FUEL SUBSIDY: AN AGENDA FOR CHANGE
If one were looking for a classical example of how not to introduce potentially difficult policies to an unreceptive audience, you'd be hard put to script a better scenario than the current farce turned tragedy playing out across the length and breadth of Nigeria. Yet again, Nigeria and Nigerians are conflicted, epitomising the continent's hopes and despair.
The effective communication of policies is often detracted from by the means deployed by those charged to herald their coming. The often abrasive manner of the principal cheerleaders for deregulation (a World Bank denizen, an oil Tsarina and a cleric cum bank-of-last-resort regulator) has not served the government well. Their often strident tone has obstructed the effective articulation of the imperative for change. All in all, there has been a dearth of sensitivity and a surplus of self-righteousness in the delivery of the message.
In the twenty-first century, governments can no longer compartmentalise in the way the Jonathan administration has sought to. Its attempt to deregulate the downstream sector of Nigeria's oil industry in one fell swoop, while leaving so many other areas of disputation untouched has gone down like a lead balloon. Instead of fostering discourse on the merits or otherwise of the fuel subsidy, new media has confronted it with a Pandora's Box of discontent, throwing up a melange of issues around which a motley crew of malcontents have coalesced.
The truth, however, is that you cannot make an omelette without breaking eggs and the challenge of leadership is the challenge of making what are often difficult choices. The issues the Jonathan administration has chosen to confront, which others avoided, are as difficult as can be and there is no way their resolution will not leave a large number of people dissatisfied.
The fact that the amount being spent on bridging the cost of fuel importation with recompense for that importation is unsustainable is indisputable. The voodoo economics being deployed to reconfigure that fact may be good populist politics but it is bad economics. The levels of domestic borrowing required to continue to do so threaten to mortgage the nation's future to levels hitherto unknown. Whatever else may be said about the president, he is not without spunk. Timing, however, is everything.
Much has rightly been made of the levels of abuse that have attended the operation of the subsidy system, providing as it has, occasion and opportunity for a few persons (a 'cabal') to make indecent profits from our propensity for inefficiencies and illegalities. The government dropped the ball by first throwing up its hands in helplessness. It should not have acknowledged so readily its inability to ensure compliance with the laws of the land; in doing so, it created yet another rod for its own back.
The defects in the logistics of implementation do not impugn the duty of government to ensure that the laws of the land are obeyed. Somewhat belatedly, the government appears to have accepted this duty. What it must go on to do is to ensure that the administration of justice is both time specific and blind to the standing of our modern day robber-barons. In politics as in much else, perception is reality. At this stage, the government sorely needs to reshape perceptions.
At certain times, the old O-Level Economics question: Every economic issue is a political issue and every political issue is an economic issue, comment! comes to mind. This is such a time. We have spoken of the hard choices that leadership thrusts on mere mortals. All manner of persons with their own axes to grind are making common cause against the president; the main grievances being raised now spanning the full gamut of political and personal concerns. Those who were unable to best Jonathan at last year's general elections have resorted to outlandish calls and claims.
Clearly the agenda continues to change at a dizzying pace. The fuel price issue that brought the distemper to the table has been supplanted by broader but just as germane issues of good governance. With each passing day, the demands being made for reform grow wider and deeper; and, government increasingly finds itself trapped in a cycle of response that addresses grievances piecemeal. This approach not only weakens the foundations of public policy, it also reduces the ability to craft a holistic response to the matters at hand.
The next biggest mistake President Jonathan can make would be not seeing the writing on the wall. The people being rolled out to explain and defend the deregulation agenda have become comical caricatures and are increasingly dysfunctional because they are cast as the mirror images of the problems at hand. The longer the president goes without lancing the boil, the greater the danger of his being unable to dissociate himself from what seems like a train wreck about to happen.
We have spoken of the critical nature of the nexus between perception and reality. President Jonathan must, if he is to retain the capacity to tackle the commanding heights he has rightly set for his administration, be able to restore his street cred. At this stage, his best bet is to set the stage for large scale and wide-ranging changes by bringing the whole panoply of issues that have come to the forefront, (and many that have not), under one roof. He must take ownership of the mantra of good governance for and on behalf of the Nigerian people, and articulate what it will entail in a clear and unequivocal fashion.
He must set out an agenda for change. Good governance must be defined as leaner government. Leaner government will encompass a two-tranche approach to subsidy removal yoked to palliatives-in-place; a commitment to cut out waste across the whole of government within his purview, with measurable milestones; a disavowal of corruption that is not only real but seen to be real in its applicability and its application; and an insistence that the other arms of government and tiers of government hold themselves to levels of accountability hitherto exalted in word rather than deed. He must fashion a tent big enough to house these policies and more; in other words, he must lead by example. His Agenda for Change must be far-reaching enough to be perceived as the harbinger of true change and radical enough to regain the street.
There will, of course, be those that will tell the president that for him to take one step backwards at this time, to enable him take several steps forward later, would be a sign of his weakness but that is not the case. I remember the late Ikemba of Nnewi in a conversation we had at his residence while he was in exile in Ivory Coast in 1981 telling me that the true measure of a man lies in his ability to change. For our purposes, read change course.
It was Lenin that advocated, in language worthy of Machiavelli, that one must embrace one's enemy so as to easier suffocate him. While I do not characterise the views marshalled in opposition to the removal of the fuel subsidy as the voices of the enemy, they are the voices gathered in opposition to this administration. What the president must do is seek to cherry pick from their agenda and merge it with his own; only by so doing can he hope to restore his street cred. Without that street cred, he will effectively be a lame duck for the remaining 41 months of his administration.
A tactical retreat does not mean and must not mean that economic imperatives are no longer imperative; they are. In politics, timing is everything. Democracy is a hollow space without the art of leadership. Those that fail to acknowledge the pivotal role of leaders in democratic spaces are either determinists or in denial. History is littered with the critical function of leaders in democracies and, once again, Goodluck Ebele Jonathan stands as the central spoke in the Nigerian wheel.
Phillips writes from Lagos.