During the divisive 2023 campaign season, Nigeria’s three leading presidential candidates were unanimous on one issue: it was time to bid farewell to fuel subsidy. Candidate Atiku Abubakar, Vice-President in the regime of Olusegun Obasanjo who adopted a piecemeal approach to the removal, was in support. Candidate Peter Obi, Anambra State Governor when President Goodluck Jonathan attempted to remove it altogether, was in support. So also, was Candidate Bola Tinubu.
On New Year’s Day 2012, Jonathan’s removal of fuel subsidy awoke a wave of discontent that shut down Nigeria for days. During those days of “Occupy Nigeria”, Tinubu was hypercritical of Jonathan. In “Removal of oil subsidy—President Jonathan breaks social contract with the people”, penned in elegant prose, published in The Nation newspaper on January 11, 2012, Tinubu described fuel subsidy removal as “Jonathan tax”. His essay mirrored and nourished the sentiment of the moment, queried the sincerity of Jonathan, and the competence of Jonathan’s Okonjo-Iweala-led economic team. Its words were exquisitely chosen.
“By taking this step,” said Tinubu, “government has tossed the people into the depths of the midnight sea. Government demands the people swim to safety under their own power, claiming the attendant hardship will build character and add efficiency to the national economy. It is easy to make these claims when one is dry and on shore.”
He was right. It was not government officials who felt the shock of the “Jonathan tax”. It was the people. Cost of fuel did not reduce size of government fleet and convoys of exotic and fuel guzzling cars. President and government officials did not have to spend out of their pockets fuel cars that conveyed them. They were, indeed, “dry and on the shore”.
Trying not to demonize Jonathan, Tinubu wrote: “I am not calling President Jonathan an evil man. I do not believe he is perverse. However, the economic ideas controlling him are so misguided that they have a perverse impact.” In other words, the problem was not Jonathan as a person but what Tinubu described as Jonathan’s enslavement. “Because he is slave to wrong-headed economics, the people will become enslaved to greater misery. This crisis will bear his name and will be his legacy. The people now pay a steep tax for voting him into office. The removal of the subsidy is the ‘Jonathan tax.’” Okonjo-Iweala and members of the economic team she led disqualified themselves from high office, “by their own words”, by the reasons they proffered for removing fuel subsidy. Promoting “wrong-headed economics”, they misguided [enslaved] Jonathan.
In that essay were skepticism and cynicism: nothing good would result from the removal of subsidy. In the same essay was candour: subsidy would not be forever. In Tinubu’s candid clairvoyance, he wrote: “Though someday, Nigeria will have to remove the subsidy, the time to do it is not now. This subsidy removal is ill-timed and violates the condition precedent necessary before such a decision is made.” He unequivocally and intelligently enumerated the conditions: elimination of corruption at the NNPC, laying foundation for a robust mass transit system of railways and road network, full development of the energy sector in view of revitalizing the economy.
Just as, in 2012, Tinubu struggled not to demonize Jonathan but queried the soundness of economic policies used to justify removal of fuel subsidy, Nigerians, in 2023, will do well to struggle not to demonize our President. However, to refrain from demonization is not to be oblivious of matters arising.
First, have conditions necessary for removal of fuel subsidy, as itemized in the 2012 essay, been met? Secondly, isn’t recent removal of fuel subsidy a reenactment of government tossing the people “into the depths of the midnight sea”, while government officials are “dry on the shore”? This question arises because neither size of government, nor frequency of official peregrination, nor length of government convoys has diminished. Thirdly, isn’t this an application of the “wrong-headed economics” formulated and applied by those who disqualified themselves “from high office by their own words”? Fourthly, who are those who illegally benefitted from the defunct and discarded fuel subsidy regime? Fifthly, why have they not been identified, apprehended, and compelled to make reparations? Sixthly, and perhaps most importantly, has the “real subsidy” been removed?
The real subsidy is the 1999 constitution that imposes a big, expensive, imperial yet people-unfriendly government at federal, state and local levels. The real subsidy is the morally reprehensible cost of an anomalous status quo of government without governance in Nigeria. The real subsidy is a humongous government in Abuja legitimized by the same constitution.
The real subsidy is the scandalously huge sum spent on the last elections. The real subsidy is the amount of money spent on inauguration ceremonies of President and State Governors every four years. The real subsidy is having one President, one Vice President, 36 state governors and their deputies, 109 senators, 375 members of the House of Representatives, 36 state assemblies of varying sizes, innumerable advisers and special advisers, assistants and special assistants. The real subsidy is having a bicameral legislature when in fact a unicameral legislature would suffice.
The real subsidy is the size of the executive councils of federal and state governments. The real subsidy is the severance package given to Presidents and Governors at the conclusion of their tenure. The list I have presented is not exhaustive but illustrative, and for as long as we operate the 1999 Constitution, the real subsidy has not been removed.
In 2012, it was submitted that the Jonathan administration got its priorities wrong. I submit that Nigeria gets her priorities wrong by continuing to spend more on government without governance than she spends on the people who vote politicians into office. Will that subsidy, the real subsidy, end one day?
While we wonder and wander through our consciences for answers, there are at least two lessons to ponder. First, “Il faut être dedans.” Words of a kitchen manager to students in Kinshasa who were complaining about poor quality of the food they were being served. In other words, one needs to be inside in other to know how things work. That piece of advice may not take us far. For, you do not have to be in government before you can make legitimately constructive critique of government. We may criticize the government in place, the Tinubu presidency will bear its own share of criticisms. But we would probably be less harsh if we were well-informed.
Secondly, government fails the litmus test of democracy if and when it benefits an elected oligarchy to the detriment of the people. Can it be said without any fear of contradiction that, since May 29, 1999, we have had any government that passed this litmus test? On May 29 every four years since 1999, we have had inauguration of Presidents and Governors.
Since May 29, 1999, the people have had to watch every presidential inauguration using generators. Doesn’t that suggest that government has repeatedly worked but not for the people?
The ruling elite offers cosmetic and insufficient palliatives. That confirms what we know already: the financially healthy milk the cow while the financially anemic are conscripted and compelled to hold its horns. When our rhetoric evokes virtues, we do not practice, we reduce them to slogans. But now is the time to wisely and courageously assume the ineluctable moral obligation of removing the real subsidy.
© Rev. Fr. Professor Anthony A. Akinwale, O.P. is a Professor of Systematic Theology and Thomistic Studies and Pioneer Vice-Chancellor, Dominican University, Ibadan, NIGERIA