By Sunday Ani

The discussion around last week’s announcement of the fuel subsidy removal by President Bola Ahmed Tinubu has assumed several dimensions with some Nigerians lauding the move, while so many others have condemned it.

One of those who believe the action was not right is the Chairman of the Middle Belt Forum, Dr. Pogu Bitrus. He described the subsidy removal as a fraud intended to punish Nigerians and empower Dangote and a few other Nigerians.

In this interview, he speaks extensively about the subsidy removal among other issues.

What is your take on the fuel subsidy removal by President Tinubu?

Before this government came into being, the former Minister of Works, Babatunde Raji Fashola, was on air to tell Nigerians that there was no subsidy in the first place. But, one would want to see these things in terms of coming onboard of the refinery which Dangote has just built, with all the controversies surrounding it. The government invested in the refinery and we were told initially by experts that the money which the government invested in the refinery would even be able to build a new refinery to an international standard. So, there are a lot of questionable things that our government does. To me, the so-called subsidy removal is just to empower Dangote and those who are beneficiaries of the new refinery. Now that the refinery has come onboard, they now want to take all our money because it is going to produce fuel locally. It is unfortunate that we have people in government, whose intention is just to enrich themselves, partner with any outside powers to ensure that they remain in power just for the sake of it, and not to build Nigeria or empower Nigerians. It is an unfortunate development, and why Tinubu fell into that trap is up to him. But, I don’t think it is right because Nigerians will not take it lying low, and they better do the needful. We have so many educated people in this country that can analyse the situation the way it is. The fraud in high places rather than abating is only increasing, and this subsidy removal is one fraud that is intended at impoverishing Nigerians; it has to stop.

There is a report that the labour unions are threatening to embark on a nationwide strike if the fuel pump price is not reversed to the old rate before the subsidy removal announcement. Do you think it is possible to revert to the old pump price, and can strike change anything at this time?

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Why not? What is the justification for the continued importation of fuel products into the country? You see, the government deliberately refused to repair our refineries under different guises, and rather than producing, we have been importing, taking our money out instead of empowering the country by refining locally. The government deliberately tells lies about turnaround maintenance and all that, but nothing happens, instead they enrich themselves through importation. The crude is from Nigeria; they tell us all sorts of stories about subsidy and all that. We are in this kind of mess because our leaders are not patriotic. We have not yet become a nation; a nation is defined by the commitment to building ourselves together and believing in what we are and the constitution is not even honoured. We are just individual groups who are interested in empowering their individual groups, sections, tribes, and religions more than the Nigerian nation, and that is why we are in this kind of mess and we will continue to be in the mess. So, if the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC), and the Trade Union Congress (TUC), will embark on any strike with a view to reversing the pump price of petroleum products, then it is a welcome development. When something is not justly done, we cannot just take it. The government should be answerable to the people and it is there, as the constitution says, for the welfare and security of the people. And when the welfare and security of the people are not guaranteed, it shouldn’t be allowed. Security is in so many forms, physical security of life and property and food security, and we are here being extorted by the government. It shouldn’t be allowed. So, the labour movement has the right to protest or embark on strike and the government must listen to the people. All the pretences, the falsehoods and the deceits that have gone within the past government should stop and let us move forward as a nation. Let us build a nation out of the nation-states that we have. Groups coming together to extort from the nation, empowering their sections and cronies just for their interest rather than building a nation, must stop. We have to move away from consumption to production, and to be able to achieve all these, we have to do things right. I believe that the labour unions can do the job. Without the Nigerian people’s acceptance of this draconian policy being foisted on them, the government will not survive. So, it is high time the government listened to the people, and did the needful.

Do you think Tinubu will do anything different from what Buhari did in the area of economy, security and the fight against corruption?

