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Jonathan’s Controversial New Year Gift

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Nigerians warm up for a mass protest over President Goodluck Jonathan’s removal of oil subsidy in the wake of mounting security challenges threatening the very existence of the country

“He has given us the feeling that his children were being injured, that his children were being killed and properties being destroyed. This is a right step as his coming is to build up hope and confidence in the people. The visit of Mr. President has, in a way, given some confidence in the government; we see our father behind us, so we are not afraid.”


That was Isaac Achi, parish priest of St Theresa Catholic Church, Madalla, Niger State, where a bomb blast on Christmas day 2011 killed at least 40 persons and left 200 lying critically ill in the hospitals. He was expressing hope that President Goodluck Jonathan who only managed to visit the scene on December 31, 2011, a week after the dastardly bombing in his backyard about 20 kilometres away from the Aso Rock Villa, would cushion the effects on his parishioners in the New Year.

But his optimism was misplaced. As survivors of the blast pondered over their fate on hospital beds scattered across the state and even in the Federal Capital Territory, FCT, many of them were yet to come to terms with the death of their loved ones. In several cases, entire families were wiped out. Many families lost their bread winners while couples became childless. The thought on most minds was how to survive in the new year. Then, they were jolted by the mid-day announcement on January 1, 2012 of a jack up in the pump price of petrol from N65 to N141 per litre, about 115.38 percent rise, due to the abrupt removal of oil subsidy by the federal government.

The immediate removal of fuel subsidy rather than the April 2012 earlier promised caught many Nigerians unawares, moreso, at a time the country was facing its most potent security threat from Boko Haram, the Islamic fundamentalist group. Aside the Madalla bombing, the sect had hit targets in Adamawa, Plateau and Yobe states with several casualties on Christmas day. In the anger and condemnation that trailed the killings, the Christian Association of Nigeria, CAN, described the bombings as an open invitation to war. Even the international community was peeved. The United States of America offered to help arrest the bombers.

Given this world outrage, the least people expected was an unpalatable new year gift from their leader. But Jonathan glossed over the myriad of problems staring his administration in the face, especially the seemingly intractable security challenges and the lingering strike by the Academic Staff Union of Universities, ASUU. To tackle the security crisis, he, on December 31, announced a state of emergency in five local government areas in each of Borno and Yobe States, four in Plateau and one in Niger.

Before then, government had constituted a presidential committee headed by Usman Gaji Galtimari to ascertain the immediate and remote causes of the crises. But he noted that while efforts were being made to implement the recommendations of the committee, the crises have assumed a terrorist dimension with vital institutions of government including the United Nations building and places of worship becoming targets of terrorist attacks. He, therefore, premised the declaration on section 305(1) of the 1999 Constitution.

The affected local government areas in Borno are Maiduguri Metropolitan, Gamboru Ngala,  Banki Bama, Biu and Jere. Those of Yobe are Damaturu, Geidam, Potiskum, Buniyadi-Gujba and Gasua-Bade. In Plateau, the order affected Jos North and South, Barkin-Ladi and Riyom. Only Suleja LG was affected in Niger State.

Also, government closed all land borders contiguous to the affected local government areas so as to control cross boarder terrorist activities as “terrorists have taken advantage of the present situation to strike at targets in Nigeria and retreat beyond the reach of our law enforcement personnel.”

But less than 24 hours after, President Jonathan compounded the problem with fuel subsidy removal. The unpopular decision has provoked widespread outcry among Nigerians. Millions of them who had travelled for the Christmas and New Year festivities were stranded as transport fares shot up instantly. A Lagos-based indigene of Akwa Ibom State who was stranded on his way back at Uyo told Newswatch that when he got to the motor park on Monday, January 2, oblivious of the new fuel regime, he had to sell his phone for N3,000 to make up for his return fare. Whereas he paid N3,500 on the Lagos – Uyo trip, the return journey cost N8,000.

Apart from arbitrary increases in transport fares, foodstuff prices also increased instantly as soon as traders got the fuel subsidy removal information on Sunday, January 1. A bag of rice, a staple food of Nigerians, which sold for N8,000 before Christmas now goes for N11,000 in Lagos and other big cities.

Festus Keyamo, a lawyer, said the sudden withdrawal of the subsidy was a complete disservice to Nigerians as it “negated the primary function of government to protect the weak from the powerful and the poor from the manipulative tendencies of the rich.”

