NIGERIAN MOVIE STARS ADD THEIR PROTESTS TOO!
FROM TELL MAGAZINE,NIGERIA
Tackling the Subsidy Mess
Written by Adejuwon Soyinka
Protesters on the road in Abuja, the FCT Protesters on the road in Abuja, the FCT
More than the sudden total removal of subsidy on petrol, a combination of corruption, opulent lifestyle of political office holders and mismanagement of resources by successive governments appears to be the main reasons fuelling the people’s anger and the driving force of the nationwide strike
She appeared ruffled and desperate. Clutching her baby behind her as she searched through heaps of refuse, the woman simply identified as Mama Tola was totally oblivious of her environment. All attempts to stop her from further running her hands through the smelly rubbish fell on deaf ears. “I can’t stop searching for it. It is the food I had just prepared for my baby and I cannot afford to get her another one,” she said. Too poor to afford a food flask, the woman had packaged her child’s food in a black polythene bag, which a neighbour mistook for rubbish and threw in the trash can. By the time she came looking for the polythene bag, the can had been emptied into a waste disposal truck. But since the waste disposal truck was still within the neighbourhood, Mama Tola thought it expedient to retrieve her baby food from it.
Reminded that even if she were to retrieve the food, it would be unhygienic to give to her baby, the woman who ekes a living by sweeping houses within her Orile Agege, Lagos neighbourhood, was not bothered. “I can’t afford to prepare another food for her today again so I have to get this one or she will go hungry,” she explained. Mama Tola only stopped searching through the refuse when a neighbour offered her some money to make her baby another food.
She is not the only one faced with this kind of situation. Also in the same category with her is Emeka Anyaoso, an Imo State indigene, resident in the Ikeja area of Lagos. The father of four has been jobless for over three years after he was laid off at a tomato canning company in Lagos. Anyaoso was relieved of his duties when the company went under. Since then, he has had to struggle to feed his family. Towards the end of 2011, Anyaoso’s situation became so stringent that he had to send his son to a neighbour’s house to beg for food on Christmas day. That strategy is not his exclusive preserve. Every weekend, there are Nigerians who send their children to different party venues around their neighbourhood armed with big polythene bags. Their mission: Scavenge for leftover foods and drinks. The family will then feed on that for as long as it can last.
For this class of Nigerians, making a living and feeding had been a difficult task even before the federal government suddenly announced the total removal of fuel subsidy on January 1. With the rising level of unemployment particularly among the youths, the poverty situation has been compounded. In 2009, 70 million Nigerians, about half of the nation’s population, were said to be living below poverty line, relying on $1 per day. At that time, according to Magnus Kpakol, coordinator of the National Poverty Eradication Programme, NAPEP, the geo-political breakdown showed poverty much more grinding in the northeast and northwest with 72.2 per cent and 71.2 per cent respectively. They were followed by north-central, 67 per cent; southwest, 43 per cent; south-south, 36.1 per cent; and southeast, 26.7 per cent. Right now, with prices of goods and services going up by over 100 per cent, their situation is better imagined than experienced. Thus, many Nigerians appear to have been pushed to the wall such that the removal of fuel subsidy was just a catalyst for them to vent their pent-up anger. This much was captured by the Financial Times of London in its editorial last Tuesday. “Nigerians are justifiably angry,” the newspaper observes. “Since President Goodluck Jonathan’s government lifted a longstanding subsidy on fuel, the pump price of petrol has more than doubled, transport costs have soared and food prices jumped. For tens of millions of Nigerians living on the edge this represents a hardship too far. Moreover, it is one that has been imposed before the government can claim either to have raised living standards or significantly improved service delivery,” the newspaper argues.
Even then, the newspaper is not faulting the removal of fuel subsidy by the Jonathan administration. It actually subscribes to the opinion that subsidy has to go. Said the newspaper: “Every government for the past 30 years in Nigeria, both civilian and military, has known as much. What is questionable is the timing. An Islamist insurrection is threatening the fabric of the federation and dividing Nigerians along religious lines. The policy is the right one, but the reckless way he (the President) has gone about it risks pouring fuel on existing fires.” In the opinion of the paper, the federal government got it wrong on two fronts: timing and approach.