I think it is on record that Tinubu said he was going to continue with the good works of Buhari and if he said that, it is unfortunate. It means we are going down the drain because the eight years of Buhari has been years of retrogression. Look at all the indices from economy to security, including something which should have been good, the improvement in our electoral process, which INEC has messed up, you will find out that continuing in that line means dragging Nigeria into total poverty; dragging Nigeria into disobedience to the rule of law; and dragging Nigeria deeper into insecurity in terms of protection of lives and property. So, anything that is in line with what Buhari did takes us into a deeper problem. The way out of our problem is to turn back to production; go back to the 60s and 70s when we had a lot of manufacturing companies in this country. We had manufacturing companies like Bata, Dunlop, Lenard, Michelin, and assembly plants, all producing a lot of things that we consumed and Nigeria was better off. When N1 was nearly $2, then eventually at par with the dollar, but now, we have one dollar going for almost N800; it is a shameful thing that we have leaders and instead of moving the country forward, they are dragging the country backwards. It is a shame and the government, if it stands because as far as I am concerned, the government is not yet standing. To me, we have sworn in a leadership that still has a lot of questions to answer in terms of acceptability. This is because we have lots of interpretations of the constitution, and if it is true because I am not a lawyer, that the Supreme Court has already passed a judgment in 2005 about the requirement to become a president, then, we don’t even have a duly established president in place. So, there is even the problem of legitimacy, but I don’t want to delve into that. The issue is that we need to get things right. Going by Buhari’s legacy will drag us down the drain. We pray that we have people who have vision as leaders rather than people who will be copycat of some established failures because to me, the eight years of Buhari’s government is a failure.

From your observations of the proceedings at the presidential election court, do you see the judges living up to their calling?

You cannot judge someone until the person has performed. Yes, the individual judges have records of credibility, but whether or not they will stand the pressure to be able to go according to the law is another thing. There are so many laws that are out there that we can question, but at the moment, they remain the law. And there are so many issues that have been raised by the people challenging the victory, inauguration or pronouncement of the INEC, which is also the law. This is because INEC’s pronouncement of the winner, rightly or wrongly, remains the law and you can only challenge it in the court. But, even the pronouncement itself is wrong. If the INEC chairman knew that there is a judgement explaining the requirements to be met before somebody could be pronounced the president-elect, yet he went ahead to make the pronouncement without the person meeting those requirements; he too should be dragged to court and punished accordingly because it means he has committed a serious offence against the Nigerian state and against the constitution of the land. So, we believe that the judges will go and do things according to the law rather than according to sentiments. So, let’s wait and see. We believe that they have the capacity because they understand the law very well. So, we are praying that they will have the courage to do things according to the laws of the land, rather than according to sentiments or trying to appease some sections or groups or even the so called sworn in president. So, as far as I am concerned, they have the capacity; they know the law and they can do the job. So, it is now left for them to have the courage to be able to do the right thing.

How do you see the involvement of the leadership of the All Progressives Congress (APC) in determining the leadership of the incoming 10th National Assembly?

I am not a member of the APC and what they do at the moment, to me, doesn’t really matter. What concerns me mainly is to know the true leader of this country. Somebody has been sworn in and there are a lot of questions. The first and the most important is the constitutional issue. And I said earlier that if a judgment of the Supreme Court has already been passed on what somebody has to fulfill to be pronounced president, then we have a problem in the first place. The issue is if it is true that the judgement of the highest court of the land, the Supreme Court, interpreting the constitution said that there are three conditions to be met before a person becomes the president – one, you must have the highest number of votes cast. The other contestants can question whether the person that was declared winner had the highest number of votes; that one is contestable. Two, you must have 25 percent of the vote cast in two-thirds of the 36 states, which is 24 states; and three, that you must have 25 percent of the votes cast in the Federal Capital Territory (FCT), Abuja. None of the three leading contestants fulfilled the three conditions. Going by the results, Tinubu fulfilled two; Atiku Abubakar fulfilled only one, and nobody knows whether Peter Obi fulfilled two or more of those conditions since he is the only one that fulfilled the 25 percent FCT requirement. Is it right for the INEC chairman to have declared somebody a winner, given that the Supreme Court’s judgement interpreting that section was available? That is the issue. So, if the foundation is wrong, whatever comes after the foundation is a nullity. We don’t know what is going to happen eventually but when the foundation has a problem, the building will have a problem. I am not concerned about what comes out from the national assembly resulting from the appointment by a president whose declaration, inauguration and appointment has a faulty foundation. That is the issue because if we keep quiet and undermine our own constitution because of sentiments or the feeling that some people have to be in power, then we are in deep shit; may God help us. The constitution may not be right but that is the constitution; that is the document that keeps us together. The interpretation has been given by the Supreme Court; the highest court of the land. If today, it catches somebody and because we feel he is our brother, we bend the rule, then it means the constitution has no value and it is dangerous for the corporate existence of this country. We have to go by what we have. If in the future, we feel that this provision is not right, fine and good, but for now, that is what obtains and that is what has to be done, otherwise we are in trouble. I am sorry for answering this question this way but we have to say the truth irrespective of whose ox is gored.