Thursday, 28th September 2023

The president would be held into account

By Dare Babarinsa
08 June 2023   |   5:12 am
On Monday, May 29, 2023, Nigeria welcomed a new President and Commander-in-Chief to the epicenter of national power. The ascension of President Bola Ahmed Tinubu is an affirmation that Nigerian democracy is maturing and it is moving into a new cruising level.

President-elect Bola Tinubu

On Monday, May 29, 2023, Nigeria welcomed a new President and Commander-in-Chief to the epicenter of national power. The ascension of President Bola Ahmed Tinubu is an affirmation that Nigerian democracy is maturing and it is moving into a new cruising level.

During his inaugural address, Tinubu affirmed that the subsidy on petroleum products has been removed by the old regime of President Muhammadu Buhari, who took the technical step of not making provision for its continuation in the 2023 budget from June this year.

“We commend the decision of the outgoing administration in phasing out the petrol subsidy regime, which has increasingly favoured the rich more than the poor,” declared the President during his inaugural address. “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.”

Twenty-four hours after the President’s pronouncement, queue resurfaced at fuel stations across the country. Some audacious retailers started selling petrol at N600 per litre or more. In Abuja, street hawkers emerged in their hundreds to sell fuel to impatient motorists. The Nigerian National Petroleum Company (NNPC Ltd), issued a statement reassuring Nigerians that there was sufficient fuel in stock and there was no need to panic.

Dealing with the issue of fuel subsidy has been a traditional headache for Nigerian leaders. It has been difficult to confront its complexity and address the issues involved. In the past, most politicians on the campaign trail have often proclaimed that petroleum subsidy was a huge scam. During the last campaign session, all the major presidential candidates: Tinubu, Atiku Abubakar of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and Peter Obi of the Labour Party, promised to remove petroleum subsidy.

The truth is that it has dawn on the political class leaders that the country has stepped into trillions of debts and could simply not afford the luxury of petroleum subsidy. Like it can happen to any other enterprise, the country can also become bankrupt. That is the fate of Lebanon, Somalia and some other unfortunate countries.

During the regime of President Olusegun Obasanjo, the government had wrestled with the issue of petroleum subsidy until it came to the conclusion that it has to be removed. Obasanjo did not make the announcement until after Umar Yar’Adua was elected as his successor in 2007 and the then ruling PDP was safely back in power. He then went ahead to sell the Federal Government owned refineries in Kaduna and Port Harcourt to a consortium put together by iconic businessman, Alhaji Aliko Dangote and Femi Otedola. When Yar’Adua finally got into the saddle, he reversed Obasanjo’s decision on petroleum subsidy and revoked the sale of the refineries. Dangote and Otedola were refunded their money.

Subsidy crept into the Nigerian public spending in the first instance because our leaders believed we had a lot of money. In the 1960s and 1970s, the Federal Government felt there was no need to sell petroleum products at different prices across the country. It wanted the pump price of petrol to be the same in Lagos as well as Maiduguri or Makurdi. Therefore, a Price Stabilisation Fund was set up, which was paid to big players like Mobil, Agip, Shell and others.

When the NNPC was formed during the latter years of the General Olusegun Obasanjo military regime, it seized control of the process. This made a lot of sense in 1978. Nigeria was rich, its three refineries were working and the three men in charge of Nigerian money were men of perpendicular integrity. These were Colonel Muhammadu Buhari, the minister of Petroleum, Mr. Festus Marinho, the managing director of the NNPC and Mr. Ola Vincent, the governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN).

Today, our three refineries are in comatose state and the entire nation is waiting with baited breathe for the effort of one man, Alhaji Aliko Dangote, the initiator of the Dangote Refinery in Lagos. What impact this new refinery would have in Nigeria and other West African countries we don’t know. Yet it has come to save our country from embarrassment and shame. Nigeria is the only leading petroleum producing nation in the world that has no functional refinery.

Now we can beat our chest that we have the Dangote Refinery. We can be sure that it would not end up on the dunghill like the Federal Government owned refineries. Because it is a storm foretold. Nigerians are enduring the removal of fuel subsidy with what Ray Ekpu would call “philosophical calmness.” The labour unions, de-fanged by years of easy romance with the power elite, have grumbled like well-fed praetorian guards, have also played the game by the rules. There is no doubt that the rule has now changed, possibly forever.

What has not changed is the state of Nigeria, one of the richest countries on earth, which is home to millions of poor people. As the new president is changing the paradigm of power, he has to confront the primary problem of poverty in a fundamental way. First, he has to tell Nigerians what he wants to do with the three refineries he inherited. Is he going to donate them to Dangote or find someone on the business scene to buy them? It is a presidential headache, which he cannot shift to anyone else.

Now the country is in dire need of money. Infrastructure will be built, salaries have to be paid and the big men and women in the National Assembly have to continue their expensive business. We have the military, the police, the customs, the civil service, the judiciary and all others who are looking forward to having their shares from the pork barrel. Yet our country is in debt, said to be more than N7 trillion. Everyone, including all our leaders, is looking up to the oil in the ground for sustenance and succor of the republic

In 1999, Tinubu was elected the governor of Lagos State. He decided to create the Master Plan for Lagos State, which is still being implemented by his successors, including the incumbent Governor Babajide Sanwo-Olu. Now is the time for him to unveil a Master Plan for Nigeria.

We need to know where we are going in the next 25 years. After all, the journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step. The president would be accountable for his pronouncements.

For weeks and years to come, the inaugural speech would be studied and dissected in the wake of performance and promises kept or broken. He has started on a good note. Now he has to keep faith with our expectations.
Tough job!