Saturday 14th January, 2012 Nigerians kept vigil, like the Christendom waiting on the conclave in Rome to announce a new pope. Indeed there was a conclave the cardinals this time being leadership of the Labour Unions and Civil society in Nigeria, the leadership of our bicameral legislature and members of the federal government which was meeting not in Rome but Inside the Presidential Villa to take a decision that is so critical to the personal wellbeing of Nigerians and the well being of their economy.
The conclave was supposed to find a compromise between government and labour to end what has been a week of total shut down of Nigeria. Since the shocking announcement of removal of subsidy on fuel on New Year day which saw the pump price of fuel jump from N65 to N140, the whole country has be locked in a total strike marked with public protests which sometimes tend towards civil disobedience in a few states with the people demanding for a reversal of the pump price.
Government has argued repeatedly on the reason behind the policy and the reason why it is determined to see it through. Governments arguments has found solid grounds in the need to fully deregulate the downstream sector of the oil industry and begin to reap all the attendant benefits, the need to stop the corruption in the fuel subsidy regime which has seen few individuals reap heavily from the nation, with the amount running into over a trillion naira in 2011, the need to open up the industry and make it attractive to investors and its desire to use the saved amounts in badly needed infrastructural development.
As laudable as governments intensions are, the immediate hike in prices of commodity and services especially given that this is January, a month that is always slow and difficult for most people who having spent a lot over the yuletide barely have enough to help them kick start the years ‘hustle’ has made it a very bitter pill for Nigerians to swallow. Governments assurance that the pains will be temporary, that it was introducing viable palliatives and that the Federal Government was going to invest the save amount in a special program tagged “SURE:P” has really not calmed nerves as decades of failed government promises has seen Nigerians lose any faith whatsoever in their leaders who they hold in perpetual suspicion.
Using social media channels and their smart phones, Nigerians have been able to mobilize and carry out the most massive protest the country has known. While this is positive in the sense of the people finding their voice, it has also come with its own negatives with all shades of false information, propaganda, twisting of facts some of them accompanied with even figures has come flooding through these channels leading to an information overload and severe disinformation of a large section of the gullible people.
Expectedly, emotions have over taken reasoning. People have taken sides and any contrary view is dismissed no matter its merit. When everybody is talking, no one is listening and no one really is making sense. The issue is hardly touched. Ego is the greatest impediment to solving problems between two parties and in sincerely believe that on this matter, there is yet left a lot of field for us all to meet if only we would seek compromise.
Personally, I support deregulation (of which subsidy removal is a component) for all the right reasons and its attendant long term benefits. Whether it’s done now, two months down the line or even next year, the subsidy on fuel has to go one day and when it does, there would certainly be some pains. But I think the government made a big mess of a good case with the way it went about the implementation; the suddenness of the removal, a callousness of doing it on a New Year day, the poor communication and people management and of course the failure to provide the safety nets or palliatives which would have reduced the pains the people will feel.
I also hold that while government makes demands of the people to take some hardship for the ‘greater good’, government must also take cuts. The cost of running government in Nigeria is unimaginable. With an over bloated civil service, a large political structure with layers of redundant aides and career government people, a culture of budget padding and wastage, huge amounts annually goes to servicing these structures, enjoyed by a few and leaving the greater majority of the people living below the poverty line. It is time also for government to cut cost.
Asking government to cut cost is an easy statement to make, indeed it’s been up on placards all week. But coming up with specific cuts and channeling demands to the responsible body viz either the National Assembly for budgetary issues, the head of the civil service for issues of the size of our work force and the Revenue Mobilization Allocation And Fiscal Commission for issues of salaries and allowances of political office holders is something not many are yet doing.
After a tiring week of street protests that was no good for any one; not for the economy, not for businesses, not for personal pockets, everyone looked forward with high expectation to the meeting between labour and government hoping that at least a truce will be reached so that we can all get back to our lives. Alas at almost midnight, the conclave ended but it was dark smoke rising from the chimney. No agreement had been reached.
So we move into another week of protests with both sides sticking to their guns. As we had began to observe last week, there is an increasing tendency for the protest to be hijacked by miscreants and opportunists whose intensions are at variance with those of the people. With this will come more collateral damages. One would have hoped that there would have been some shifting of ground on both sides to save the economy another painful week but I suspect the ego on both sides was too big. Whatever the lingering points of disagreement is, I would have hoped that President Goodluck Jonathan who had stated during the election that no one should die on his behalf would in the same vein put a plug on this and saves us all this trouble. It wouldn’t be a defeat. It will only show him a true leader. I think it is time to pause, retreat, re-strategize and lunch again. Nigerians wait.