• Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala told us that about 70 per cent of Nigerians trek, and wondered why we are fighting over subsidy removal?
Saturday January 07, 2012
Photo: Sun News Publishing
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The President of the Nigeria Labour Congress, Comrade Abdulwaheed Omar, has drawn the battle line on the sand in Labour’s fight with the government over the removal of fuel subsidy, which has seen the price of petrol shooting up from N65 to N141. 50, in many stations across the nation.
In an exclusive interview with Saturday Sun, an enraged Omar said there was no going back on the general strike called for Monday, except the Goodluck Jonathan administration reverts to the old pump price.
Omar believes President Jonathan has been held hostage by some of his ministers and advisers who are apparently egging him on in his ‘shocking New Year gift’ to Nigerians. One of these officials, he claims, is finance minister and coordinating minister for the economy, Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, a former Managing Director of the World Bank, who reportedly asked Labour officials, at one of the meetings, held between both parties, why they were so worried over subsidy removal when about 70 per cent of Nigerians don’t own cars, but trek!
He also revealed his fears of a bloody revolt if the masses are further pushed to the wall by those at the helm of affairs. He spoke with ERIC OSAGIE in Abuja.
You have given government ultimatum, which expires on Monday, January 9, after which a strike begins. How is it going to play out? Will Labour soft-pedal or eventually backpedal?
No. We have given an ultimatum; we are awaiting what happens between now and that time. If nothing happens, in terms of reverting to the status quo, we shall go on strike
What do you mean by ‘ reverting to the status quo?’
That is reverting to the old pump price of N65 a litre.
Do you think it is possible in this country, where government behaves like a god or you are just talking?
Well, that is the decision of the National Executive Council of NLC; that is also the decision of Trade Union Congress (TUC). And we are also being joined by other civil society organizations and students groups, etc. That is the bottom line. A couple of minutes ago, somebody called from the Ministry of Labour that the Presidential Negotiating Committee has been inaugurated and that they want us to talk, but we said what is the need of talking? The issue we are supposed to discuss is already overtaken by events. If they want such discussion, let them revert to the N65 per litre pump price, and then we will be ready to talk.
So you are not going to be part of any negotiation?
For now, no!
Did President Jonathan shock you with the subsidy removal or were you expecting it?
Yes, I was really shocked. Shocked in the sense that just a few days ago, one of the things we mentioned to the President and his team was the issue of trust by people who are in government and we pointed at a number of issues. I was shocked because just two, three days back, a minister was saying: ‘look, this issue of deregulation, even if anything is to happen, it should be as from April.’ Only for us, the following day, to wake up with this drastic decision.
But we understand that you met with the man where he told you clearly that if you guys like shoot him the subsidy will go. How true is that?
He said that; he told us that no matter what happens the removal of subsidy was inevitable for Nigeria to continue to exist and so on. But we restated our position that there were things government must look into. But government completely jettisoned that. For example, this issue of corruption, we said how could a whole government be talking that some people have hijacked the system, that there is so much corruption in the subsidy transactions and you are not taking any step towards dealing with that issue of corruption? Rather, you feel it is better to visit the entire hardship on the common man. We believe that is not a sensible thing to do. If government had tried to checkmate this corruption issue they, perhaps, may have achieved some measure of success. But the President and his government are not doing that. I have also been thinking in my mind that government cannot be this wicked to say that at a go you just wipe out this thing and triple the price of pump price of fuel, especially when it knows that the decision is going to affect in like manner the social and economic condition of the citizenry especially the downtrodden.
When I reflected, I said well it is not a surprise because when we met with Mr. President the submission of the minister of finance was a bit laughable. What she said was also of concern because she said the removal of fuel subsidy would affect only a sizeable percentage of Nigerians because about 70 per cent of Nigerians trek! Yes, the minister of finance said that.
It is laughable because how can a government voted by people be talking like that? It is also a thing of concern because that tells you that that minister is completely detached from the realities of things in this country. To say that after all 70 per cent of citizens trek, means that she is not aware that pump price is likely to affect every other thing and that for the fact that somebody treks does not mean that he would not want to send his child to school; it does not mean that he would not like to buy tomato from the market. The danfo driver will increase his fare; the tomato seller will increase her own and will even reduce the quantity.
It is important that government understands that any fuel price increase will affect the generality of Nigerians. We told them clearly there that, look, if you remove subsidy it means increasing fuel prices and by increasing fuel prices even the money that will accrue from the increase will not be there because the inflation that will set in will consume this savings. May be they didn’t take us seriously; now what we told them is happening. Immediately the new policy took effect, people doubled prices of their wares. One thing that is clear is that this is an evil cycle that will continue to play out in this country.
Now, the PPRA that announced this thing put a price. And the question is why would they put a price? Why the N141.00? How did they arrive at N141? Secondly, what business do they have if they said they do not have a hand in the new price regime? Why would they fix a price if what we are talking about is total deregulation? So, you see, there are a lot of deceits in this thing.
Would you say Nigerians underestimated Jonathan?