Worried by the government’s decision, the Action Congress of Nigeria, ACN, called on elder statesmen to rescue Nigeria “before Jonathan brings the house crashing down on all.” Following the declaration of a state of emergency in some local governments in four Northern states, the dreaded Boko Haram sect issued a three-day ultimatum to Southerners to leave the region. Although there has not been an exodus of people down south after the order expired last Thursday, January 5, most people who spoke to this magazine do not believe that the N921.91 billion provided for security in the 2012 budget could guarantee peace this year as security votes even by state governments are often embezzled, thus leaving the ill-equipped, underpaid and underfed police personnel at the mercy of bombers and assassins.

Tunde Bakare, pastor of the Latter Rain Assembly, Lagos, and running mate to Muhammadu Buhari in the April 2011 presidential polls, said the words of Dwight Eisenhower were apt to describe the situation. The 34th American president, 1953 – 1961, once said: “Though force can protect in emergency, only justice, fairness, consideration and cooperation can finally lead men to the dawn of eternal peace.”

There are also plans by the government to introduce more unpalatable policies including higher tariffs for power supply in the first quarter of the year. Toll plazas on some federal roads, especially those being rehabilitated by private developers will also charge fees. Ibrahim Badamosi Babangida, former military president, quickly heeded ACN’s clarion call on elder statesmen to help halt Jonathan’s drift. He asked for the reversal of the removal of fuel subsidy, saying its hasty withdrawal was ill-timed.

In a statement issued on January 2, and titled: “State of the nation,” IBB as he is fondly called, cautioned Jonathan on the consequences of inflicting further hardship on an already traumatised people. “Events happening in the country in recent times have once again called for serious concern by all in view of our peculiar history, political orientation, and the dynamics of our federation. The spate of bombings and other untoward acts in the country have thrown up the greater need for all of us to be more retrospective, introspective and proactive on issues of our common interest and nationality. It is a collective responsibility and all well-meaning people must be in agreement as to the urgent need to arrest this drift in our national psyche to keep our federation streaming,” he said.

Babangida advised that every government should ordinarily take the interest of its people at heart so that the reason for its existence would be justified. He noted that there was a potential breakdown of social contract between the leaders at all levels and the led. “Leaders have failed in their responsibilities at meeting the expectations of the people. These days, the gap between the rich and poor has further polarised the socio-economic and political discourse on the basis of winner-takes-all. Rather than leaders competing on the basis of who owns the latest house, automobile or jet in town, they should compete in the faculty of ideas to drive good governance and accountability. I have a strong feeling in my mind that Goodluck Jonathan as president is capable of suppressing these challenges if he listens less to newsmakers, attention-seeking public affairs analysts, and bad advisers, and devote his time to deep and reflective thinking in search for solutions,” Babangida warned. He further said: “On the issue of fuel subsidy removal, it is my opinion that it is ill-timed. The issue of subsidy should be seen more as politics and not economics, because the sole purpose of government is for the good of the people and not to create hardship. It is better to seek political solution to the subsidy discourse than invoking the sentiments of economics. Government should have kept its word till April by which time better explanation would have been given before implementation takes effect.”

The former military strong man warned of an impending cataclysm. “For those of us who have seen wars in different places and countries, especially on account of our training and background, no nation pushes for war when there are several options to be taken. As a former president for eight years and someone who survived eleven major crises in the country, both ethnic and religious, I can appreciate the enormity of the challenges facing Mr. President,” he said.

By press time last week, the momentum was gathering for a mass protest against the fuel subsidy removal policy. Instructively, many notable Nigerians had warned of an impending revolt over the deteriorating living conditions of the people. Former President Olusegun Obasanjo had fired the warning shot on December 5, on the imminence of a revolution. “There is the possibility of having the Arab Spring in Nigeria if similar conditions, hardship and unemployment which gave birth to it are not addressed,” he said. This statement had come on the heels of President Jonathan and his economic team’s insistence on removing fuel subsidy against all odds.

The Congress of Nigerian Political Parties, CNPP, took up the gauntlet. “Now that his mentor has spoken, it doesn’t matter which way you look at it today, people are now talking of Arab Spring. We hope President Jonathan will listen to wise counsel and come to terms with the hard realities that the goodwill he had before the April elections had evaporated and Nigerians are cynical and sceptical over his capacity to prudently manage the monies which will accrue from the withdrawal,” said Osita Okechukwu, national publicity secretary of the organisation.

Simultaneously, eminent Nigerians, including Ben Nwabueze, a Professor, Maitama Sule, Tunji Braithwaite, Balarabe Musa, Audu Ogbeh, Kalu Idika Kalu, Lateef Adegbite, Olisa Agbakoba, labour and civil society leaders among others rose from a meeting in Abuja mid December and expressed disappointment with the present state of affairs in the country orchestrated by system and leadership failure. They carpeted government on its growing insensitivity. “Nigerians must note that the general insecurity in the land, the unabated suicide bombings and pervasive frustrations of the masses, the refusal of the ruling class to open up space for genuine national negotiation as well as the politics of fuel subsidy removal and the minimum wage are all ominous symptoms of a deeper structural and governance crisis in the country,” the leaders said in a statement.

