Perhaps, the last thing any Nigerian expected was to be handed a petroleum subsidy withdrawal announcement on New Year’s Day. As Nigerians will say on local parlance, the President “fell our hand”.
Things have quickly spiraled out of control since President Jonathan made the announcement; a litre of fuel is currently being sold from between N140 to N250, transportation prices have doubled and commuters are stranded in villages and cities where they journeyed to spend the holidays, and the ripple effect caused by the increase in the cost of transportation is beginning to make itself felt in marketplaces and shops. At least twenty to twenty-five people have died in connection with or in relation to the protests that greeted the announcement, and as Nigerian protesters gear up for another day in the mother of all Nigerian protests, there’s no telling what could happen.
But on the positive side, we have seen unprecedented levels of unity take root among the protesters, and in what is almost a mirror of the Egyptian Tahrir Square protests, Christians in Kano State have stood watch over their Muslim brethren as they pray and the Muslims have watched over the Christian churches as the Christians worshipped. And even as Nigerians find their humorous side and take to social networks and blogs to make conversation on the issue and trade status updates, cartoons and pictures, they are also finding slowly, the camaraderie and brotherhood that, up until this moment seemed to have eluded the “north-south dichotomy”. And in London, Nigerians are showing that they can speak with one voice. So maybe the protests are a good thing.
Or maybe not. Because if we take a step back from the teeming subsidy removal protesting crowd and attempt to comprehend the big picture, it becomes apparent that most of the protesters may not exactly know why they are on the streets protesting. It may also become apparent that we may all be unwitting puppets in the clever hands of the very puppet masters we are attempting to defeat.
Of course, the majority of the protesting masses are not aware of the political wrangling and intrigue leading up to the withdrawal of petroleum subsidies. It seems that the stakeholders in the matter have taken it personal, turning the issue into a battle of egos. There have been unsubstantiated claims that the Coordinating Minister of the Economy, Dr. Okonjo-Iweala threatened to resign if the decision to withdraw the petroleum subsidies was reversed. Amidst all of the talk of hired thugs, a collapsing, heavily oil-dependent economy, the imprudence of governmental spending and the distrust it breeds, we need to ask ourselves, what do we really want. Why are we protesting?
I support the removal of the subsidy. I always have, always will. So as long as that remains the primary reason for the protest, I shouldn’t be protesting. Now, I’m not in support of the way and manner of its removal, but I am in support of its removal because the issue is not whether or not it should be removed, the issue is that relevant infrastructure that would cushion the effect of its removal have not been put in place to ease the pains of its removal. So are we asking for the fuel subsidies back, or are we asking for the infrastructural developments that will ease the hardships occasioned by the removal of subsidies or are we asking for both? Are we asking for the government to find a way to reduce the prices of petroleum products without restoring the fuel subsidies?
If we’re protesting class inequalities and injustices, I’ll be on the frontlines waving a bloodied placard. A cursory glance will seem to reveal that the organizers of the protests aren’t protesting a lack of infrastructure. I stand to be corrected if I am wrong. They want government regulating the price of PMS which doubled overnight as a result of the Federal Government’s unwillingness to further subsidize fuel. But if prices had stayed stable, no one will care ’bout the removal.
Think about it. If government found a way to make fuel N65 per litre without bringing back the subsidies, will they still be protesting? Do you see now, why we all need to agree on what we’re protesting?
I fear that if we are protesting the removal of fuel subsidies, we have become unwitting pawns in the hands of the very people who benefitted from the defunct subsidies. We are protesting for the free monies they loot from our country to be reinstalled in their accounts. We are protesting to give them back the free monies they loot from us the protesters. Either way you look at it, the protester is screwed. The government claims it needs the subsidy money to build refineries and other social infrastructure that will make life easier for the protester. The protester wants cheap fuel. The government says we can’t have both the fuel and the infrastructure. They want us to endure the fuel prices for a short while until they can provide us infrastructure with the recovered subsidy monies. But we are not going to give them a chance are we?
I have read an article making the rounds on Facebook and Blackberry about not trusting a financially imprudent government with more money but I beg to differ. That is just lip service. I believe that if we offer the government a chance to invest the recovered moneys towards all of the purposes which they claim will benefit from it and we see no tangible results within a certain time frame, then we can bring down hell. But first, we must give them a chance. What we are doing right now is tantamount to condemning the accused before his trial.
If we choose to have the subsidy replaced, no infrastructure is going to be forthcoming for a while and the government is going to have an illegitimately legitimate excuse to disappoint on all of its election promises. If we choose the removal of the subsidy for the sake of future infrastructural growth and development, we are going to be facing a tough period in the days to come. We will have to brace up as a people and endure the hard times. We will have to brace the night in order to be able to sing, along with future Nigerian generations when morning comes, and I believe that this is the call for compatriots that the national anthem speaks about.
But either way, the protester on the street will have to endure deprivation of some sort.
That said, there are a million ways the government could have handled this better, and I am not a fan of Madam Subsidy’s modus operandi. But the damage is done. And we can choose to move on or dwell in it, or fight for the rights of the corrupt and the looters to stay corrupt and keep looting. I can see why the oil cabal will support the protests and pump resources into fueling it. I can see how they might want to manipulate the protests and fuel the anarchy it will breed. I can see how they will incite the benefitting masses to call for the restoration of subsidies. It’s already transforming itself from protests into a huge street party in Lagos. And we are just beginning.
A wise man once said a prudent person is swift to hear and observe, slow to speak, and weighs all of the options carefully prior to choosing a course of action. Tomorrow’s Nigeria is our decision to make. Now I need to get back to work, these are just my thoughts.
OKANG ASHIWEL OCHUI