Very seriously, Nigerians underestimated him. We were deceived by his utterances. Personally, I worked with him as a member of National Council on Privatisation, that was when I got serious admiration for him. All his utterances about Nigeria, about our economy, about the common man were excellent. But, unfortunately, what really happened is the way he is surrounded by some people. Honestly speaking, if you look at the situation you can pity the President that perhaps, he is seriously caged.
Are you saying he is held hostage?
I think that is true. He is a politician. This is a policy that is very unpopular and he keeps pushing it; people keep telling you everyday, every minute that he should not do it, but he keeps pushing. He is doing it to the extent that he said that whatever would happen let it happen. I think it is a very dangerous development.
When the President told you that what was your response?
We didn’t have to say anything; he was making his submission; it was in the course of rounding up that he said it. But it is really unfortunate.
Why is Labour against the removal of fuel subsidy? The President’s position is that Nigeria will collapse if the subsidy is not removed?
Our own side of the argument is that removal of subsidy to government simply means fuel price increase. But what we are saying is, look, there are certain things you must do and Nigerians could live with fuel price increase to the extent that by the time you graduate this thing, you remove your hand gradually. When you do it that way, people will not even notice anything; you allow the system to run. This one, you have not put anything in place to cushion the effects of the policy; government didn’t even start it gradually; all we heard is that you must do this. And the same government closed its ears to what everybody is saying, that there is endemic corruption there, tackle it and you will see that things will change. I told Mr. President at the meeting that if government will have the political will to fight the endemic corruption there, he will discover that the amount of money that will remain could be something that government can survive with while the subsidy remains.
It is practical; it is clear; even the last year budget showed that allocation to subsidy was about N260 billion, then how come anybody will say that we spent aboutN1.3 trillion. First, if you are to analyse this thing, you will say that if it is true that we spent N1.3trillion instead of N260billion, that is a three-fold leap, something definitely must have been wrong.
Secondly, it is not on record anywhere that the President had gone back to the National Assembly to ask for supplementary appropriation to top up this money. So, what is the problem? It means there is a lot of deceit, either all those figures they are talking about are not real or something is wrong somewhere. The National Assembly has a duty to say, look, you provided N260billion and this was what we approved where did you get N1.3trillion,? Why did you spend such money without our approval? That is illegality.
Have you people asked why our refineries cannot work?
That is another area. It is all part of the corruption. Let me tell you; the reality is that the people they said were benefiting from the subsidy thing can never allow any refinery to work in Nigeria.
This is because they are making cheap money. We were told that some of the ways they get this subsidy money include the refined oil they get from our own refineries; they move them to ports and pretend as if they imported them in order to get the subsidy money. So, how do you expect them to allow these refineries to work? Another thing is that we were told that they will register these products and government will pay and after sometime the same products will be presented as newly imported. They perpetrate all sorts of fraud. We believe that if government had sat down and looked at all this fraud it could have stopped them. Now if they remove subsidy, I hope that this corruption thing will not be there; it is the same people that will continue to import the products. The first thing they will do is to block any chance of anybody building refineries. At best, they will be the ones to take the licences and start one construction or the other of refineries and they will stop somewhere because it is more lucrative for them to continue to import. And as long as we do not refine the commodity we are going to continue to suffer.
The reality of things now is that what we are going to witness, assuming this regime of deregulated downstream sector will stay, we are going to witness two major things. First, the hike in the price, secondly, artificial scarcity will be created. It will never be the same again; you will not see fuel in filling stations, as we used to see. Again the possibility of hiking the price to whatever level they like is there. Each time they want to hike the price, all they need to do is to hoard the product, allow people to scramble for fuel; the price will go up. Government will say one, it is not our responsibility; we have hands off. I think the essence of governance is for the welfare of citizens; it is not too much for the Nigerian government to make sure, as it has been doing, that there is availability of fuel and that it is also affordable. This is the meaning of the subsidy. It is not just in terms of the money; it is in terms of making this available in all the nooks and crannies of this country. The price has to be affordable; the supply has to be constant. But if government decides to remove its hands all these things will set in and only God knows how it will be.
Are we heading for a revolution?
Already we are seeing what is happening in Lagos, Kano, and Kwara etc. We have a President who said no matter the consequences his government is going to go ahead. He made good his promise of removing the subsidy and we will make good ours.
I guess my major fea r is the fact that a revolution in Nigeria is not going to be the same revolution in Egypt, Syria or elsewhere, where there is so much maturity, in terms of the way security agents handled issues. Look at Egypt; it was even against the soldiers, the military, yet they were not touching anybody, to the extent that they were molested by the masses. But in Nigeria, it may not be so. That is my fear. And when this thing get out of hand government will think that they will continue to have control, but that is a lie. Already, there are so many divergent interests that are lying low waiting for something to trigger them.
Just a few days ago they shot somebody at Ilorin; security agents are moving about with live ammunition and any slight provocation they will shoot people. And this thing, with the type of anger people have now, the fear is that if, for instance, people in Maiduguri or Port Harcourt get information that police are killing people in Lokoja there may be reaction.
