By Femi Asu
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness. – Charles Dickens
Like play, like play, as the Nigerian colloquialism goes, the issue of bombing has become a burden we must live with. Isn’t that what we were told – a necessary evil? Last Sunday, ‘Nigeria’s blackest Christmas…ever’, as ThisDay newspaper put it on its front page the next day, was played out as bombs rocked churches in Niger state and Jos, Plateau state leaving deaths and destruction in its wake. President Jonathan, however, assured Nigerians that the spate of bombings will not last forever. We hope it will be over soonest. It has become so unbecoming!
Obviously, these are not the best of times. Apart from the menace of bombings, another burning issue bedevilling our nation now is fuel subsidy. For a while now, the Nigerian government has continued to drum it into the psyche of the Nigerian people that the removal of fuel subsidy has become very necessary, but Nigerians see it as nothing short of evil. That may well become another necessary evil. Maybe not. Only time will tell
When I started out on this piece, the first idea for a headline that came to my mind was ‘subsidy haram’. The word ‘haram’ is not a new one on us. Almost every Nigerian is familiar with it, thanks to the Boko Haram sect. Haram is an Arabic word that literally means ‘forbidden’. Figuratively, it means ‘sin’. The sect would have us believe that western education is a ‘sin’. And they seem to be telling us that they are hell-bent on this mission. In a somewhat similar vein, government is saying fuel subsidy must go because it is ‘haramic’, harmful and hazardous to the health of our nation.
When the news broke that the government was gearing up to remove fuel subsidy, it met with ferocious public outcry. The dust is yet to settle. Coming at a time when Nigerians are still being buffeted physically and psychologically by the Boko Haram menace, which seems to have reduced our milieu to a hellhole, Nigerians seems not ready for the much-touted transformation its removal will engender.
The apologists for the removal of fuel subsidy have been all out in their efforts to make the Nigerian people realize that fuel subsidy is a ‘sin’ – a plague that must be avoided to ensure that the economy of this entity called Nigeria does not collapse like a pack of cards. The sin of subsidy, they say, has eaten deep into the fabric of our economy, and is eating away our financial base – so much so that a little more indulgence will cause our collective future to scatter into smithereens. Hear the Finance Minister Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala: ‘Subsidy is a major fiscal and financial burden on the nation. From 2006-2011, about 3. 7 trillion naira was spent on subsidy.’ She said the removal of subsidy next year is inevitable to keep the economy afloat and rebuild infrastructure.
Dr. Goodluck Jonathan and his sympathisers have been asking Nigerians like Apostle Paul asked the Romans, “Shall we continue in sin [subsidy] that grace (read ‘a breath of fresh or transformation’) may abound? God forbids? Definitely not, if truly the voice of the people is the voice of God. As I write, Nigerians are yet to see how the removal of the subsidy will serve their best interests and add value to their lives as it is being claimed. For many Nigerians, for government to say Nigeria will collapse if subsidy is not removed is like Boko Haram saying western education is sin!
The debate on whether the removal will do more harm than good, or more good than harm to Nigerians, took a dramatic turn last week. At the town hall meeting organised by the Newspapers Proprietors Association of Nigeria, the duo of Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala and Finance Minster, Diezani Alison Madueke, Petroleum Minister were at their eloquent best in their bid to make Nigerians see how removal of subsidy is in their (Nigerians’) best interest. It was a battle of wit as Femi Falana, Olisa Agbakoba and others gave them a good run for their money.
When Nigerian workers won the battle of minimum wage early this year, perhaps little did they know that it was not yet uhuru. One may not be wrong to say the new minimum wage has turned out to be a poisoned chalice if it is true that the proposed removal of fuel subsidy is a corollary of the new minimum wage. Evidently, if the subsidy is eventually removed, it will eclipse the increase in the wage. We cannot have our cake and eat it. That may well be the message the government is trying to pass across to Nigerians.
It is good enough that President Jonathan has conceded that the removal of subsidy on petroleum products would inflict pains on Nigerians, assuring us that the pains would be short-lived. To be sure, Nigerians are long-suffering folks. But how long shall we continue this ‘shuffering and shmiling’ of which the late Afro beat King Fela Anikulapo-Kuti sang?
‘Every day my people dey inside bus
Every day my people dey inside bus
Forty-nine sitting, ninety-nine standing
Them go pack themselves in like sardines
Them go faint, them dey wake like cock
Them go reach house, water no dey
Them go reach bed, power no dey
Them go reach road, go-slow go come
Them go reach road, police go slap
Them go reach road, army go whip
Them go look pocket, money no dey
Them go reach work, query ready.’
It is no longer news that if the subsidy is removed, the price of petrol will increase; nay transportation will go from bad to worse, and the masses will be worse hit. And if power supply does not improve as promised, it will make it extremely difficult for businesses to survive, much less thrive as the cost of powering their generators may take a toll on them. And many Nigerians who are proud owners of the ubiquitous generating set, popularly dubbed ‘I better pass my neighbour’, will have to spend more of their hard-earned income to power them or minimize their use. What is more, prices of goods and services will not be left out. Cost of living will increase.
Although government is saying it has plans to cushion the blows to be dealt by the removal of the subsidy, not a few Nigerians have continued to dismiss this promise not only with a wave of the hand, but also with a grimace. Once bitten, twice shy, they say. We have become very mistrustful of government, thanks to successive governments who have made us look like idiots being ruled by fools. But, we are no idiots! We are intelligent folks lulled into a false sense of ‘e go better’. Now we have wised up and are waking up from our slumber.
In the event that President Jonathan or any of the apologists of subsidy removal stumbles on this piece, the question to be asked is: Are Nigerians ready for the transformation they wish to spring on them by removing this subsidy?! Can we afford to live with the burden of bomb blasts and the aftermath of subsidy removal at the same time? If His Excellency asks me, I think he should work towards earning our trust first by curbing this menace of insecurity that is proving to be intractable. That we are resisting the removal of subsidy does not mean we are satisfied with the status quo. We just don’t want to throw caution to the winds this time round. We can’t very well do that.
How are we sure that Boko Haram will not frustrate Jonathan’s agenda to transform our nation after the removal of the subsidy, and so prolong our plight? Would it then be possible to undo the deed? So, like many Nigerians, I think the most pressing challenge besetting us is insecurity. We cannot afford to continue losing precious lives and property to Boko Haram bombs. For how long shall we live with this burden? How true is it that Nigeria will be thrown into what Thomas Hobbes called state of nature where life is ‘nasty, brutish and short’, if the subsidy is removed amidst this Boko Haram challenge? Double trouble?
I understand that time is not on President Jonathan’s side, if his decision not to run in 2015 is anything to go by. It appears he is eager to transform Nigeria as soon as possible, if possible overnight. But it’s a pity that Nigeria is messier than the Augean stables Hercules cleaned in a single day, and his (Jonathan’s) administration right from the word go has had to grapple with one challenge or the other, most especially insecurity.
Now, Nigerians are yearning for deliverance, not more suffering and pains. Will President Jonathan hearken to the voice of the people? I hope so. I wish him Godspeed and good luck in his bid to transform Nigeria.
Femi Asu is a graduate of Accounting, University of Ado-Ekiti, Ekiti State, Nigeria. He is a freelance journalist.