Constitutional And Ethical Contradictions Of Subsidy Removal

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Robyn Rihanna Fenty is a ravishingly young and beautiful Barbadian singer and song writer who is based in the United States of America.

In one of her most recently celebrated songs she can be heard singing that “it is exciting to see how things have changed but still remained the same”.

This paraphrased saying of this globally celebrated singer reminds me of how the politics of fuel subsidy removal or retention has played out in Nigeria in the last few years.

In the year 2012, the then Federal Government under President Goodluck Jonathan played around with the idea of pulling out all the subsidies which government pays to petroleum upstream sector operators to mitigate the pump price of premium motor spirit (pms) but this decision was widely rejected.

At that time most of the principal characters in the current Federal administration were members of the political opposition who championed the popular resistance to that plot to remove fuel subsidy.

But today, the table has since changed and those who participated in most of the street protests in 2012 to reject the policy of fuel subsidy withdrawal are in the front seats of political power in Abuja and have indeed announced the same policy they mobilized both the organized labor and the people to reject.

In 2012, before the then President announced the proposed withdrawal of fuel subsidy, the Presidency consulted widely.

The then federal government took time to offer what they say were cogent and verifiable reasons for deciding to remove the subsidy from petroleum.

The organized labor and some civil society partners kicked and rejected this decision. But at that time some of us in the civil society called on government to device much better and innovative strategies of making sure that whatever subsidy is to be paid out to bridge the cost of fuel is sent directly to the poor Nigerians. This is because of the notorious reality that the price of fuel dictates virtually the general costs of living for millions of Nigerians.

Some of us wrote position papers on how best the government can ensure that fuel subsidy is sent as payment vouchers to the poor Nigerians. It does not take rocket science for government at different levels to compile verifiable data of all the poor Nigerians that ought to qualify as direct beneficiaries of these fuel vouchers. Nigeria has a vibrant National Board of Statistics that can conduct science and evidence based data capturing of all the poor persons in Nigeria. Even during the previous Housing Census conducted by the National Population Commission a broad idea of how many poor households are in Nigeria was generated.

But the centripetal and centrifugal forces benefitting from the criminal implementation of the fuel subsidy scheme thought otherwise and continued in the business-as-usual format even till this few days prior to the satanic public announcement of the fuel price hike from N87 to N145 per liter of premium motor spirit. Since after the public notice was given by the Minister of State for Petroleum Mr. Kachikwu, there's increase in social tensions as costs of living immediately skyrocketed with a bag of rice hitherto sold for N10 , 000 now going for N20,000 even when the minimum wage of an average civil servant is just N18,000 meaning that hundreds of thousands of households relying on government salaries for survival are in for some tough times since their salaries and emolument packages can't fetch them even a bag of rice.

Again, only about 15 percent of Nigerians are gainfully employed in both the public and private sectors with millions of others roaming about in search of jobs. The 10,000 slots available as police recruitment has so far seen nearly a million young Nigerians applying signposting the notoriety of joblessness in Nigeria. Ethically this is a wrongly timed and ill informed and Ill timed public policy.

This announcement of fuel price hike is insensitive and irrational just as it is both constitutionally and ethically challenged because of the fact that it is simply an attempt by government to impose financial burden on poor Nigerians for the failings of government in stopping the theft and mismanagement of fuel subsidy by members of the elites in Nigeria over the past few years. Some of these persons who stole the subsidy money are still wielding enormous political influences in today's corridors of power.

The decision to hike fuel price did not follow global best practices because the overwhelming majority of Nigerians were not consulted in any form or shade thereby contravening the fundamentals of public policy formulation and implementation even as the action amounted to constitutional breaches on several grounds which I will expound later.

An expert on public policy Mr. R.K. Sapru writing in the book “Public Policy: formulation, implementation and evaluation”, had located the very important role the people must play in public policy formulation because democracy is the government of the people, by the people and for the people (apologies to Abraham Lincoln ).

