In 2015, Tony Blair, former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, spoke at the opening of a two-day policy dialogue on the implementation of the Agenda for Change by the All Progressives Congress (APC), which was themed “Implementing Change: From Vision to Reality”. On that occasion, Blair, represented by Lord Mandelson, advised President Muhammadu Buhari to take decisive actions within his first 100 days in office, if he intended to succeed. Specifically, Blair said: “You have more goodwill and authority now to do the most difficult things at the beginning than at the end. Take advantage of that goodwill that comes with being elected to take difficult decisions that may inflict immediate pain but in the long-term interest of the country and government.” Buhari ignored him. Bola Ahmed Tinubu took note. And, he did not forget.
Prior to becoming President, Buhari went about Nigeria pontificating about the non-existence of petrol subsidy. He postulated much about how to manage the petroleum sector and what ought to be done to make petrol available and affordable, as well as end fuel importation. He said the subsidy regime did not exist. He called it a fraud. But when he entered office as President, he changed gear and cleverly forgot his pre-election postulations. In fact, he paid more subsidy on petrol than the government before him. And for eight years he pranced around the issue and, in the twilight of his reign, he washed his hands off and pushed it over to his successor.
Now, it is President Bola Ahmed Tinubu’s turn. In his inaugural address on May 29, Tinubu said: “Subsidy can no longer justify its ever-increasing costs in the wake of drying resources. We shall instead re-channel the funds into better investment in public infrastructure, education, healthcare and jobs that will materially improve the lives of millions”.
Prior to this, Tinubu had promised, like all other presidential candidates, that the subsidy would be removed.
Though this pronouncement was not directly explicit and could not be said to be the President’s direct order on the oil subsidy regime, it was, however, obvious that he did not forget Blair’s advice in 2015. His May 29 speech was exactly what oil marketers were waiting for. And they demonstrated it immediately with the increase in the pump price of petrol, pushing it up to as much as N600 per litre in some places. At that amount, the N30,000 minimum wage will only be able to buy 50 litres of petrol, excluding other essentials like food, clothing, shelter, medicines, children’s education, etc., for the average civil servant. The impact of what the marketers did blighted Tinubu’s first 48 hours in office. However, most Nigerians expect the fuel subsidy regime to end someday. Indeed, they want to see an end to it because it has been presented as the major obstacle to the delivery of good governance. But they had expected the government to engage the citizens with a gradual phasing out of the regime alongside the provision of measures that will ameliorate the immediate effects as recommended by Tinubu in 2012.
In 2012, Tinubu authored an article, which he titled “Removal of Oil Subsidy: President Jonathan Breaks Social Contract with the People”. The article was his position against the decision of President Goodluck Jonathan, as he then was, to put an end to the oil subsidy regime. In the said article, Tinubu wrote: “Though, someday, Nigeria will have to remove the subsidy, the time to do it is not now. This subsidy removal is ill-timed and violates the condition precedent necessary before such a decision is made. First, government needs to clean up and throw away the salad of corruption in the NNPC. Then, proceed to lay the foundation for a mass transit system in the railways and road network with long-term bonds and fully develop the energy sector towards revitalizing Nigeria’s economy and easing the burden any subsidy removal may have on the people.”
When Jonathan proposed the removal in 2012, he put in place measures that would help ameliorate the direct impact of the decision. These include the provision of mass transit buses and also the creation of the Subsidy Reinvestment Programme (SURE-P). This was at a time that Tinubu argued, as captured in the article, that “…the subsidy or a similar expenditure on the people cannot be the lethal burden government now maligns it to be.” Tinubu had also argued that “Nigerians have a collective stake in the ownership of our oil resource held in trust by the government of the day. What we need then is the effective management of this scarce resource that will beget long-term prosperity to the suffering people of Nigeria and not the present racket in which those in power abuse access and control of NNPC and oil revenue to warehouse money to fund their election campaigns.”
Buhari and Tinubu are two major opposition leaders who eventually became President. While Buhari saw the reality of the subsidy situation and buried his courage, Tinubu decided to take the bull by the horns. The fuel subsidy regime has come to an end. According to the new price list published by NNPC, a litre of petrol is now N537 in Abuja and N488 in Lagos but N500 in Abeokuta, Osogbo, Ibadan, Akure and Ado-Ekiti. It sells higher in the northern states, capping at N557 in Borno and Yobe states. However, given other existential realities, the prices may go higher outside Abuja and Lagos.
Tinubu has said he will “re-channel the funds into better investment in public infrastructure, education, healthcare and jobs”. However, he ought not to forget his 2012 postulation wherein he wrote: “Government claims the subsidy removal will create jobs. This is misleading. The stronger truth is that it will destroy more jobs than it creates. For every job it creates in the capital-intensive petroleum sector, it will terminate several jobs in the rest of the labour-intensive economy. Subsidy removal will increase costs across the board. However, salaries will not increase. This means demand for goods will lessen as will sales volumes and overall economic activity. The removal will have a recessionary impact on the economy as a whole. While some will benefit from the removal, most will experience setback.”
In Tinubu’s own words, “By taking this step, government has tossed the people into the depths of the midnight sea. Government demands the people swim to safety under their own power, claiming the attendant hardship will build character and add efficiency to the national economy. It is easy to make these claims when one is dry and on shore. Government would have us believe that every hardship it manufactures for the people to endure is a good thing. This is a lie. The hardships they thrust upon the poor often bear no other purpose than to keep them poor. This is such a time.”
Shouldn’t Jonathan now return Tinubu’s favour by recommending to Nigerians the same recommendations that Tinubu made when he said “…it is the duty of every citizen to peacefully demonstrate and record their opposition to this draconian measure that is swiftly crippling the economy more than it will ever cure it”?