JONATHAN'S TWO QUIET MONTHS
Two months have gone quietly by, and Nigeria's transformational president has failed to transform a single thing.
It's one of the amazements of Nigerian life that the tumultuous events of last January seem now so terribly dim and faraway. But it was in January, two short months ago, that President Goodluck Jonathan incautiously increased the price of fuel. That policy in turn precipitated one of the staunchest, though ultimately short-lived, acts of mass resistance in recent Nigerian history.
After months of trying, the best argument the government was able to marshal for what was officially billed as fuel subsidy removal was that unconscionable fuel marketers had exploited the system to steal the nation to the brink of bankruptcy. In other words, the Jonathan government essentially pleaded corruption (by its bureaucrats and its favored business players), incompetence (on the part of law enforcement and anti-corruption agencies mandated to apprehend as well as prosecute criminals), and absence of political will (to disrupt the profiteering frenzy of a small group of businessmen who are often politically connected).
In the prelude to the shocking New Year hike in fuel prices, the administration's debate team - often featuring the trio of Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, the Central Bank's Sanusi Lamido Sanusi, and Diezani Alison-Madueke, had rehashed the old rationales. Remove oil subsidy and Nigerians would have better infrastructure. Remove it, and get a healthcare system for the first time. Remove it, and see infant and child mortality rates take a nosedive for the first time in years. Do you want dependable power supply, an interstate road network, well-funded universities and polytechnics? The answer, we were told, lay in foregoing fuel subsidy.
It was hardly surprising that Nigerians were less than impressed. A state that cannot beat back the criminal conduct of two or three dozen fuel importers (as well as a few score bureaucrats who act as enablers) does not possess the credentials to deliver on better roads, improved health care, or reduced mortality rates.
The general strike and protests that were provoked by the government's fuel policy were called off when the government not only reduced the per liter price to N97, but also pledged to move against those who had exploited us all. If memory serves, the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission was ordered to get cracking, to unmask the fraudsters whose round-tripping and other illicit maneuvers inflated claims and gutted the nation's resources.
Two months later, EFCC chairperson Ibrahim Lamorde has been all fashion and little action on corruption. Given the scale of the abuse in the fuel subsidy scheme, the EFCC should have had little trouble finding targets for investigation and prosecution. Even if the agency did not have enough investigators, it could easily have started by poring over the probe by the House of Representatives.
A serious-minded, enterprising EFCC can establish fraud by comparing documents submitted by fuel marketers with maritime logs as well as sales records from foreign refineries. There's no evidence that the agency is looking at the issue, much less going at it with the requisite sense of urgency.
It's safe to bet that, by design, no investigation is going on. In fact, the odds are that the original announcement of an investigation was, from the outset, a will-o-the-wisp, an exercise in public deception. The government had unwittingly confessed to Nigerians and to the world that a few businessmen (easy to identify because they were licensed to operate in the oil sector), and a coterie of public officials, had bilked the public till to the tune of close to two trillion naira. As a rule, the Nigerian state is allergic to exposing acts of corruption, much less the rumps of the biggest players in the vast industry of embezzlement. When exposure occurs, it is usually an inadvertent mistake, quickly corrected.
One's hunch, then, is that the ostensible probe was nothing more than a carefully concealed scheme of concealment. Perhaps it was a ploy to enable the government to hide the ugly fact that it had confessed that some of those decorated with high national honors were crooks - and cheats of the most mindless class.
So here we are, enduring two quite months that should have been filled with dynamism and momentum. Here, a president who seems to read a major speech today and, before tomorrow, forgets (or even disdains) the important commitments he made. Above all, the lack of action is a direct indictment of a presidency that - like most past Nigerian leaders - believes that all it takes to lead a nation is to enjoy sleeping privileges at Aso Rock.
Mr. Jonathan should summon the EFCC's boss to share what he's uncovered - if an investigation is afoot. If there's no prying going on - in other words, if Nigerians were lied to - then it behooves the labor leaders to revisit the issue, and insist that the government revert to the pre-January price of N65 per liter of fuel.
As many protesters pointed out in January, the grounds of contestation went far beyond the question of where to peg fuel subsidy. Three far more potent issues had to do with the unsustainable cost of running Nigeria's 'nasty' democracy, measures to dislodge the entrenched culture of corruption, and modes of ensuring that policies are informed by the voices and interests of the largest number of Nigerians.
If Jonathan is to make an impact as a political figure, it would be, it seems, by acting with courage in one or all of the above three areas. One doesn't hold out much hope. For, everything considered, this president may be quiet precisely because the confluence of forces and circumstances that produced him dictate that he merely see himself as the sleeper in Aso Rock - even if the ship of state continues, dangerously, to flounder.
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