From ISMAIL OMIPIDAN, Kaduna
Saturday January 07, 2012
Photo: Sun News Publishing
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Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) Vice President and a leading public commentator, Comrade Issa Aremu, has said that President Goodluck Jonathan’s administration is one that Nigerians would certainly curse, for promising a breath of fresh air, only to turn around to inflict pains on people through the recent petroleum subsidy removal.
Speaking with Saturday Sun in Kaduna, shortly after the announcement of the new price regime by the Petroleum Products Pricing Regulatory Agency (PPPRA), the Labour activist insisted that there was no difference between those who bombed Nigerians on Christmas Day and President Jonathan, as both chose a day of joy and a day of worship to impose hardship on the people. He called on Nigerians to resist the new price regime, adding that if Nigerians allow it, they could accept anything.
While insisting that most Nigerian leaders are unbelievers, Aremu said: “We can also even dramatise it. The President was in Madalla and he was reportedly shedding tears for the victims of the criminal bombing on Christmas Day and everybody felt that, for once he was sensitive to the plight of Nigerians, because he went to the scene. Not only that, he issued a New Year message, wishing Nigerians a better year ahead, only for PPPRA to increase the price of a product, which does not have a substitute, by over 100 per cent. This is more terrorising than the Boko Haram attacks.
“It is also clear that our leaders are not believers. This is because they actually behave like unbelievers. I mean, why will any president, democratically elected by the people, on a New Year Day, decides to inflict pain on the electorate?
The argument is that, if you cannot improve their public welfare, don’t worsen it and certainly not on a festive day. That is why I am saying that this price terrorism can be compared to the same bomb terrorism on Christmas Day in Madalla, because it is the same day of joy somebody dropped a bomb to kill worshippers. But the president went there to shed crocodile tears; it is crocodile tears, because after shedding the tears, the next thing is to impose the same hardship on his own people with endless tears.
“This one is a process tear. It is a tear that cannot be wiped off easily. The whole logic is the same. The person who dropped that Madalla bomb and that who dropped the price bomb are all unbelievers because they each chose a day of joy, of worship to impose more hardship on the people and as we have already said, what happened to those that have gone home to mark the festivity? This is a president who has promised that this is not immediate; it has to be in April. For now, President Jonathan is having trust deficit and he needs to work hard to regain this trust. Policy that asks the citizens to pay more for services in the New Year cannot be in the citizens’ interest.”
He spoke on these and others.
About two weeks ago or so, you were part of a Town Hall meeting on subsidy removal. There appeared nothing, during the proceeding to suggest that the President had concluded consultations on the matter. But Nigerians woke up on January 1, to hear the PPPRA announcement removing the subsidy. What is the implication for governance and leadership in the country?
Well, I think it confirms the legitimate fear of the Nigeria Labour Congress and Trade Union Congress that this government is not to be trusted. For the first time, we are having a renewed policy dialogue, which is inclusive of all stakeholders, the government, the labour, community leaders, religious leaders. Suddenly, a discredited agency, like the PPPRA, just came up with a dictated price for Nigerians. For me, this has further compounded the problem of crisis of confidence in governance. For the past one and half year that Jonathan came in, we have not seen any practical results, in terms of dividends of democracy. I mean, most of the roads are still the way they are; we still have epileptic power supply; we still live in a more compounded problem of insecurity. This (subsidy removal) is one area he has stained his credibility; he promised to consult widely and leave the option for Nigerians. For me, the sudden price dictatorship, by PPPRA must be resisted by Nigerians.
We can also even dramatise it. The President was in Madalla and he was reportedly shedding tears for the victims of the criminal bombing on Christmas Day and everybody felt that, for once, he is sensitive to the plight of Nigerians, because he went to the scene. Not only that, he issued a New Year message, wishing Nigerians a better year ahead, only for PPPRA to increase the price of a product, which does not have a substitute, by over 100 per cent. This is more terrorising than the Boko Haram attacks. As you can see, the commercial heartbeat of Nigeria, Lagos is already grounded and in the next couple of days, you will see the effect on the entire nation.
So, what I am saying is that Jonathan has abandoned policy dialogue for policy dictatorship, and it is now left for him to prove that PPPRA is not doing his bidding, but if is true that PPPRA is implementing the plan of the president, then this government cannot be trusted by Nigerians.
You have consistently described the PPPRA as a discredited agency. Is there anything you know about PPPRA that the rest of us don’t know?
PPPRA is supposed to be Petroleum Products Regulatory Agency. I am asking you, which regulation are they doing? Even at the old price, we were told that it is only in few parts of Nigeria that people buy fuel at N65 per litre. What regulation has PPPRA carried out? All the figures of the so-called cabals, who carry out series of sharp practices in the industries, ought to have been checked by the PPPRA. I mean, what credibility has PPPRA brought to bear in that respect? So, when we talk of all the distortions in the price chain of products from the landed products, the discharge of product, which leads to demurrage, transportation, the banking charges and so on, it is the PPPRA that is supposed to check those charges, but we have investigated those figures and discovered that they are just fraudulent; they are just loaded to reward marketers and themselves too.
