While delivering his inauguration address on May 29, 2023, Nigeria’s new President, Ahmed Bola Tinubu, declared that subsidy on refined petrol was “gone”. For many years, since the early 1970s, Nigeria, a leading crude oil producer in Africa, has implemented a price control mechanism for fossil fuels energy derivatives such as petrol, diesel, kerosene and gas, through subsidization of consumer prices to protect its citizens from shocks of high energy prices. Over the years and with the collapse of its four state-owned refineries, Nigeria had to rely more on importation of refined petroleum products, which it subsidizes in varying degrees for its citizens with increasing difficulty. Even as successive Nigerian governments have complained about the unsustainability of continuous subsidy on petrol, Nigerians, under the leadership of Nigerian Labour Congress (NLC) have resisted any attempt at price increases on petrol.
This is so because petrol has increasingly become the soul of Nigeria’s small and medium-scale enterprises-dominant economy, as it serves as a major source of energy for economic production. But the pronouncement of Tinubu to the effect that the era of subsidy removal is gone immediately sent the prices of petrol in Nigeria up from less than N200 a litre to less than N600 in most places. The consequences of about 250 per cent price adjustment on petrol in Nigeria have been swift and severe as many Nigerians are finding it difficult to cope with the additional burden of increased energy prices that they now have to bear. But Tinubu is not entirely to be blamed for this latest episode of economic misery in Nigeria, as his removal of subsidy on petrol on his first day on the job is only in fulfilment of one of his many campaign promises.
While campaigning to be elected Nigeria’s President, Tinubu had made an unequivocal and unambiguous pledge to remove subsidy on petrol; something his closest rivals in the 2023 presidential election similarly pledged to do. Atiku Abubakar of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and Peter Obi of the Labour Party (LP) similarly promised to remove subsidy, if elected. But how did removal of subsidy become a bold and audacious campaign promise in a country where petrol is the most important energy commodity, which drives SMEs that are the largest employers of labour in Nigeria?
For many years, Nigeria’s ruling elite and their neo-liberal intellectual allies that are mostly Washington consensus pundits have steadily delegitimized, demonised, scandalized and criminalized the concept of subsidies on fossil fuels derivatives as anachronistic to economic growth and development. In cahoots with their intellectual allies that cut across the academia, organized private sector, government and the media, the ruling class in Nigeria have waged an unrelenting war of propaganda on subsidies on fossil fuel energy products and services such as gas, petrol, diesel and kerosene, insisting it’s a burden government should not bear.
From claims that subsidy on fossil fuels was a disincentive on the much needed investments in Nigeria’s oil and gas sector to the fact that government would do better to reinvest subsidy payments into healthcare and education to its denunciation as a conduit pipe of corruption, Nigeria’s ruling elite have been doing all it can to convince the Nigerian people that subsidy was not to their benefit but detrimental to their economic health and well-being. And that they will be better without subsidy on petrol. After many years of carrying out this vicious propaganda with Goebbelian tactics and strategy, Nigerians began to believe the recycled lie that misrepresented subsidy as an economic vice that benefits the rich and impoverishes the poor. Nigerians became so convinced that their lives would be better without subsidy on petrol as the savings from the wasteful and corrupt scheme would be reinvested in education, infrastructure and health care for them that, on the eve of the 2023 presidential election, there was a national consensus on the removal of petrol subsidy as a matter of national emergency.
However, on the morning after the removal of subsidy, when the reality of the effect of Nigeria’s aggravated energy security hit the citizens, they could only murmur in silent misery, pain and sorrow because they had been misled to ask for what they just got from their new President. By voting for Atiku, Obi and Tinubu in the 2023 presidential election, Nigerians overwhelmingly voted for subsidy removal and should be grateful to Tinubu for fulfilling one of the campaign promises of their respective preferred candidates. And more than anyone else, Peter Obi of the NLC-backed Labour Party played the most decisive role in convincing Nigerians that subsidy was a vice when he variously likened it to “subsidizing consumption” while condemning the scheme as “organized crime” that must go “on my first day in office.” Being the rallying figure of Nigeria’s anti-establishment rural and urban poor and struggling lower middle class people who desperately sought change through him, it can be said that Peter Obi actually led Nigerians into the guillotine chamber for Tinubu to ‘chop off their heads’.
Now that the NLC has capitulated and shelved its plan to protest the removal of petrol subsidy as it would be standing on weak moral ground to do so because Peter Obi, its own candidate in the 2023 presidential election, also pledged to remove subsidy if elected, Nigerians who were deceived by a clique of government-backed intellectual fraudsters into committing mass economic suicide are now left alone, confused and confounded by their collective folly. Unlike in 2012, when something similar happened, Nigerians do not have the mental and psychological preparedness to resist the concomitant price hike on petrol because their political leaders had sedated them with enough anti-subsidy dose, which left them suffering and frowning in frustration.
Contrary to entrenched narratives in Nigeria, subsidy on petrol and indeed on energy commodities, products and services, including diesel, gas and electricity, is a national virtue and not a vice. Subsidy is a critical component of energy security, which is a fundamental element of economic development and citizen well-being of any country. Along with food security, energy security is prioritized as a matter of national security and a country cannot be said to have achieved energy security until energy commodities, products and services are available and affordable for citizens, hence the need for government to intervene in pricing regime through subsidies. From America to the UK and from Western Europe to the Middle East and Southeast Asia, including China, fossil fuels were generously subsidized for citizens to the tune of $1 trillion in 2022 alone. The problem with subsidy payment in Nigeria wasn’t subsidy in itself but the corruption associated with it and government’s unproductivity, which has seen national income plummet from idle political leadership over time.
To solve this problem, all that was needed was to tackle corruption in the system without hurting the people but successive governments would rather remove subsidy to free more money from this important intervention to ensure energy security to fund their corruption and conversion of public funds for private use.
Hopefully, the unfolding reality of more misery, poverty and a thorough depreciation of the standard of living of the Nigerian people will serve as a shock therapy that will jolt them from induced mass ignorance into having a national conversation about the future of energy security in Nigeria, which has subsidy as a constant factor, going forward.