Empty promises:revisiting the fuel subsidy struggle By Ayisha Osori



What has happened in the oil sector after the protests around the removal of fuel subsidy ended 64 days ago? Zilch. Since the calls for good governance and an end to corruption with impunity were muzzled with military tanks and the now usual betrayal of NLC/TUC, we have witnessed a lot of activity. But, like a pot of water boiling furiously over a burner, there is no output – just misdirected and wasted energy because nothing is cooking inside the pot – so it just boils away until the water evaporates and the pot starts burning.

Like the circuses of ancient Rome where the plebs remained distracted and entertained by lion- eating men and gladiators we have had our House of Representative probe on the fuel subsidy. Now we wait for the report to be released amidst allegations of pressure on the members of the committee to ensure that the report is either not released or that it is suitably insipid enough for public consumption.

As we trudge on with our daily existence, living with perpetual fuel scarcity and sometimes paying a lot more than N140 per liter, we have been confronted with several developments which should be enough to galvanize people into mass action. The first was that the Subsidy Reinvestment and Empowerment Program would no longer carry on as originally shabbily conceived and communicated even though the board chaired by Christopher Kolade had been inaugurated a few days before this announcement. Then we find that the Federal Government has revised its proposal for the 2012 budget from N4.6Trillion to N4.8 Trillion (an increase of N200 Billion or $1.3 Billion) and the amount allocated for fuel subsidy has increased from N150 Billion to N888 Billion. Where does this figure come from? Apparently it is the lower estimate of what we allegedly  spent on fuel subsidy in 2011 i.e., N1.7trillion divided by two. There are so many dimensions to this number. First, it is agreed that the real cost of our fuel subsidy – based on what is generally accepted as our levels of consumption and past budgetary allocations is closer to N300B (N240B was budgeted for fuel subsidy in 2011). Next, if government succeeded in increasing petroleum prices by almost 50 percent, why do we still have to allocate almost 3 times what we usually spend on fuel subsidy? From the House Committee probe, the real figure of our subsidy bill last year was almost N2 trillion – unexplained and unsubstantiated because we do not know how much we consume, we do not know how much is off loaded by importers, and we do not know how much is sold daily across the country. What then has changed if we still have an inflated subsidy budget that no one can verify and no single person or institution has been indicted for subsidy fraud? Nothing, except that 20 Nigerians died for asking questions and the rest of us now pay more for fuel and other goods and services.

As he alternately persuaded and threatened us into submitting to his authority over the removal of the subsidy President Jonathan made specific promises to the nation in his January 8 and January 16 addresses and as of today – not one of the pledges related to the oil sector have been delivered.

The President promised that tackling deregulation in the downstream sector would curb corruption and that government would give the petroleum industry bill (PIB) ‘accelerated attention’ and ‘sanitize the oil industry’. So far we have gotten a plethora of new committees (even though another pledge was to reduce expenditure and review the number of committees, commissions and parastatals with overlapping responsibilities) and an unjustifiable fuel subsidy budget.

No less than 1 board, 2 committees and 2 task forces are currently reviewing different aspects of the petroleum sector. There is the Dotun Sulaiman Committee responsible for designing a good governance framework for the petroleum sector and the Kalu Committee on refineries both without clear timelines or deliverables. As far as we know they could be ensconced in the Transcorp Hilton racking up bills which will be subject of a probe this time next year.

Then we have the task forces for the urgent issues – maybe the use of the word ‘force’ is meant to create a sense of energy and action – the Udo Udoma Force on the PIB which was given 30 days to review the five, six, seven versions of the PIB and come up with one draft and the Ribadu Force on Petroleum Revenue. Both task forces are mired in controversy and conflict of interests and it is unlikely that anything meaningful will result from the exercise. The Udoma committee is reportedly still searching for two versions long after their 30-days have passed – including the original which was allegedly drafted by NNPC.  The public has received no updates on the activities of these bodies nor have we been provided with any explanation for the silence.

The water in the pot has almost evaporated and the pot will soon begin to burn. Who is tracking these promises? We need to keep the pressure on and to keep talking and keep pointing accusing fingers – not just on radio and on the Internet but actively by writing and signing petitions and doing our best to ensure that things do not get buried. There is a lot going on behind the scenes, committed people are still organizing, collecting data, and trying to work with government to improve governance structures but we need more than a hand full of people doing this work. More Nigerians need to get involved. Taking to the streets is not the only way to protest: Ask. Demand. Monitor. Hold Liable.

 

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