No Matter The Government In Power, Fuel Subsidy Would Remain An Issue - Niboro
SAN FRANCISCO, December 13, (THEWILL) - In this interview, former Special Adviser on Media and Publicity to President Jonathan, Mr. Ima Niboro, relives his days in government and also gives an insight into life out of office and the state of the nation.
You left government some months ago after serving as Special Adviser Media. So what have you been doing?
It has been a period of rest and stock-taking and a time for putting my life back together from the chaos of active office, not just in government but at the very heart of power. There are many options available which I am studying very closely. But most important is that I am putting together my memoirs especially on the making of the Jonathan Presidency. You must recall that some of us were witnesses and insiders during one of the most turbulent phases of the nation’s history which was the transition from the Yar’Adua years to the Jonathan era.
Those were intense times laced with intrigues and mind-blowing manoeuvres, spearheaded by a multiplicity of interests for and against the emergence of Jonathan, first as Acting President and then as substantive President. I recall the last days of President Yar’Adua especially the night he was dramatically flown back into the country and we watched, the ambulances and the motorcade heading back to the presidential villa, with heavily armed soldiers crawling everywhere. It was like a coup. Until we were able to figure out what was going on, some of us actually believed that the military had struck. I also recall the night of his passage and how I was saddled with the task of announcing on behalf of the new government the death of our president and leader.
There is really a lot to talk about those days when the country seemed to hang on the precipice. But what remains remarkable in my memory most of all was the almost inscrutable calmness of the then Acting President Jonathan and how he conducted himself with great dignity and aplomb even in the face of the most provocative circumstances. His carriage, dignity and conduct saved the nation a lot more heart-ache that we could have experienced. His deliberate decision to put the collective interest of the nation above his own self interest, as well as his obvious determination to ensure that Nigeria survived the Yar’Adua-Jonathan saga, was quite exemplary indeed. I am sure Nigerians will never forget how the President demonstrated his love for this nation by refusing to seize destiny by the scruff of the neck as others might have done to gain the Presidency no matter the cost to the country.
As an insider, who was keenly aware of the tremendous pressure that was brought to bear upon him by various groups and interests even from the north to, by word and deed, declare the Yar’Adua presidency over and institute a regime change even while Yar’Adua lay dying abroad, I cannot but doff my hat to him. Sometimes, I wonder privately what many other Nigerians would have done were they to find themselves in his shoes. I would not want to dwell too much on the subject because these are issues my memoirs will deal with extensively and I think it is early days yet.
Your predecessor, Segun Adeniyi, has written his own account of the Yar’Adua years. Have you read the book and what is your take on it?
Unfortunately I have not read the book even though I have requested for an advance copy of it. I am however sure that in his usual inimitable style my brother and friend, Segun would do justice to the subject, seeing that he was himself part and parcel of the Yar’Adua Presidency and I do not know anyone better positioned than himself to write this book especially from the perspective and angle of Yar’Adua and that wing of the presidency at the time.
How would you compare the President Jonathan of that time and the President Jonathan of now?
I see him as basically the same person, even though the circumstances have changed tremendously. As an individual, President Jonathan remains calm and focused even if sometimes inscrutable, that is, it is difficult for anyone to readily read his mind and the direction he may go next.
As it stands today, the circumstances have changed because from a loyal deputy he has emerged in his own right as substantive President of the country with an outstanding mandate through a free and fair election that remains unparalleled in the annals of our nation. Jonathan garnered votes from every nook and cranny of the country; from Nigerians North, South, East, and West who wanted a new nation, a new vision and a new way of doing things. The day the election results rolled in was one of the happiest days of my life. It still remains one of the happiest days of my life because finally Nigerians were able to, in a free and fair election, decide who would lead them.
Since those elections till now there have of course been challenges but no matter what, Nigerians must constantly remember that President Jonathan remains the one and the same person they voted massively for. He has not changed. He is a hands-on President who has rolled up his sleeves and is ready to work to liberate this country from the shackles of poverty, despair and want. Knowing Jonathan’s mind, he would wish every Nigerian to have three square meals, a roof over their heads and a car or two in their garage. He would wish every Nigerian child had access to education and health-care. I was a witness to his determined move against polio even before the recent visit of Bill and Melinda Gates to Africa for the same cause; his passion for the eradication of small arms and light weapons which cause tremendous loss of life and limb not just across Africa but also in Nigeria. You see in Jonathan a President who has a passion for his people and understands the pain they are going through.
The biggest challenge the country faces today is the challenge of poverty and the biggest cause of poverty in Nigeria is the absence of power. Lack of power has led to the shut-down of thousands of businesses across the country. From the manufacturing plants in Kano to the textile industries in Kaduna, and the industrial estates of Agbara, Ota, Port Harcourt and Aba, factories and multi-billion naira businesses have hummed to a tragic stop. Thousands if not millions of jobs have been lost. Without power, even the barber and the hairdresser cannot maintain their corner shops not to mention the vulcanizer who hopelessly resorts to buying petrol regularly to pump your tires. Power is central to industrialisation and industrialisation is at the heart of employment generation and the eradication of poverty. This is why from the beginning the President’s main focus was power, power, power, and there has been tremendous improvements in the sector. Hopefully in the weeks, months and years ahead, if the information at my disposal is correct, things will only get better and better.