Nasir El-Rufai, former minister of the Federal Capital Territory, FCT, Abuja, who is not known to be a fan of the administration, shares the newspaper’s sentiments. In addition to the wrong timing, El-Rufai said the policy would only further punish Nigerians who for many years have been impoverished by a combination of corruption and mismanagement of resources by successive governments. As far as he is concerned, Nigerians have no business living in the throes of poverty but for the fact that they have actually been made to subsidise the government for so long. “When a Nigerian pays N65 for fuel rather than N40, he is subsidising the incompetence of government by N25.
When a Nigerian has to buy a generator and buy petrol and diesel because electricity generation is worse off, he is subsidising the incompetence in government. When a Nigerian has to drill a borehole, buy pure water or bottled water rather than get public potable tap water, he is subsidising the inefficiency of government,” he says.
El-Rufai is also of the opinion that, “when a Nigerian has to maintain three phone lines or three different Internet subscriptions just because of call quality or crippled bandwidth, he is subsidising the failures of government regulation. When a Nigerian has to pay heavily to secure his life and property through personnel and gadgets, he is subsidising the failure of government to protect him constitutionally. For bad roads, we subsidise by having to visit the mechanic more often than usual or sometimes with our lives.”
“Situations such as these,” says Tunde Bakare, pastor and convener, Save Nigeria Group, SNG, “are some of the real reasons Nigerians took to the streets in protest last week.” For many of the protesters, the federal government’s decision to totally remove subsidy on premium motor spirit, PMS, otherwise known as petrol, was the proverbial last straw that broke the camel’s back. As they protested, shutting down the country’s economy last week, many insisted that government had no moral right to ask the people to pay more for what were obviously its failings. Many argued that the reasons cited by government for removal of fuel subsidy reek of corruption and ineptitude.
These are equally the views of Bakare. “In addition to the reversal of this painful overdose of punishment on Nigerians, we also demand that the issue of corruption in Nigeria, and in the oil subsector in particular, be addressed at this time. This is a golden opportunity to do just that,” Bakare declared, adding that “the monumental corruption in NNPC (Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation) stinks to high heavens. As at today, nobody in Nigeria, with the exception of a few NNPC officials, knows how much we make from the oil sector. For example, if crude oil is sold in naira today and payment is made 90 days after at a higher dollar denomination, the figures usually released in Abuja are based on the lower naira denomination at the time of sale. The question is, what has happened to the difference? The obvious answer is corruption.”
To convince the people about its seriousness, Bakare who was vice-presidential candidate of the Congress for Progressive Change, CPC, in last April general elections wants government to arrest and prosecute those responsible for corruption in the downstream sector of the oil industry. That is one issue that gets the people angry. That was the submission of one of the associates of Dino Melaye, former member of the House of Representatives, earlier arrested by the security ahead of last week’s protest, after his release by the police. According to him, “This is a government that is strong against the weak, but weak against the strong.” The argument is that Nigerians are being made to pay for the greed of the influential few. Not only that, Bakare also wants government to reduce its overhead cost. Said he: “It is pure madness that over 70 per cent of our annual budget is spent on financing the fancy and appetite of our political office holders. In the current 2012 budget before the National Assembly, the Presidency alone has a feeding allowance of approximately N1 billion. Over N1 billion is budgeted for medical treatment at the Aso Rock clinic. Over N1 billion has been allocated for fuel and generators. The Presidency has also budgeted N280 million to buy two bullet-proof cars, and N300 million for dining sets. The least security vote allocated to governors is N6 billion a year; some governors receive over N1 billion a month. This unbridled folly must be challenged and thwarted.”
This line of argument is pointing at the increasing cost of governance in all the three tiers of government, the sickening level of waste by politically exposed persons, their inability to fight corruption and their penchant to be strong on the weak and almost spineless in tackling the strong. Again, it is believed that most Nigerian leaders are always quick to ask the governed to make sacrifices while they, the leaders, feed fat on the system.
Apparently unwilling to be tagged a selfish leader who also condones corruption, President Goodluck Jonathan in a national broadcast on the eve of the mass strike announced government’s decision to equally make sacrifices and fight corruption. “To save Nigeria, we must all be prepared to make sacrifices. On the part of government, we are taking several measures aimed at cutting the size and cost of governance, including ongoing and continuous effort to reduce the size of our recurrent expenditure and increase capital spending.” In this regard, the President said he has directed that overseas travels by all political office holders, including himself, should be reduced to the barest minimum. The size of delegations on foreign trips will also be drastically reduced while only trips that are absolutely necessary will be approved.
