Let us go back in time. On 11th January, 2012, Bola Ahmed Tinubu wrote an open letter with the following title, “Removal of Oil Subsidy: Jonathan Breaks Social Contract with the People”. At the time he wrote the letter, the issue of removal of oil subsidy was seriously being considered by the President Goodluck Jonathan administration. The debate then was in line with what it has always been: appropriate pricing of petroleum products. The mountain of corruption that oil subsidy has generated was also topical in the consideration. Should subsidy go or stay? That was the question the Jonathan government was faced with at that time. In the end, Jonathan fought shy as always. The behemoth called subsidy remained.
It was while the controversy was raging that Tinubu, who was then sitting on top of opposition politics in Nigeria, weighed in with the stinker. For considering the possible removal of oil subsidy, Tinubu accused Jonathan of breaking the social contract that binds the government and the governed. He packaged and sold Jonathan to Nigerians as that President who was steeped in the pursuit of anti-people policies. For Tinubu, Jonathan had, for merely making oil subsidy removal a talking point, turned his back on the collective will.
Tinubu had written then: “ 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.”
Tinubu also said of Jonathan: “Because he is a slave to wrong-headed economics, the people will become enslaved to greater misery. This crisis will bear his name and will be his legacy. The people now pay a stiff tax for voting him into office. The removal of the subsidy is the ‘Jonathan tax’.”
I chuckled at this particular line on stiff tax. It reminded me instantly of the fact that Tinubu did not come into office through the lawful votes of majority of Nigerians. If he were properly elected, I would have retorted by paying him back in his own words thus: The people now pay a stiff tax for voting you into office. But Tinubu cannot enjoy that luxury that he ascribed to Jonathan. He can afford to inflict hardship on the people. After all, they did not choose him to preside over the affairs of the country.
The Tinubu letter further read: “This subsidy removal is ill-timed and violates the conditions 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.”
Let us pause here and interrogate some of the platitudes that Tinubu regaled us with 11 years ago. We should note, for a start, that Jonathan never went the whole hog on the issue at stake. He merely made it an issue for public discourse. Yet, he was accused by Tinubu of manufacturing hardship whose only purpose is to keep the people perpetually poor. Now that Tinubu has done what Jonathan could not do, we can as well charge him for being the worst enemy of the same people he pretended championing their cause 11 years ago. He has, without qualms of conscience, broken his social contract with the people. He has, in his own words, “tossed the people into the depths of the midnight sea.”
Again, if the mere contemplation to remove subsidy was described by Tinubu as “Jonathan’s tax”, what do we call its actual implementation by Tinubu? It will be an understatement to call it Tinubu’s tax. We can fittingly call it Tinubu’s instrument of starvation and incremental extinction of the people.
Tinubu had argued against subsidy 11 years ago, describing it as ill-timed for a number of reasons. Significantly, those conditions, which he said must be in place before the implementation of the policy, are still not there. Has the salad of corruption in NNPC been thrown away? Do we have a mass transit system in the railways and road network? Have we developed the energy sector towards the revitalization of Nigeria’s economy that can ease any burden subsidy removal may have on the people? The answer to all these questions is in the negative. What this tells us is that it is easier said than done. Platitudes do not necessarily translate into practical actions. It is easy to hang one’s head in the air and romanticize about the world. But it is a different ball game when practicality beckons. Having come face to face with reality, Tinubu is now doing the very opposite of what he once preached.
Unlike the likes of Tinubu who invented all manner of reasons to shoot down any issue that bordered on removal of oil subsidy, those who genuinely want the Nigerian economy to be rescued from the grip of economic vampires are methodical and pragmatic in their dissection of the issue. The idea of subsidy removal certainly has its fine points. But its implementation strategy matters a lot more. This is where Tinubu got it all wrong. He was trite and cavalier about an issue of such magnitude. If there was a plan to remove subsidy, that should have been explained to the people. Major stakeholders in the oil sector should have been involved. But what we got was a fiat. I can bet that Tinubu cannot explain his action if he is subjected to scrutiny. He cannot defend the policy in a question-and-answer session.
Tinubu also said in his letter that the Jonathan tax represents a new standard in elitism, and that the subsidy debate was about whom, among Nigeria’s social classes, government values most. His submission is that government is not interested in spending on the poor. They can sink for all the government cares. But in what way can Tinubu say he has differed from his criticisms of the governments that were? If the previous administrations tended towards the elite, how does Tinubu’s overnight policy, in which he never gave the people any opportunity to be involved, serve their interest? Tinubu has, wittingly or unwittingly, abandoned the people in the depths of the midnight sea.