The Nigeria Labour Congress, NLC, Trade Union Congress, TUC, the National Assembly, the clergy, opposition political parties and all patriots said an emphatic no to the removal of fuel subsidy. But Jonathan and his cohorts glossed over the danger and the consequences of an Arab Spring.

Niyi Osundare, a professor of literature, told Newswatch that he was scared at the way people advanced argument for the removal of fuel subsidy. “We are paying for the incompetence of those who rule us. What they are saying is that since we cannot maintain our oil refinery, since we are so corrupt that we cannot do this, we will remove this so that you people in Nigeria will bear the consequence. It doesn’t really look nice to me. What bothers me is that if this subsidy issue is not handled properly, it is going to generate a terrible distortion and a terrible disequilibrium in this country. Nigeria is not a stable country by any means. Nigerians may be resilient. Nigeria is not terribly resilient as an institution. We have to be very careful. There is nothing to fall back on. Nigeria is just like a conglomeration…that gathering of tribe that Soyinka talked of in 1960, waiting to fall apart. The subsidy thing may fuel this. It scares. So, many people are saying may be Nigeria is toying with its own Arab Spring.”

Osundare is unsure how Nigerians will tackle the attendant inflation that fuel subsidy removal would engender. “I ask myself, how much yam will cost, how much agidi will cost when the subsidy is taken away? How much will I pay the okada owner before I can move from one place to another? If I have a headache, how much will I buy Panadol? If a relation has a terrible ailment, how much will the doctor take before performing surgery? These are the things that really matter. They are not in the books of our economists. Our economists are not talking about them. They are talking about macro! They are talking about them at the high level. Very good. Now that we’ve talked about them in the skies, let us look down below our level and see the earth below our soles. The millions of Nigerians who have never stolen money of this country and who have been victims of our rulers’ thievery and criminality are the ones that are being asked to bear the brunt all the time.  Will their resilience also enable them to bear this? How far will it last? This is the question I am really asking.”

 He likened the impending crisis to the sick man in Chinua Achebe’s Arrow of God. “A man who already has tuberculosis, you are asking him to add on elephantiasis of the scrotum as well. Nigeria already has a terrible disease in Boko Haram; shouldn’t we do everything to avoid adding another problem to this? It looks to me that what we are likely to have will be something that traditional rulers paying visits to Aso Rock will not be able to solve.”

Osundare advised Jonathan to emulate the Arab countries that produce oil like Nigeria and the leaders are sensitive to the people’s welfare such that they are able to afford petroleum products without really emptying their bank accounts. “They see oil as something that nature has provided for them. They are not looking at the price. Let at least the people enjoy it. It is not oil subsidy that should be removed in Nigeria. What should be removed is corruption, lack of accountability, tyranny of those in power. If you remove this subsidy and PMS sells at N300 a litre, the economy of this country is not likely to improve if we go the way we are going at the moment. The problem with Nigeria is not lack of money. We have too much of it. It is the management; the imbalance in the system which makes it possible for a tiny minority almost about one or two percent of the country to own so much while the others have nothing.” Osundare recalled that a few weeks ago, some governors were arraigned. Before then, Dimeji Bankole was also arraigned sometime ago for allegedly looting billions of Naira. “You say you want to remove the little that the people are enjoying. May be the Arab Spring is on the way,” Osundare told Newswatch. 

The literary guru who is currently being celebrated for his piece on Hurricane Katrina that swept through New Orleans in America a couple of years ago, enjoined President Jonathan to smart-up. “Let him put on his thinking cap. I don’t mean the Niger Delta cap. Let him show us that he really earned his PhD. He is not smart enough. We want to be ruled by more intelligent people. He is a good man. It is important to have good luck but good luck is something you have to defend all the time so that it doesn’t turn into bad luck,” he said.

As Nigerians prepare for the general strike called by the labour unions from Monday, January 9, it remains to be seen how President Jonathan will deal with the looming anarchy in the country. But as the NLC and TUC noted, “It is tragic that the Jonathan government has become the greatest source of insecurity in the country and the spring of danger to the Nigerian nation.” And government said it won’t back down on fuel price hike. Who blinks first? Nigerians or Jonathan? Time will tell.


  Reported by Dike Onwuamaeze


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