The President then went further to add what he considered a clincher. “For the year 2012, the basic salaries of all political office holders in the executive arm of government will be reduced by 25 per cent,” he said.
But this offer, which many describe as belated and an afterthought, has since been taken apart by the opposition parties, labour movements and civil society groups. The Action Congress of Nigeria, ACN, described it as “mere tokenism.” Francis Njoku, a legal practitioner, wonders what percentage of the total take home pay of political office holders does their basic salary represent. “We all know that the basic salary is very small. Why limit it (the cut) to the basic salary. If the President wanted to be taken seriously, the cut should have affected the entire emolument, not basic salary that is nothing. It shows that this administration is not serious about trying to create equilibrium in sacrifices. We all know that their allowances are mind-blowing.”
This is equally the view of Peter Ozo-Eson, chief economist, Nigeria Labour Congress, NLC, Abuja. “If we must face reality, the cost of maintaining the executive, as well as the legislature, is becoming a burden [on] the economy. This has nothing to do with their salaries. Even if you place Mr. President on zero salary, the office would still be attractive because a colossal amount of money is spent on his feeding alone, not to talk of other allowances,” he argued.
This perhaps explains why Njoku asks, “What business [do] the President and his vice have placing the burden of the feeding of their families on people, budgeting N1 billion for their food when they are paid salaries? Why should the Senate president be earning N600 million annually in all allowances? Is that not madness?”
And he sure has good reasons for saying so. Members of the Nigerian legislature are some of the highest paid in the world. Senators in the United States, US, earn about $6,000 (or N948,000 monthly or N11.4 million per annum) and that is about what a university professor, or a director in a state department, or a doctor with 20 years experience, or a teacher with 25 years experience earns in the US.
In Nigeria, a senator earns N245 million per annum, representing the salaries of about 25 vice chancellors or 50 medical doctors or 60 directors in the public service or 500 schoolteachers. The Nigerian senator’s salary, which is far in excess of what Barack Obama earns as US President, still excludes a severance package running into several millions of naira.
This is also in spite of the fact that upon resumption of office, each of the senators for instance is paid a lump sum of N130 million. This was said to have been the monetised value of their housing in Abuja, cost of setting up a constituency office as well as for the purchase of an official car. In spite of this provision, each of the senators still got an official car bought at government’s expense purportedly for community work. Commenting on the legislators’ mouth-watering salaries and allowances in Abuja during the nation’s 51st independence anniversary last October, Richard Dowden, a British journalist, had described as unacceptable the fact that Nigeria, a country with 10 per cent of the world’s maternal and child mortality and 10 per cent of the world’s children out of school, has the highest paid politicians in the world. “1 million dollars for a parliamentary salary with another 1 million dollars in expenses is obscene,” noted Dowden.
But the wastage in government is not limited to that. For instance, whereas the US President has only two aircraft, Nigeria’s President has nine in his fleet and voted money recently to buy one more. The British Prime Minister has only two official cars; his counterpart in Nigeria has about 23 in his pool and only recently voted N300 million to buy two more bullet-proof cars. The US, almost the size of the entire African continent, with about 312.8 million people, is administered by a President assisted by 24 ministers working through 32 government parastatals and commissions. In Nigeria, the President has 42 cabinet ministers and 20 special advisers all working through over 400 government parastatals, many of which workers are so idle that even the President or even the supervisory minister may not know they exist.
Whereas government argues that the N1.3 trillion spent on fuel subsidy within the last one year was unsustainable, nothing has yet been done about the revelation of Hamman Tukur, former chairman of the Revenue Mobilisation, Allocation and Fiscal Commission, RMAFC, that government spends about the same amount yearly on the emoluments of federal government, 36 states and 774 local governments’ political, public and judicial office holders.
While announcing federal government’s decision to equally make sacrifices, Jonathan said his administration is already looking at committees, commissions and parastatals with overlapping responsibilities while calling on all ministries, departments and agencies of government to cut down on their overheads.
Onyekachi Ubani, a lawyer and social activist on his part, says the sacrifices announced by the President are simply not enough. “We have gone beyond salary, we are talking about gross corruption and ineptitude in government,” Ubani said.