Are you convinced that President Jonathan can cope with the multiplicity of challenges he is facing as leader of the nation today?
I am convinced beyond any iota of doubt that President Jonathan can and shall continue to cope and surmount the myriad of challenges confronting the nation. Like I noted in an earlier interview, Nigerians have gotten used to rule by dictation rather than to rule of consensus building. I dare say that it will take Nigerians a considerable length of time to completely shed the arbitrariness of the past. Having said this, I must note that every epoch has its own unique challenges. Sharia was Obasanjo’s challenge, Niger Delta was Yar’Adua’s challenge and Boko Haram is Jonathan’s challenge and in view of recent developments, we can all see that the Boko Haram challenge will be surmounted like the Niger Delta challenge was, and like the Sharia conundrum was.
I must commend the National Security Adviser, Gen. Andrew Azazi, for his forthright, hands-on approach to the current challenges that face the nation. He is gone about his task with candour and tremendous experience. Being the only intelligence officer of the Nigerian military that rose to the height he did in his career, Gen. Azazi has demonstrated his knowledge of the country in its various sensitivities and proclivities that make Nigeria both a challenge and an exciting prospect. Why do many criticize President Jonathan over the issue of Boko Haram? It is because they expected him to roll the tanks into Borno, Yobe, Adamawa, Bauchi and environs, sack the governors and appoint military administrators as would have most likely happened in the past. But that practice was completely against the law. The legal principle of state of emergency in the Nigerian constitution, envisages sacking of the legislature of the states concerned and giving the sitting governors absolute powers as chief security officers of those states. But like we saw in the case of Borno, the problem wasn’t the Assembly. The problem seemed to be the governor himself, because apparently, Boko Haram as a group had problems with the governor and wanted him out of power at all costs. This even led to the assassination of his anointed successor. How do you solve that kind of problem by sacking the state House of Assembly since removing the governor would be illegal and unconstitutional? So, as was the case with the Niger Delta, Boko Haram presents what on the surface appears to be criminal but which is keenly socio-political in content and context, and a solution can only be through the carrot and the stick, the size of carrot and stick being determined by the objective circumstances of the day. But as far as I am concerned Boko Haram is a political issue and must be dealt with politically, very much like the Niger Delta issue was dealt with politically.
Another contentious issue for the Jonathan administration presently is that of the removal of fuel subsidy. Do you agree that fuel subsidy should be removed?
Before I answer that question, I would like to tell you a story. When we came on board in 2007 - I was then Senior Special Assistant on Media and Publicity to the then Vice President - the first issue that the government was confronted with was the sale of refineries and the Nigerian Labour Congress had gone on strike to protest the sale. The then Vice President Jonathan was saddled with the task of chairing the Federal Government committee that negotiated with Labour on the issue of the strike. We held series of meetings but I remember one of those meetings very clearly. The then GMD of the NNPC, Engr. Yar’Adua, sat on my left and another official of government whom I would not name sat on my right. During that meeting, Engr. Yar’Adua made a passionate presentation on how NNPC has concluded arrangements to make the refineries work and how selling the refineries was counter-productive. He was very convincing. But the fellow on my right kept shaking his head all the while Engr. Yar’Adua was speaking, and he whispered to me, “These are the same lies they told Obasanjo. We are here again, a new GMD is saying the same thing. Four years from now, the refineries would be as dead as they are now.” Somehow, I wanted to believe Engr. Yar’Adua, but the reporter in me told me to believe the fellow on my right, and as things turned out, he was right. Over four years down the line, are the refineries producing?
Now back to your question, why fuel subsidy in the first instance? Because we are unable to locally produce what we require we have to import and we do so at the prevailing international rates determined by the price of crude, cost of refining and cost of shipping, etc, back to Nigeria and to our fuel pumps. The official pump price is N65 per litre, but often times the landing cost of petrol at the pump is well over N120 per litre. Government absorbs the extra over the N65 per litre and pays it back to the importers as subsidy. So the question is straightforward, do we keep subsidising these products and paying off the importers trillions of naira, or we deregulate the sector, license importers to bring in petrol and sell at prevailing market rates? On the surface it is easy to argue that Nigeria being a crude oil producing country can sacrifice this as part of the benefits that Nigerians should be entitled to. It is only when you realize that payments to these "importers" have virtually wiped out the entire excess crude account and is threatening to wipe out the Federation account, that you know why the President is worried. If the subsidy payments go on for one more year, Nigeria would ground to a halt. So the question is what is the way out? There is no doubt that deregulating importation will have tremendous impact on ordinary people. But what really is the way out? My greatest concern in this matter is that responsible government officials have left the President standing alone to defend the issue of removal of fuel subsidy. Subsidy removal is not a Jonathan issue, it is a Federal Government issue which even the state governments admit is the way to go. Why are they leaving the issue for the President alone? Why is everyone silent?
The truth remains that no matter the government in power, subsidy would remain an issue. It is a bottomless pit that drains the national economy. It is a black hole of sorts... Anything that goes into it disappears. Sooner or later, Nigerians would have to deal with this artful scam. Because a scam it is. If there was another way out, Jonathan would not be insisting on removing subsidy. I know him that well.