Joachim Mac-Ebong: Those attacking #OccupyNigeria 2012 protesters are wrong – very wrong

by Joachim Mac-Ebong


This is the morning after the evening before, when the government announced an upward review of petrol prices to a maximum of N145 per litre. Minus some grumbling here and there from labour unions, this decision has been greeted with relief, with many of the view that even though the move is painful economically, it is necessary to ensure availability of petrol across the country.

The reaction is in sharp contrast to January 2012, when in the aftermath of a price increase after months of selling the idea to the public, a week of protests began which many now view as when the Jonathan administration began to lose its goodwill with Nigerians. The subsidy debate back then was very emotive on both sides. Rhetoric was strong, passions were high, and many Jonathan supporters viewed the protests as a political tool to bring down the administration.

Those same people now stand ready to mock Buhari supporters who now support the move toward a total deregulation, but protested against it then. While one can understand can the annoyance, there is the need to put both events in the proper context.

In leadership, a pre-requisite for being able to implement tough decisions, is that you need credibility, real or imagined. Goodluck Jonathan had no credibility because he showed no commitment to making sure that those who gamed the subsidy system were brought to justice, or tackling the endemic waste in the federal government. In fact, by the end of his administration, hindsight had validated all those initial positions. After the subsidy system was reformed to a certain extent by the former Coordinating Minister for the Economy, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, the bazaar promptly moved to the security budget, where billions and billions were used without oversight, while Boko Haram ran amuck in the North-East and beyond.

Keeping or removing subsidy was never the issue. The popular uprising concerning it quickly expanded to corruption and waste, and the Jonathan administration had an opportunity to channel that to push through certain reforms. This did not happen. What we got instead was the usual bunker mentality and tone deafness that ensured a crisis was wasted, a crisis Jonathan never really recovered from.

We can talk about the potential savings from the subsidy and what public services could have been provided with the money all we like. The fact is that it exists with the realm of theory alone. Even with what money was saved at 97 Naira a litre, the palliatives promised were virtually non-existent. The SURE-P, set up to use those monies for various projects, quickly became yet another avenue for political patronage, so much so, in fact, that Christopher Kolade had to resign back in 2013.

All the probes commissioned into the NNPC and the subsidy programme yielded little beyond Mrs Okonjo-Iweala’s efforts to clean up the system. None of the biggest subsidy thieves were brought to justice.

On top of this, the same government that argued so passionately for the subsidy removal in 2012, later turned round and reduced the pump price of petrol on January 18, 2015, from 97 Naira to 87 Naira, in a bid to chase votes. It also prevented new electricity tariffs from coming into force, setting back the development of that critical sector, also for votes.

When it came to the crunch, the Jonathan administration went back on all its arguments for short term political gain. It showed that it had no principles except covering its flank, and as such there is no apology due to any member of that administration for resisting the petrol subsidy in 2012.

Attempts to rewrite the history of that period cannot change the fact that Goodluck Jonathan came into office with so much goodwill, and pissed it away because he was unable or unwilling to do what needed to be done. There is no one to blame for that, but him.

The Buhari administration, warts and all, still retains some measure of credibility. It should guard that credibility with its life. The events of Occupy Nigeria provide a cautionary tale that Muhammadu Buhari must heed, if he wants the continued support of Nigerians. He must ensure that he listens to good counsel, both from within his cabinet, and those outside it who want his administration to succeed.

The costs of arrogance are too high.

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