In search of a solution, Njoku says political office holders should not live above the means of Nigeria as a country. “A situation whereby over one third of the budget is spent on political office holders, that is where the problem lies, and not the peanut that is purported to be spent subsidising petrol. One should expect a minimum of 50 per cent reduction in the total emolument of every political office holder and their advisers,” Njoku said.
For those in this school of thought, there are examples to draw from other parts of the world. Concerned about growing complaints over income inequality and rising prices for housing, transport and other basics, the government of Singapore recently decided to effect a pay cut of 36 per cent. The pay cut saw the salary of Lee Hsien Loong, the country’s prime minister, reduced by over $1 million. He is not alone. David Cameron, prime minister of Britain, did that when he got to office. Faced with the economic meltdown, Obama decided to freeze his salary and those of his cabinet members and all federal workers.
Beyond pay cut, Reclaim Nigeria Group, a social rights movement, wants government to prove its seriousness by putting in place a law that makes stealing of public funds an offence punishable with public execution. The group also wants the immunity clause, protecting governors and the President from litigations, to be removed at both the state and federal levels. In addition to that, the group wants the President to sell off all the aircraft in the presidential fleet; sell the presidential villa and replace it with not more than 6-bedroom apartment; provide not more than one official car and no foreign medical treatment for any political appointee. The group is also calling for the scrapping of the office of the First Lady among others while adding that “we are the employers of the President and his appointees, anyone who is not satisfied with this term of engagement should resign.” But Nigeria is not in want of a law against sharp practices; it is just that there is a great deal of impunity among political office holders. Aside from that, the call for the scrapping of immunity clause has been a vexed issue over the years. But Nigerians suspect that there is a conspiracy between the executive and the legislature over this matter.
On his part, the President appears as equally concerned about the issues agitating protesters. “If I were not here to lead the process of national renewal, if I were in your shoes at this moment, I probably would have reacted in the same manner as some of our compatriots, or hold the same critical views about government,” he said. He, however, said that though these are tough times, “tough choices have to be made to safeguard the economy and our collective survival as a nation.” He said his administration is also concerned about the challenge posed by corruption while insisting that the deregulation policy is the strongest measure to tackle this challenge in the downstream oil sector.
But Bola Tinubu, former governor of Lagos State and leader of ACN, says if government were sincere in this regard, it would have used an entirely different strategy. He argued that government ought to have looked at the removal of fuel subsidy as an evolutionary, long-term process instead of as a sudden event accomplished by executive fiat.
“If government had proceeded along these lines, it would have first perfected the plans for the new programmes and projects that would receive the funds previously allocated the subsidy. These plans would have been in place and ready to implement. Only then would the subsidy be removed. To say that they will develop programmes once the subsidy is removed suggests government’s heart is not in these alternatives. Government only raised this possibility as a public relations afterthought to douse public opposition,” Tinubu reasoned.
Diezani Alison-Madueke, minister for Petroleum Resources, disagreed. “If the issue of fuel subsidy was removed earlier as part of the components of deregulation, by now we would have seen private companies both indigenous and foreign investors in both domestic and export-oriented refineries across the country as they did in the upstream sector,” the minister said.
With that statement, Alison-Madueke may be trying to pass a message that the current crisis has a history that predates the Jonathan administration. The Olusegun Obasanjo administration actually started the process of full deregulation of the downstream sector of the oil industry. The administration sold 51 per cent of government’s shares in the Port Harcourt Refinery to the Bluestar Oil Services Limited Consortium, owned by Aliko Dangote and Femi Otedola, both businessmen. The process was however truncated by the late president Umaru Yar’Adua government following agitations from the labour movement and civil society groups that the sale of the refinery be reversed.
Abubakar Yar’Adua, the then group managing director, GMD, NNPC, appeared before a Senate committee to also argue that the corporation was capable of turning the refinery around, adding that it was actually prevented from doing that by the Obasanjo administration which he claimed was more interested in selling the plant. He also argued that what the nation needed to do was to devote money to the repairs of the existing four refineries and also build new ones. The then NNPC GMD promised to deliver the well-refurbished refineries in six months.