If you also find out, most of them, I mean, members of the regulatory agency are also operators. So, what kind of confidence can Nigerians have in such kind of agency to dictate the price? I also want to put this to you: the whole idea that we gathered during this policy dialogue was that they wanted to allow market to operate; that is forces of demand and supply; the prices would be determined by the market. Now, the price that was announced two days ago, tell me how that is a market price? That is not a market price; it is a dictated price. Why N141 per litre? Why not N14 per litre? Why not N1,000 per litre? Over 100 per cent increase overnight? This can only be PPPRA market. This cannot be a market price. There is no market like that in the whole world. This is a distorted and corrupt market. It is investment driven market. Even in terms of the way they carried out the policy, it is price dictation, and as we have also predicted during the town hall meeting, what we told Nigerians is that, there is a gap between official resolute, by allowing market forces to operate, and the reality. You know in the normal market, prices always go up and come down. But what we have seen, in respect to petroleum products over the years, is that prices always go up and what has happened in the last two days is not exception, from N65 to N150 for a product, which does not have a substitute.
You are working with The Sun. Can you increase the cover price of your paper by 100 per cent overnight? For me, if Nigerians take this, it means they can take anything. What is also very bad is that, this is a public agency, which is supposed to serve public interest. The reason it is so bad is that Nigerian consumers are the one in trouble because once the agency could engage in price oppression, what do you expect of private agencies? They will do worse. You pay so much to travel by air through the aviation, so much delay at the airport, very little services to render and so on. So, what are we talking about?
Shortly before the late Umar Yar’Adua administration, there was an increase in pump price, which took effect on assumption of his office. Labour went on strike and there were some negotiations and agreement, to the effect the price will remains at N65 and anytime it would be reviewed, Labour and government will sit down to look at a safety net. What happens to that understanding?
I am happy that you made reference to the government of President Yar’Adua administration to which Jonathan was a party, because he was the vice president then. We insisted that there was not going to be any increment in the prices of petroleum product. In fact, there was a reduction from N70 to N65, because it was arbitrarily done by Obasanjo when he was leaving office. So, we had to review it, to set up a process of review, but, unfortunately, President Yar’Adua died shortly after words. And part of the issues that emerged at that process was that we drew up a template of a number of things that must be in place, part of which is fixing of refineries. We strongly believe that if you want to deregulate or you want us to have market driven prices for product, it will be nice that we have that market product for domestic refined product because that we also create job rather than importing jobs.
We also said that there was need for overhauling of existing infrastructure for product delivery. Then along the line the issue of PIB also came in, that is, Petroleum Industry Bill. We said let’s us look at it holistically. How do we improve local content because the oil companies are just having fun with us. We also talked about how we manage the possible proceeds, if eventually, we allow for deregulation. But beyond that, we are also being engaged with this very President, if the issue is just a casual issue, why was the president leading the dialogue himself? He met with Labour; he met with religious leaders and his coordinating ministers moderated that town hall meeting. Minister of petroleum resources and minister of finance were there and CBN governor, who ordinarily should be pre-occupied with monetary policy, was also there.
That shows how important the policy was to the government. So, for Mr. President to now conclusively move to the next level, with this policy, which is not driven by the same kind of process (dialogue) it started with, means the whole process has come to nothing. And that shows how insensitive the government is to the plight of people of the ordinary Nigerian. And I want to tell you that in the process of this (dialogue) discussion, all these issues about the refineries also came up: how do we get the refineries working? And we were told that the minister of petroleum has re- awarded the contract to the original builders of these refineries. So, we want to see how they are going to work; we want to see the projects. We were also told that efforts are being made to see how the profit would be handled. None of these has been done, but suddenly a group called PPPRA announced the removal of the subsidy. This is a country, which economy is still more or less mono-dependent and road transportation, either by okada or by our cars or commercial vehicles, is the major source of transportation. We all depend on petrol, railway is not yet there. So, the impact will be seriously felt by the masses.
But come to think of it, as an individual, do you think we really need this fuel subsidy of a thing?
I think the question is wrongly put. I think the question should be, do we need good roads? Do we need uninterrupted power supply? Do we need other social amenities?
I think every Nigerian will agree that we need uninterrupted power supply at appropriate price. Even now that we don’t have it, the tariff for power that is not supplied is high. Diesel has been deregulated and is now N198. This is what we ought to be using when power is not supplied. I think every Nigerian needs power supply rather than using generator. Every Nigerian will say we need a type of transportation experienced in developed countries. Most people travelled for this holiday based on certain assumptions that the price of going home will be N1500; now to travel back has gone up to about N5000.
