By Henry Okelue
Government seemed to be fast running out of options.
With the stark realities of the immediate consequences of the withdrawal of the subsidy on petrol hitting home, with ordinary Nigerians getting stuck at holiday destinations without enough money to make the return trip because of general increases in transportation, goods and services costs, spontaneous protests both on the streets and on social media broke out.
Even with Ministers falling over each other on TV, trying to explain why the government had to take the step it took, and sell palliatives, the protests and opposition to subsidy removal have grown. To make government’s headache even more acute, organised labour has read the riot act.
A general strike has been called by the NLC/TUC coalition. They named it “The Mother of All Strikes”. The government panicked and got a suspicious injunction from a hitherto docile National Industrial Court, same court that didn’t deem it fit to cook up an accelerated injunction to stop ASUU from going on strike. This ruling is supposed to stop Labour from going on strike. Labour has though stayed adamant; it has refused to be bullied.
Government seemed to be fast running out of options. They needed to do something to appease the Nigerian masses quickly. The President needed to personally speak to the people who overwhelmingly voted him in. He had to be convincing.
At the end of his pre-recorded speech reactions began to roll in, many felt that the speech was filled with vagueness and was thin on addressing the many questions and issues that the subsidy removal had thrown up.
The speech was silent on other areas of our economy that bothered on saving costs; it was solely concentrating the spotlight on the downstream sector of the petroleum industry. One thing the President did concede was that removal of subsidy wasn’t the magic wand that was going to make it all good and beautiful again for the Nigerian economy
“I understand fully well that deregulation is not a magic formula that will address every economic challenge, but it provides a good entry point for transforming the economy”
The speech was silent on those other entry points from which the economy could be transformed. It was quiet on the issue of fighting the corruption and criminal enrichment that allowed some petroleum products importers to cheat and inflate the volume and cost of refined products they imported, on how the eventual figures on the amount of subsidy spent by the NNPC was about four times more than what was provided for it in the budget.
In an interview I granted the Associated Press, and which was published in the Washington Post, I duly admitted that we as Nigerians had to make sacrifices when the time comes, but asked what the sacrifice the President, as a leader, was willing to make too. The President’s address attempted to answer this, but it fell way short, and seemed like a sarcastic response. Here is one of the sacrifices the President announced:
“For the year 2012, the basic salaries of all political office holders in the Executive arm of government will be reduced by 25%”
Wow!! 25% of basic salaries? Take note of “Basic Salaries” Every salary earner knows that the basic salary is about a quarter of the total take home in a month, or less. The bulk is made up of allowances and other perks. Cutting 25% of basic salaries of political office holders is tantamount to reducing their take home by a meagre 1/12th or thereabout. That in my opinion is not enough by a thousand miles! How does that kind of sacrifice compare to the minimum wage earner who lives in CMS and has to go to work in Ojodu, who now has to pay 24000 Naira as transport fare in a month? An amount that totally swallows his 18000 Naira and leaves him with nothing left.
I am convinced that the President attempted to play a fast one on the non-discerning masses who do not know what “basic salary” really is, many on the street think he meant the whole salary. Even if it is accepted that he at least made an attempt to reduce salaries of Ministers and other political office holders, nothing was said about the hefty take home of members of the legislature. Yeah yeah, we know he is helpless in that direction; he isn’t the Commander-in-Chief of the House of Assembly.
The President was very quick to insinuate that there were no plans to be sincere with the many things contained in the address. For example this:
“I have directed that overseas travels by all political office holders, including the President, should be reduced to the barest minimum. The size of delegations on foreign trips will also be drastically reduced; only trips that are absolutely necessary will be approved”
The President was shown on CNN as he was attending the 100th year anniversary of the African National Congress of South Africa. A member of the National Assembly during their emergency sitting on the subsidy issue reported that the President went with two presidential planes. These planes were very likely filled with a huge delegation. How on earth are we supposed to believe this government? How are we expected to trust a government that constantly plays mind games and lies to us?
This address to the nation was potentially a game changer for the President. It was a very rare opportunity for the man who enjoyed a lot of goodwill among many Nigerians to get his people to rally round him and support his policy. Many actually expected very far-reaching, if not extreme, measure to be announced with regards to government cutting its overheads. Many expected the President to announce very courageous sacrifices that he was personally willing to make, so as to show the masses that we were all in this together.
Instead, President Goodluck Ebele Jonathan, with an unsteady mien, very unlike a Commander-in-Chief, read from a pre-prepared speech, a speech laced with rhetoric, a speech, at which he seemed in a hurry to run away from towards the end. A speech where he just didn’t say enough.