In view of this, government refunded $721 million to the Bluestar Consortium while $80 million was released to the NNPC for the repairs of the four refineries. Over four years after, the refineries are still functioning at less than 30 per cent of installed capacity, necessitating importation of petroleum products and provision of heavy subsidy by the government. These are some of the reasons Nigerians are now wary of trusting the current administration or any of its agencies when it promised to use monies saved from removal of subsidy to repair the existing refineries or build other public infrastructure.
But what is the way forward? As far as El-Rufai is concerned, those giving economic arguments for or against fuel subsidy withdrawal miss the point totally. “It is not about economics. It is about trust… from about 2010 till date, nearly N10 trillion has been spent on government officials, trips abroad and other perquisites. In the 2012 budget, National Assembly intends to spend N150 billion on itself, the same amount as in 2011 to pay those huge allowances. It has not been reduced. That is the issue and government can only earn that trust through small steps,” he said.
There is a dilemma here. To earn the people’s trust requires time, which Jonathan’s government does not appear to have in abundance. The federal government needs to move fast to resolve the stalemate. This is why many stress the need for labour and government to reach a consensus so that the country can move forward.
Additional reports by HELEN ENI, RAYMOND MORDI, AYODEJI ADEYEMI, ARUKAINO UMUKORO and ABIOLA ODUTOLA
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Adejuwon Soyinka is a Senior Assistant Editor/Head, Features desk and member, Editorial board of TELL Magazine. He is a journalist and writer with over 11 years experience. A graduate of the Lagos State University, Ojo, Lagos where he obtained a Bachelor of Arts degree in History and International Relations, Soyinka also took professional journalism training at the Nigerian Institute of Journalism, Ogba, Lagos. He also holds a diploma in Law degree from the Lagos State University.
Soyinka started his career as a journalist at TELL, Nigeria’s foremost investigative news magazine in 1999. He has over the years, had the privilege of networking and interacting with key individuals in virtually every sector of the Nigerian economy.
As a journalist, Soyinka has reported almost all the major sectors of the Nigerian society, economy and politics. In the process, he has been able to develop very robust relationships with individuals and organizations cutting across the various segments of the society both in the private and public sectors.
He has also worked at The PUNCH Newspaper as a Senior Correspondent from May, 2006 to July 2007. During this period, Soyinka reported health, education as well as wrote feature stories on subject areas like science, health, education and other development issues.
The rich, deep and varying degree of Soyinka’s experience can be aptly demonstrated by mentioning the fact that he won the Aviation sector reporter of the year award at the 2006 Nigerian Media Merit Award (NMMA). At the same event, he was equally adjudged runner up for the Political Reporter of the year award. Soyinka was also runner up Political reporter of the year award, NMMA, 2005, runner up Environment Reporter of the Year, 2007 and 2009, NMMA; winner, Professor Wole Soyinka Prize for Investigative Reporting, 2009, winner, Capital Market reporter of the year award, 2009; Winner, NMMA, Environment reporter of the Year Award and Winner, NMMA, Human Rights Reporter of Year Award both in 2010 among others.
He also had the privilege of taking a six-month break from active journalism between January and May, 2006 to work with an International development organization with a lot of experience in the Nigerian oil and gas sector.
During this period, his responsibilities were two-fold: Manage a portfolio of oil companies to whom he provided community relations/media consultancy services and drive a process of change in information management within the organization.
As a news manager, Soyinka is currently responsible for the coordination of the Features desk of TELL magazine. He is also directly responsible for generating story ideas and editing stories to be published in the Front of the Book, FOB and Back of the Book, BOB sections of the magazine, which includes every other story published by the magazine except the Cover story, Business stories and Politics, the other broad sections of the magazine.
Soyinka is married to Adebukola CEO, JADES communications Limited and the marriage is blessed with two girls and a boy.
We suspended strike, mass protests to avoid massacre —Owei Lakemfa
Written by Soji-Eze Fagbemi, Sunday, 22 January 2012
Against the popular belief, the Acting General Secretary of the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC), Comrade Owei Lakemfa, in this exclusive interview with our Assistant Editor, Soji-Eze Fagbemi, revealed the main reasons behind the Trade Union Congress (TUC) and NLC’s suspension of the general strike and mass protests against the fuel subsidy removal, even when their demand for reversal to N65 per litre was not met.
Comrade, in terms of success or otherwise, how will you describe the last general strike and mass protests over the removal of fuel subsidy by President Goodluck Jonathan?