So, to respond to your question on whether we need subsidy or not, whether subsidy is there or not, what is the impact on public welfare? This policy, if care is not taken, will be a winner-takes-all kind of a thing. And in this case, the winners are petroleum marketers, who can charge any price on the product, which doesn’t have substitute, maybe also to pay some of the dept they owe; the other few winners include government, who, according to them, will now have free money from the federation account for availability of governors to have their share. But you know the big losers are Nigerians who are road bound, who are stranded, and who cannot afford the new cost of transportation, medical bills and the rest of them. So, this idea of one cap fits all, that once you deregulate everything will be in place is not so, because everything has come to a halt. The end is what will be the result, the result is, do we have public welfare? What we have seen so far is that with the removal of the so-called fuel subsidy, public welfare remains the same; in fact worsen. And I said so at the Town Hall meeting that our government should not be dogmatic or ideological about the whole idea of deregulation, because my fear is that, this government is thinking that deregulation will free them of responsibilities when actually that is when responsibilities begin. No market operator can last a day longer if government is not on duty.
And you can see, talking about dogmatism, we have the same dogmatism about money market before; it was almost two decades of deregulation in the money market. You see everybody set up commercial banks, nobody regulated them; they were just playing around with money; they were even financing cocaine business, and they were probably financing terrorism with public money, until CBN came in under Sanusi Lamido and said we have to put in some controls here. So, as far as we are concerned, the issue is not whether you remove fuel subsidy or not, but the welfare of people must be ensured.
You said Nigerians should resist it, but if you drive round town, some Nigerians are queuing up to buy petrol at either N140 or N145. Do you think this set of people will support the NLC’s protest?
It will not be right to blame the victims on what they are not responsible for. The fact that Nigerians are queuing up, to buy the product at outrageous prices, show why Nigerians should be pitied more than ever before. This is because you can’t compare petroleum products with telecom services, because for this product, there is no substitute; what will people travel with if they don’t buy it? That is why government is blackmailing people that, they must buy because they don’t have any choice. But what government does not understand is that the money that is available to buy 30 litres of fuel at N140 per litre will not be available to pay school fees. The money available to buy 40 litres of fuel at an outrageous price will certainly not be available to buy food. So, definitely, there is a serious cost implication. Most filling stations have the products now and they are not selling. They are possibly waiting to get more profit at the expense of the masses. It is bad enough that they have increased this price and it is even worse that nobody is there to make sure the product is available. Where is PPPRA? Why are people having product, which they bought when it was highly subsidised and yet they are still not selling, because they are waiting for what time they will be able to sell at any price.
So, the point I am raising is that, it is not about whether there is support for labour or not. I have never seen any consumer, even though they are buying at that price, who is praying for this government. And I have never seen anyone who is buying and cursing labour for opposing this outrageous price. So, I want to put it at that level, that you will see the other side of Nigerians with time, because everybody will spark when it comes; transporters will feel the pain, because what goes round comes round. Foodstuff prices will go up and the rest of them. Inflation rate will go up; poverty rate will worsen. It is going to compound socio-economic insecurity, which has implication on physical insecurity. More jobs will be lost with this. Because, once the cost of production goes up, for every producer, they have to see how to manage their cost of production and one of the first casualties is the Labour force. Now, what should worry you is the way this new price regime dictated by PPPRA under the auspices of the President that promised a breath of fresh air, in his transformation agenda, will worsen the level of poverty in Nigeria, further undermine productivity and create unnecessary rancour.
And for me, I find it completely scandalous that a government that declared emergency in times of physical crisis in some states decides to impose an emergency situation on the country. This policy is divisive; it is meant to divide us. And that is why we have said that as far as we are concerned, the constituted price is what we respect, which N65 per litre is. And the Federal Government will be held responsible for any chaos that comes as a result of this.
We will open our own register against this policy. But the point is, whether we have opened register or not, the hidden register will be far more devastating for Nigeria. This is the same Jonathan government that has not paid minimum wage. So, this is not a government people will certainly not curse. You signed a law, you have not implemented, meanwhile, you have increased prices. So, it is not just Labour forces; it is the forces of all Nigerians. But, any day anytime, we trust Nigerians, and any step we take, we will get solidarity of Nigerians.
As far as we are concerned, this policy is worse than what we use to go through before, because in those days, government will announce a few other things they want to put in place for citizens to pick what is their own, but this one is just winner takes all, while the rest of us are left to suffer.
It is also clear that our leaders are not believers. This is because they actually behave like unbelievers. I mean, why will any President democratically elected by the people, on a New Year day, decides to inflict pain on the electorate. The argument is that, if you cannot improve their public welfare, don’t worsen it and certainly not on a festive day. That is why I am saying that this price terrorism can be compared to the same bomb terrorism on Christmas Day in Madalla, because it is the same day of joy somebody dropped a bomb to kill worshippers. But the president went there to shed crocodile tears; it is crocodile tears, because after shedding the tears, the next thing is to impose the same hardship on his own people with endless tears. This one is a process tear. It is a tear that cannot be wiped off easily. The whole logic is the same. The person who dropped that Madalla bomb and that who dropped the price bomb are all unbelievers because they each chose a day of joy, of worship to impose more hardship on the people and as we have already said, what happened to those that have gone home to mark the festivity? This is a president who has promised that this is not immediate; it has to be in April. For now, President Jonathan is having trust deficit and he needs to work hard to regain this trust. Policy that asks the citizens to pay more for services in the New Year cannot be in the citizens’ interest.