry reactions” that were “unnecessary and mischievous”. Such expressions, especially after admitting the painful nature of the price hikes, are unnecessary in times like this. Indeed, they can inflame passion. Unnecessary and mischievous by/to who? If government says it cannot carry on certain responsibilities because of a 60 percent drop in its revenue, does it know how many Nigerians have had to forgo certain percentages of their salaries due to COVID-19 as well? That is for the lucky ones. Many others have lost their jobs, meaning zero revenue (government still has 60 per cent and is shedding responsibilities) for them. Yet, they must feed, pay their rent, move about in search of other jobs, etc. Should such people clap for the government in the circumstance?

The point is; the Buhari administration might have come with good intentions, it has been distracting itself unnecessarily. Water Resources Control Bill is one such distraction.

There is something wrong in a government not rejigging cabinet for years despite widespread complaints of the changing never changing. As a matter of fact, the kind of retreat that they had last week could not have been far-reaching. The government was only talking to itself. It was the same people who formulated policies, some of which we are saying are not working, that still talked to themselves. They need external perspectives for a change.

Now, the takeaway from the government in all of these is that Nigerians should be patient and that all will be well. “We certainly will not inflict hardship on our people. But we are convinced that if we stay focused on our plans, brighter and more prosperous days will come soon”, Alhaji Mohammed said. This is a cliche successive governments have been using since I was a child. Now I am getting old and it is the same plea for patience – the changing never changing.

No doubt, the Buhari administration has done some commendable things here and there. But it has largely distracted itself with unnecessary luggages that it must shed. Moreover, there are conditions precedent if, really, e go better. The government must not see constructive criticisms as the handiwork of opposition or elements who do not wish the country well. Again, if government does not have money to make life a little easier for the people, we must see evidence of that frugal lifestyle even in government. Political office holders too must tighten their belts. What they take home is scandalous and constitutes a clear and present danger to democracy and the country.

President Buhari has said he is trying his best. But Nigerians need result, not efforts. It is only when they get the result that the government can avert the situation whereby the patient would be pronounced dead even when the operation has been declared successful! Nigerians invested so much hope on this government. It should not disappoint them.

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