We must be very careful; somebody told me what the minister of labour said that if the protests will get out of hand; he said they have means to checkmate them. This means that government is prepared to crush and kill citizens who protest. People put them in that position of authority and they are ready to kill them just because they are opposed to a policy. So, it is highly lamentable and let me hope that the President will now wake up to his own responsibilities.
I have said it before that no matter what, no matter how highly placed a minister is, he is answerable to the President. We have had presidents; we recently had President Obasanjo. He was a very radical civilian president, but he was himself. He was radical and stubborn. Twice he attempted to remove the fuel subsidy, but twice he went back. It was not because he could not close his eyes and do it, but he was analysing the consequences on the citizens. He went back not because he was weak; nobody will say President Obasanjo was a weak president. But here we are with a President who is defiant. When Obasanjo wanted to remove the fuel subsidy, he didn’t get one quarter of the negative reaction that this president got, but he had to go back. But this one, just look at it, everybody, almost every group said don’t do it, but he is only listening to only one group: the group that is telling him to do it and making him believe he will be the hero.
There is the allegation that Labour has compromised on this, that it is being sponsored by disgruntled politicians to destabilise the government. What is your reaction?
Well if the allegation will hold water, it means Labour has remained constant; that means they compromised in the past because they took the same action. If labour is taking this action, it is not the first time it is taking it; what I want to tell you is that I challenge anybody to say whether labour has been compromised. The issue is we have been making our position clear; we have made it not only in the open but also everywhere. When the president summoned us for this consultation, we sat down and said okay let us go, but we must not go to sit down, even though by then we didn’t know the topic. We only assumed that it was on the issue of subsidy that he was calling us. We said we must not fold our alms when we go there; let’s go with a written position, so that even the press will not find us wanting. Unfortunately, when we went there, the President said he wanted to meet both NLC and TUC together; we said fine. What we agreed was that we must maintain our position.
After all the presentations by ministers of finance, Petroleum Labour and the Vice President we restated our position. We pointed out some of the lapses in the presentation. So these are the things. People will always say anything they like. It is the easiest thing to say that we have compromised. If government has not compromised us, why should we be compromised by any other group? Government is big and is ready to do anything to elicit support from people. The truth is that Labour will always stand on the side of the Nigerian masses. Nigerian workers are part of the masses. We always think what is best for Nigeria. Therefore, if somebody says we have compromised and that is why we want to scuttle the government, look at the other side of the coins. Who compromised with the government for it to continue to push this arbitrary policy that is rejected almost by 90 percent of Nigeria? It takes two to tango.
What is the position on the minimum wage?
We are still on because, we still have some issues to thrash out. But majority of the states are already paying. When we met with Mr. President we raised this; we said okay how could citizens trust a government that does not live up to its trust. We pointed out the issue of minimum wage, that we negotiated, agreed and signed with Federal Government for implementation right from May but up to the point we were talking the Federal Government had not implemented the minimum wage. The President said he was not aware that it was not paid, that it was not implemented at the federal level. That is a very weighty statement coming from Mr. President. It means the President has been cut off. Everything should stop at his desk. How can, after reaching and signing an agreement with no less person leading the government team than the Secretary to the Government of the Federation, one will wonder the kind of trick people are laying on the President if what he said was true. Was it that they just told him Your Excellency we have concluded and signed agreement and it ends there.
The President one would have expected should have had the interest to say this thing how far have you gone in the implementation. We were surprised that the President said he was not aware that the minimum wage was not implemented at the federal level.
What is your message to Nigerians on the fuel subsidy issue?
My message to Nigerians is that, first, let us keep calm. I believe the situation is still very redeemable. It is redeemable if the government will be sensitive to the yearnings and aspirations of the common man. So let people keep calm; let us pray that the President will certainly wake up to his responsibilities to Nigerian citizens. I owe it a duty to ensure that the citizens have some measure of respect and therefore let us go back to the drawing board and look at these things again with absolute reality.
You said that government is saying that if we did not remove subsidy the government will collapse because of lack of money. I am not an economist but as somebody who knows that when I sign and collect my salary I know how to budget to say I will buy rice, garri but I will not buy palm oil etc, it is in the same manner government should work. If you say if you do not remove subsidy the country will collapse but you are not doing anything to change your living style, think; something fundamental is wrong. Look at the budget presented. How much was earmarked as recurrent expenditure? For me as a layman, if Mr. President is a President with executive powers, any minister or somebody bringing a proposal to spend N2.7trillion on recurrent expenditure without looking at anything I can take my biro and say N1.7trillion is what we will spend on recurrent expenditure, I don’t want to hear any story.
But in a situation the government is not ready to change its lifestyle, even where everybody is crying that the cost of governance is so much, how can citizens trust and accept that it is the money made from subsidy removal will not go into servicing the appetite and lifestyle of those in government? Source > http://www.sunnewsonline.com/webpages/news/national/2012/jan/07/national-07-01-2011-010.html