The last strike and mass protests came at a huge cost in human lives. We are still compiling the figures of those who died and those that were injured, but the country has lost at least about 25 persons. The deaths were avoidable; take for instance the youths that were playing football and were shot by the police. So, it was a challenging period for all of us and we want to ensure that they did not die in vain and that those that were injured also do not suffer in vain.
In the process, Nigerians showed that sovereignty belongs to them and re-asserted such sovereignty. The message they sent out is that no government can take them for granted and we know that that basic lesson has been learnt by this administration and also by politicians who may aspire to public office. The third thing is that the government was made to shift its position which they had earlier said could not be reversed. The Nigerian people through their mass actions have shown that they can move mountains.
Another point is about corruption especially in the oil sector, because the oil sector is corruption-ridden, in fact the other name for the oil sector is corruption. We are trying to push the government and the government is saying that there is nothing they can do about it. But we are saying no, you can do something about it, Nigerians should not be made to suffer for such corruption in the sector. Now, the government has asked the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) to move in and they are probing.
The House of Representatives is also doing a good job through the Hon. Faruk Lawan Committee and we can see the revelations. In fact, all the government agencies have various versions of all that is happening.
What has happened is that the truth is the major casualty in all these. We did not know how many litres of fuel, PMS we consume in this country. We have disputed the figures that it is up to 34 or 35 million litre per day and we said we want a practical demonstration to find out how we consume about 34 or 35 million litres a day. And that is what the government said; even the minister of petroleum gave those figures that we are consuming those figures of fuel in a day.
The presidency has given those figures, only for the Petroleum Products’ Pricing Regulatory Agency (PPPRA) to now come out to say that they are paying for 59 million litres a day. So, you can see the monumental fraud there. The Customs have come out to say that they don’t know anything about the importation in the oil industry.
That they are told to stay clear, so they don’t know or have anything about the bill of lading for ships bringing PMS to Nigeria. And so we have scored successes in those ones, and of course in showing that the N1.34 trillion the government has been claiming to be spending on subsidy is false.
The Minister of Petroleum last week admitted under oath in the House of Representative that the N1.34 trillion the government was talking about included payment for 2009 and 2010 and not the 2011 they are claiming. She also admitted that even out of that N1.34 trillion, at least N300 billion of it went for kerosene subsidy and not for PMS.
So, we have some of those gains that we have better information. Of course, the NLC along with the TUC had stated this when we met the President, that many of the claims by the Finance Minister, Mrs Okonjo Iweala, were false, that they had manipulated figures to suit their purpose and the cabals in the oil industry. At that point, the President had told us that ‘okay, we would want you to disprove us by bringing your own statistics.’
But as you can see, even the government itself had admitted that these things are fraudulent. For instance the Kolade Committee that is supposed to implement the SURE Programme is supposed to be working on some figures. Out of the N1.34 trillion, about N500 billion would go to the Federal Government but as you can see, there is no N1.3 trillion in the first place.
So, we think these are gains and what we need to do is consolidate on those gains. That is why we are going to engage the Alfa Belgore Committee which the government has set up, and we are also telling Nigerians, please don’t give up. Don’t just let these eight days protests end like this. If you have information, bring out. Let us continue to push, because what those eight days show is that we as Nigerians, in unity of purpose, we can bring about a change in our country, better governance is the basic thing we should evolve.
Initially, you demanded for a reversal to N65 per litre but the government merely reduced it to N97. Why did you suspend the strike when government did not meet your demand?
In the first place, we stopped the protests and rallies before the President even announced anything. As the organisers of those mass actions, as the people who have mobilised and brought tens of millions of Nigerians on the streets, at every given time, we are to analyse information that was coming in. Get information, analyse it and take decisions and one thing that was paramount in our mind is that we must do this thing peacefully and that there must be no loss of lives or even injuries.
That was paramount to us, but we knew that the government, the forces we are confronting, might not have such mind and might want to shoot, which happened in a number of cases. Secondly, we were quite conscious of the security situation in the country and that was why we warned the government months before that we have security challenges in Nigeria that are very serious like the bombings going on in most parts of the North, armed robbers that have taken over many states in the West, and kidnappers in the South-South and the South-East. We told government that ‘there were these security challenges, so don’t compound it by carrying out a policy that will mobilise the people solidly against you, because that time, you will then divert attention from the issue.’ And that was what happened, the entire government attentions, security forces, the Armed Forces, Police and State Security were diverted to the issue of strikes and protests, leaving the primary issue of security. So, we had mentioned those issues.
