If the morning, as they say, shows the day, then we should brace up for trouble in the coming weeks. Following the public release of the 2012-2015 Medium Term Fiscal Framework and Medium Term Expenditure Framework,
there is already a groundswell of opposition from labour and other stakeholders. And in the last few days, I have received several mails from readers who plead with me to throw my lot with ‘the people’ by opposing the complete deregulation of the downstream sector of the petroleum sector otherwise called removal of fuel subsidy.
I want to preface my intervention with a story I told sometimes in 1999 or thereabout which is still very relevant today. And like I did back then, I seek the indulgence of readers because the story is about a supposedly loving couple having problems which bordered on sex. The husband happened to be a man with healthy appetite hence he would not allow his wife any breathing space. After putting up with his antics for some years, she took the matter to her in-law as the 'court of first instance'. After narrating her story, her mother-in-law asked whether her son was maltreating the wife in other ways; she said no. Was he providing for her as he should? She answered in the affirmative. The parents of the husband declared that the wife had no case because their son was only claiming his rightful entitlements. Case dismissed!
Defeated, the poor woman accepted her fate for a while before reporting to her own parents. Let us call this the 'court of appeal'. Here, they equally asked the same set of questions her in-laws asked. Her mother however added: "Is your husband dating another woman?" She said no. In the ruling that followed, they scolded their daughter for attempting to shirk her marital responsibility. The appeal therefore failed and the man continued to claim his entitlements. Ultimately, the wife took the matter to their local pastor as the final arbiter, if you like the ‘Supreme Court’. Having listened to the tale, the pastor sent for the husband so he could hear both sides. When the husband came, the pastor asked the wife to retell her tale which she did. "Is it true?" He replied: "It is true Sir but the problem is that I don't want to have affairs outside."
This to the pastor was a serious problem but after a discussion that involved bargaining and trade-offs, it was agreed that a maximum of three times a day was enough for any couple. Thus a ceiling was effectively placed on how many times the man could 'harass' his poor wife a day. It was a Friday evening and back home, the man, quite naturally, claimed his 'quota' for that day. Then came Saturday: To cut the story short, by mid-day, the husband had performed his matrimonial obligation three times and the wife thought she would be left alone. When he therefore started behaving funny again, she exploded: "What is the problem? Have I not met my responsibility for today?"
Looking crestfallen, the husband replied: "Yes, I know, but please lend me one from tomorrow's!”
The friend who told me this story said it was a real life situation. He may be right or it may just be another ‘fabu’ but what is not in doubt is that the tale is a metaphor for the Nigerian condition and our proclivity to borrow from the future. Like the irresponsible husband in the story whose marriage was definitely bound to crash at some point, we have been borrowing so much from the future that it is only a matter of time before we reach rock bottom. But I understand what the current agitation is all about.
Like most commentators, I can make a thousand arguments on why it is callous to overburden the poor of our people by removing the current subsidies on fuel. I can canvass brilliant ideas to justify why, if it is only cheap petrol that the people enjoy, so let it be. I can present moving stories of the social consequences of the removal of subsidy: The pain, the anguish and the tears to come. Yet given the situation on ground, there is no way we can continue with the corrupt, inefficient and unsustainable subsidy regime. To do so will amount to entrenching a culture of continually borrowing from tomorrow.
I have followed the drama in the Senate concerning a proposed motion by Senator Bukola Saraki where he noted that in the 2011 Appropriation Act, the sum of N240 billion was allocated for subsidy yet by August ending, N931 billion had been spent with a projection that by the end of the year, “we will have a fuel subsidy bill of over N1.2 trillion as against the N240 billion budgeted in the Appropriation Act.”
Making allusion to the (mis)management of the federation account and the subsidy abracadabra by NNPC, Saraki drew the attention of the lawmakers to the fact that the 2011 Appropriation Act was based on “a Capital budget of N1.1 trillion for the entire country yet a single agency of government can incur the same amount without due approval of the National Assembly.” As former Governors’ Forum Chairman, I understand where Saraki is coming from but he is also aware the problem did not start with the 2011 Appropriation Act as fuel subsidy accounts mostly for the distortions we have had in budget planning and execution in the last decade just as it feeds the monumental corruption in our oil and gas sector.
Fortunately, President Goodluck Jonathan has finally come to terms with the reality that you cannot rule a country by Facebook! Given my understanding of Nigeria, our president, especially in these difficult times, must be like the man leading the orchestra: he has to back the crowd. Now President Jonathan knows. And he deserves our support. We must understand that he didn’t create the situation under which we find ourselves today. All the leaders before him, with our collective connivance as a nation, had been borrowing from tomorrow. Now that he has mustered the courage to say, “thus far and no more," the least our lawmakers and other critical stakeholders can do is to offer their understanding and support.
There is a way in which the series started three weeks ago on this page (on a fiscal regime that will freeze oil money away from recurrent expenditure) ties in with this issue. But my support for the economic direction of the Jonathan administration is a qualified one. I want to see concrete plans as to where the ‘savings’ from fuel subsidy will be targeted because it makes no sense to me to impose heavy burden on the people and then be funding dubious projects like the N30 billion National ID scheme. I also want to see greater commitment to the passage of the Petroleum Industry Bill (original version).
While the argument for withdrawing fuel subsidy is compelling, there is an urgent need to carry along critical stakeholders in the media, civil society and labour because, to borrow an adage, it is much more productive to erect a fence at the top of the cliff than to build a hospital below. The days ahead are definitely bound to be very difficult and the month of December will be particularly critical. But I believe there is an extent to which we can continue to borrow from tomorrow.
• This piece was first published in THISDAY on 13th October 2011