FUEL SUBSIDY REMOVAL AND STATESMANSHIP
One of the jokes making the rounds on Twitter and other social media is that: Boko Haram, the dreaded militant Islamic sect has claimed responsibility for the removal of the oil subsidy. Telling irreverent jokes as sociologists tell us is one of the ways in which an afflicted society responds to the inscrutable and hard to bear ways of officialdom.
When you look at it deeper, it helps the psyche to attribute what has been described as a New Year shocker for Nigerians to Boko Haram rather than to elected government functionaries who know and feel how desperately hard life has become for the average and not so average Nigerian. The humorous remark also opens up a window for inspecting the extent to which, at least going by conspiracy theorists the recent decision to increase the price of petroleum by 115percent is the product of ill-considered advice given for the purpose of creating a booby trap for the Jonathan administration.
Jokes apart, perhaps the noblest moments in the dialogue - if we call it so - that preceded the announcement of the new price regime are the town hall sessions organized by the Newspapers Proprietors Association of Nigeria (NPAN). The parleys presented government as civil, responsible, accountable and seeking consensus over a delicate matter which some have described as a social time bomb. At one of those sessions, the finance minister; Dr. Ngozi Okonjo Iweala said that no final decision has been made on the subject and that government was consulting widely with stakeholders in order to reach an acceptable if not entirely amicable outcome.
The question to pose therefore is: What happened to swerve policy from the democratic tenor of Iweala's polite assurances to the mysterious outcome of New Year Day? Considering that our governments prefer to listen to foreign experts rather than home based ones, let us invite Jean Herskovits; Professor of History at the State University of New York and an influential policy wonk in the American foreign policy establishment whose recent comment on the unfolding situation in Nigeria goes thus: 'Mr. Jonathan's recent actions have not helped matters…On New Year's day he removed a subsidy on petroleum product more than doubling the price of fuel in a country where ninety percent of the population live on two dollars a day, anger is rising nationwide as the cost of transport and food increase dramatically'.
Of course, we had always known and counseled that the policy will instigate a domino effect on prices and services across the entire economy and that there was something profoundly mistaken about the claim of government experts that the removal of the subsidy would hurt the rich more than the poor. To give a revealing personal example, my driver came up to me yesterday to say that he would henceforth have to trek from Jericho to Mokola in Ibadan on his way to and from work as he could not afford to pay the heightened new bus fare which has more than doubled.
This example is typical of the enforced servitude and sentencing to hard labour which the new price regime is bringing about. As I recall it, one of the issues raised during the national debate which has now been sharply aborted if not annulled concerns the need for government to find ways of bringing down the tide of expenditure and the cost of running government as a substitute for jerking up the prices of petroleum products.
In what appeared to be a gesture in this direction, government spokesmen did say that the policy will not take off until April this year by which time an ongoing restructuring of recurrent expenditure through for example the merger of ministries and parastatals would have been completed.
Olukotun writes from Lead City University, Ibadan.