We continued to analyse the situation and by Saturday it was clear that the government was going for broke. By Sunday morning, we knew it was.
It was at that time we knew that the government had called all the governors together; we knew they are going for broke. Shortly before that meeting, we got hints that the Armed Forces had been let loose to go into the cities like Lagos, Abuja and Kano and take them over by force, get protesters off the street. We knew the Army was not going to use tear-gas, they are not going to use sticks or batons, we knew they were not going to use water cannons or rubber bullets; that they were going to use life ammunitions.
So that Sunday, we had to debate until the early hours of Monday, till past 2 a.m.; we had to discuss and debate whether we should stand, ask the people to continue protesting on the streets and confront the soldiers, police, the Navy and the Air Force who were there to shoot and kill which could then result in a massacre. It is not as if we thought that if there was a massacre, therefore the government would win, no! We knew that that point is a point of no return that anything could happen.
So the government was really ready to kill?
That was why they sent out soldiers. When you send out soldiers to seize streets from determined people, you are not sending them to go and hold a rally or negotiations, you are sending them to go and shoot and kill. And so, we had to debate and discuss whether we should risk that or begin immediate demobilisation, get people off the streets and go on with the small gains we have got including the lesson learnt. We debated that, it was a major thing and we thought as at that 2.30 a.m. on Monday morning, 16 January, that we should ask for a tactical withdrawal of Nigerians from the streets with our heads held high. So, it had nothing to do with the price of a litre of fuel at that point. In any case, this was announced the next day. It was not whether they offered us N97, no! We did not negotiate with the government, we did not. Hopefully now, we would go on and negotiate.
From what you can read on the social networks, many Nigerians are already blaming labour, accusing labour of collecting money to suspend the strike, how will you enlighten them to know the truth?
We don’t need to let anybody know whether we collected money or not, it is not an issue, because if it was about money, then we didn’t need to go on strike in the first place. If it was about money, then we wouldn’t have to let the strike linger for more than one day when it was very clear that Nigerians were angry and the government knew it. But you see, Nigerians have become quite sceptical. They would just think that nothing will happen without money. But I have told you what the issue was.
We had an obligation that we led Nigerians in their millions out on the streets; we had the duties and obligation to bring them back to their homes and their offices.
You said you were not in agreement with the Federal Government on the fixed N97 per litre of fuel?
Yes. We didn’t negotiate anything with them.
So, what is the way forward?
The way forward for us is that these revelations can also lead us to our own conviction that N65 was too high for us to pay in the first place. These revelations, provided the government is also interested, can lead the Belgore Committee in a different direction from the so called withdrawal of fuel subsidy. They might just find out that there is no subsidy in the first place, or as it has been shown in the House of Representatives, that the subsidy is mainly about fraud. About fuel that did not come into this country which they know because if the Minister of Petroleum and in fact the Presidency come out to say that we are consuming 34 million but in trying to find out whether it is true and the PPPRA says it is 59 million they are paying for, do you need anybody to tell you that it is all a fraudulent venture? And the whole thing about the PPPRA template is also a padded thing.
So, you are going to engage the Belgore Committee?
Beyond the Belgore Committee, we are also going to engage government and put pressure for good governance. The President of the country had addressed the nation and told us they are going to cut the cost of governance.
We would be pursuing that to ensure that the cost of governance is actually cut. The President of the country has told us that he is going to go after economic saboteurs who are destroying our economy, causing economy adversity, so we would have to follow this up to ensure that is done. The President of the country has said they would cleanse the oil industry; we are interested in cleansing the oil industry.
What are you presenting before the committee?
The Belgore Committee?
As you know, there are all sorts of facts that are available. Even if we are not going to bring our own fact, if we are going to rely on government facts, facts presented by the petroleum minister, by the NNPC, by the PPPRA, facts presented by Customs, by NEITI, they just show that the whole thing is just a fraudulent venture. Even if we are just going to use the facts presented by government agencies and government’s spokespersons, you know it is fraudulent.