On the specific theme of forces in the policy-making process R.K. Sapru stated thus: “power is described as the ability to bring about some change in the behavior of other people”. In a social context, it is defined as “the capacity of an individual, a group of individuals, to modify the conduct of other individuals or groups in the manner which he deserves”.

He continued thus: “in policy making, power is exercised by different individuals and groups: the members of the council of ministers, members of parliament, bureaucrats, leaders of organized interests, individual citizen, for example”.

Professor John Keane had warned in his well scripted book titled: “The Life and death of democracy”that: “in the age of monitory democracy, bossy power can no longer hide comfortably behind private masks; power relations everywhere are subjected to organized efforts by some, with the help of media, to tell other- publics of various scores about matters that had previously been hidden away, in private”.

John Keane who is a Professor of Politics at the University of Sydney and at the Wissenschaftszentrum in Berlinconcluded that in the age of public monitoring of power, democracy can no longer be seen as a done deal, or as already achieved.

Applying these thoughts to the situation at hand in Nigeria with respect to the unilateral and arbitrary hike in the pump price of petrol, the government of President Muhammadu Buharimust be reminded of her primary Constitutional duty to the people of Nigeria which is to implement only those policies that promote the well being of generality of the citizenry.

Section 16(2) (a) (b) and (c) States thus:(2)" The State shall direct its policy towards ensuring- (a) The promotion of a planned and balanced economic development;(b) That the material resources of the nation are harnessed and distributed as best as possible to serve the common good;(c) That the economic system is not operated in such a manner as to permit the concentration of wealth or the means of production and exchange in the hands of few individuals or a group"

The decision to withdraw fuel subsidy will fuel social crime and spread more poverty amongst the haves- not who are in their millions and would inevitably concentrate wealth in the hands of only a few elite who are less than one percent of the entire Nigerian population who can now import refined petrol and sell according to market forces.

This constitutional aberration must be reversed and corrected.

The argument that subsidy is bad is in itself illogical because even in the Western developed societies, those government have carefully worked out subsidy schemes for the poorest of the poor just as social security as a Constitutional obligation is kept by those governments. In Nigeria even the promise of payment of monthly stipends of N5, 000 to one million jobless Nigerians which was made during the campaign has been violated with reckless abandon.

For instance in the United States of America, farmers are paid farm subsidies. Farm subsidies are payments made and other support extended by the U.S. federal government to certain farmers and agribusinesses. Farm subsidies are also known as agricultural subsidies.

The original intent of U.S. farm subsidies according to findings made from authoritative sources was to provide economic stability to farmers during the Depression to ensure a steady domestic food supply for Americans.

The U.S. government presently pays about $20 billion in cash annually to farmers and owners of farmland. Between 1995 and 2005, the federal government of the USA reportedly paid about $250 billion in farm subsidies, per the Environmental Working Group in "Government's Continued Bailout of Agribusiness."

Congress of the United States is charged with legislating the amount of farm subsidies typically through five-year farm bills. The last, The Food, Conservation, and Energy Act of 2008 (AKA, the 2008 Food Bill ) provided $299 billion for farm subsidies, and for other rural issues as nutrition, energy, conservation and rural development.

The European Union also has special subsidy for her poor citizens which is called the Single Payment Scheme.

The Single Payment Scheme(SPS) according to sources is an agricultural subsidy scheme for farmers in the European Union. It forms part of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) and was introduced by EC Council Regulation 1782/2003.

The Single Payment Scheme is the main agricultural subsidy scheme in the European Union.

Under the Single Payment Scheme farmers are free to farm to the demands of the market. Payments are not linked to production.

In England the Single Payment Scheme is administered by the Rural Payments Agency (RPA), which is an executive agency of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra). These Western developed economies who now control the World Bank and International Monetary Fund that have mounted pressures on the Muhammadu Buhari’s administration are fantastically hypocritical since in their own Countries the poor are awarded subsidies but they are stampeding the Nigerian government to withdraw the only subsidy that services the greatest percentages of the poor citizens.

*Emmanuel Onwubiko is Head of Human rights Writers association of Nigeria and blogs @ ; .

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Articles by Emmanuel Onwubiko