Subsidy, Saraki and aluta discontinua!
It may remain contentious for some time whether President Muhammadu Buhari was right agreeing with the liberal wing of his government that wanted removal of fuel subsidy. The government was billed to pay at least one trillion naira this year for fuel subsidy. Now it has liberated itself from this never-ending slavery. It is a telling reminder of changed times that the Nigerian Labour Congress, NLC and the Trade Union Congress, TUC, pitted their prestige and national standing against the new policy. They failed.
The recent nationwide strike not only exposed the weakness of the divided House of Labour, but it also put the labour leadership at the receiving end of public skepticism about the old style of constant aluta and national shut down. The labour leadership would be grateful to Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu and other leaders who persuaded them to suspend the strike for they know they had lost the capacity to sustain a national strike. Indeed by the time the labour leaders suspended the strike, the strike had already suspended itself.
One of the things we learnt in Ekiti during the regime of Otunba Adeniyi Adebayo, 1999 to 2003, was that government should spend its resources wisely and make investments for the raining days. Adebayo bought a house for the state on Victoria Island and deliberately built the liaison office in Abuja to have a veritable commercial side. When we challenged him why he was spending the state’s money outside the state, he defended himself, saying Ekiti State needed to invest for the raining day.
Now the raining day is here for Ekiti and the rest of Nigeria and our roof is leaking from many points. Nigeria has lost trillions of dollars to corruption especially when Dr. Goodluck Ebele Jonathan was the sentry on the watch. National assets were stripped bare and so much was the loot that some high and mighty turned the soak-away pits in their mansions into their own dollar-vaults. Yet, the NLC, with its teaming and powerful members, were not able to unearth any of these crimes against Nigerians until we put another tenant in Aso Rock.
Nigerians have learnt to trust Buhari more than the Ayuba Wabba led labour leadership. There is a feeling that if he says it is good now to remove petroleum subsidy, then it must be good for Nigeria. It is also a different feeling now that we have a leader we can trust with our money and whom we know no one can joke with when it comes to the resources of Nigeria. Indeed, there were many Nigerians who trusted President Jonathan too but what they were not sure of was whether he can control the raging tribe of careerists who constituted his presidential court. This time around, a different kind of watchman is in charge.
The NLC and its allies apparently missed that point. They ought to have known that apart from facing the charisma of the ascetic Buhari, the fuel-subsidy regime was also parading a formidable array of opponents who have seen beyond the era of subsidy. Most of the governors want the subsidy removed for this would translate to increased revenue for them. More importantly, workers in the oil sector comprising members of the Nigerian Union of Petroleum and Natural Gas Workers, NUPENG and the Petroleum and Natural Gas Senior Staff Association of Nigeria, PENGASSAN, have dissociated themselves from the strike. The TUC, which has often displayed more tolerance to official policies, backed off from the strike after 24 hours. The NUC was left to carry the can. It was the worst outing of the NLC so far since the glorious days when the labour movements, especially NUPENG, under the leadership of the charismatic Chief Ovie Kokori, confronted the dictatorship of General Sani Abacha.
This time around, Labour has a different kind of opponent and a different kind of Nigeria. During the Second Republic, the profile of Buhari was tested. In 1980, a report surfaced in the Senate presided over by Joseph Wayas, where it was alleged that N2.8 billion was missing from the account of the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation, NNPC, at a time when Buhari was Minister of Petroleum during the regime of General Olusegun Obasanjo. The duo of Dr Tai Solarin, pre-eminent social critic and Prof. Ayodele Awojobi of the University of Lagos, were in the forefront to get the Senate to probe this matter. When Solarin appeared before the Senate, he claimed he heard about the missing money in a molue bus! Awojobi went into a long accounting explanation why indeed N2.8 billion ought to be missing! The Senate summoned Obasanjo, to come and throw light on the matter. He declined the invitation.
Later Dr Olusola Saraki, the Senate Leader, led other senators to Obasanjo Farm in Otta, Ogun State, to take his evidence. There Obasanjo told them the story of the impregnable triumvirate in charge of Nigeria’s money when he was military Head of State. There was Muhammadu Buhari, the Minister of Petroleum and chairman of the NNPC Board. There was Chief R.A Marinho, the managing director of the corporation and there was Alhaji Adamu Ciroma, the governor of the Central Bank. All the three were competent, patriotic and incorruptible public officers. They were stubborn men of modest taste who guarded the nation’s resources with eager eagle eyes. None of them was associated with great wealth or expensive taste.
“How can you suggest that anyone would dare steal Nigeria’s money under the watch of these three men,” the former Head of State berated the senators. Once, a worried subordinate had written to higher authorities asking that the three-year old official car of the CBN governor, a Peugeot 504, should be replaced. Ciroma was said to be angry and rejected such suggestions outright.
Now we are in 2016 and the sun still rises from the East but new men and women now rule the roosts. The truth is that despite our changed circumstances, our rulers are still living fully subsidised lives. Things that happened in the past are now simply unthinkable. When Brigadier Mobolaji Johnson was military governor of Lagos State, his wife was also serving as a staff nurse at one of the state hospitals. Who dare suggest such a thing today when we have learnt to pay for the life and leisure of the bigman and woman?
Though the strike is over but the battle of subsidy is not over. The NLC and its leadership need to wage a vigorous war to remove the indefensible subsidy on the lifestyles of politicians. This is doable now that the All Progressives Congress is the ruling party. The President is the party leader and he has demonstrated it in many ways that he is for sanity in the spending of public funds. One way of doing this is the drastic reduction in the number of official cars attached to political office holders especially ministers and governors. As the leader of the party in power, taking this route should not be difficult for him.
One area where Buhari may meet opposition in removing subsidy from the lifestyle of public officers is in the National Assembly. Indeed, there is very little difference today between the convoy of the President of the Senate and that of the President of the Republic. Gone were those ancient days when the President of the Senate was assigned only three official cars. Now each time Senate President Bukola Saraki is going for trial before the Code of Conduct Tribunal, Abuja knows a modern day Napoleon is on the move. The accused person is a big man and he has the capacity to dominate his environment, be it in the Senate, the Accused Box, or on the road. He is not afraid.
But we are afraid for the collective reputation of the Senate where the likes of Olabiyi Durojaye, David Dafinone, Wahab Dosumu, Anyim Pius Anyim and Jubril Aminu once sat. In another clime where people know the meaning of dignity, responsibility, social conscience and pride, Saraki would have resigned to face the solemn assignment of proving his innocence before the tribunal. But he is a big man enjoying the full subsidy of a kingly lifestyle. He is also the accused. These two roles ought not to be combined in any decent society. Members of the Senate may not feel embarrassed by these conflicting roles of their leader. However, as the leader of the ruling party, President Buhari ought to be embarrassed on their behalf.