Then of course we have our own facts, and we also have statistics that show that if we are going to refine fuel, we may not pay more than N40 per litre. We are going to present that fact to government, let them disprove it. If we are going to import fuel, we also may not pay up to N65.
Despite the suspension of the general strike and mass rallies by the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) and the Trade Union Congress (TUC), some groups of people still want to continue. What is labour’s conclusion on this?
The labour movement has led those protests and strikes and we have had this modest success. Any where any day, we will hold our heads high. We do not owe apology to anybody for our decision to stop a massacre on our streets. Now, there are some bodies, associations or politicians that said ‘no you shouldn`t have done that and we are going on with the fight,’ we say please go on, you have the constitutional and fundamental human rights to go on. We embarked on strikes and protests; we are not stopping anybody from doing that.
We are saying that we do not have the same objectives. Labour is not interested in regime change or change of government; we are interested in ensuring that governance is better, that we participate in the act of governance.
We are interested in a better country, we are interested in pushing our leaders, we are interested in insisting before the leadership of this country in accordance with Section 14 of the Nigerian Constitution that sovereignty belongs to the Nigeria people.
We are interested in fundamental human rights, we are interested in cutting the cost of governance, we are interested in ridding our country of corruption to the barest minimum and on all those we insist.
If there is need for a change of government, let us go to the ballot box through our constitution. The NLC and the TUC are not interested in changing government through any means except through the constitution.
But when you know these things initially, why did you allow those people making such statements to be part of the labour rallies and mass protests?
When we mobilised Nigerians, we said please come out on the streets and ventilate your feelings, organise protests in your communities, organise rallies, organise street protests in your cities and wherever you are, go on strike, shut the markets, shut air space, shut the roads, shut the country, shut the ports. However, we did not say people of certain political inclination, or politicians are excluded because these people, as far as labour is concerned, are Nigerians.
They and their political parties have the rights to demand for a change, for a replacement of government; what we just insisted on is that they should do it through the ballot box. So if a party comes out and say ‘if we are power we will not allow this kind of things to happen, in fact, if we come to power we are going to reverse this whole thing, they have the right to converse.’ We were not going to, and we are still not going to start censorship to decide what A can say and what B cannot say. No, the NLC is not interested in that.
Nigerians are free people; they have the right to canvass their position. We just say as labour, we want this position, if we are going to have a change, let it be through the ballot box.
With your continued engagement with government from now, do you still see the possibility that the fuel price can come down from the present N97 in the near future?
We are asking government to be led by facts, not by conclusion. So, if you go through the facts and we come into conclusion that the price of fuel should be lower, even lower than N65, there is no reason why government should not accept. Secondly, we are saying that there is nothing wrong in any manner with subsidy.
It is not a crime, in fact it should be part of governance to subsidise your people in various ways, especially in a sector as vital as the oil sector, which has immediate implication and can affect the people negatively. That in line with any type of economy system, we must have a comparative advantage for what we produce, and so when they say market forces, we say no, if we produce oil, then we must have some benefits for producing it. After all, we are suffering from economic problems, environmental degradation, disruption of our waters, of our wells, of our farms and the air we breathe and so you cannot come and tell me that we are going to get the same thing as the non-oil producers are getting. So, there is nothing wrong in subsidy.
From my understanding of the issue, it is not that labour is totally against deregulation, but from time, labour has been demanding for certain things to…(cuts in)
What is deregulation? Deregulation for Nigerian government is increase in fuel price, so it is not deregulation.
But you are canvassing for certain things to be on ground, such as good and effective transportation system, adequate power supply and the rest before subsidy can be tampered with?
We are even saying that those are basic needs.
Electricity is not a new technology and all modern countries whether it is China, USA, Germany or Russia have developed using electricity. Electricity is not something that should not be affordable, electricity is a need, so it makes sense for any government to provide electricity. Not just a provision but also to ensure it is extremely cheap and can be used by people for development. The same thing about roads, people should be able to move around.
The same thing about mass transit, you cannot have a country of 167 million people and you do not have a mass transit system like rail to move people from one point to the other. So you don’t even need the whole issue of fuel subsidy withdrawal or any battle about fuel to provide these things.
They are basic needs and it is a shame for any government to come out and say because we are going to provide this, so we withdraw this. Don’t forget we have budgetary provisions, what are they used for.