By Eniola Bello
Change! That was the magic campaign slogan of the All Progressives Congress (APC) in the April elections. On campaign podiums and lecture circuits, in radio and TV commercials, in newspaper and billboard ads, at town hall meetings and village square gatherings, and at ward congresses and party convention, the APC screamed change. And the electorate, fed up with the years of failed promises from the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), boarded the train of change and voted massively for the APC. Six months after, the large army of the converted is yet to see or touch or smell or feel the change. Some are beginning to question if the train they willingly boarded last April is not akin to boarding a one-chance commuter bus in Lagos with its attendant risks. Six months into the first year of a four-year term, a half-year report of the change administration cannot be said to be particularly flattering. I seek the readers’ indulgence to take a tour of five key areas where one expected the drivers of the change vehicle ought to have changed the course of the journey.
1) Fuel queues, unending subsidy: In the last 16 years of the nation’s democracy, the removal of fuel subsidy has been a serial subject of debate. Indeed fuel subsidy removal stole into national consciousness when the military presidency of Ibrahim Babangida, in 1985, encouraged a talk-shop to debate the desirability or otherwise of taking a loan from the IMF (International Monetary Fund). Every administration since then has toyed with the idea of removing subsidy from petroleum products. No administration has, however, had the courage to go the full course despite the incessant increases in fuel prices with attendant protests from Labor and civil society groups. Subsidy payments have become a major problem since 1999 resulting from broken down refineries and subsequent importation of petroleum products. Subsidy payments rose from, per annum, N250 billion under the presidency of Olusegun Obasanjo, to over N300 billion under Umar Yar’Adua, and N1.2 trillion under Goodluck Jonathan.
The APC made a huge issue of the sharp increase on subsidy payments under Jonathan, alleging fraud and promising to stop the distortions in that sector. The economics of subsidy payments usually results in fuel shortages and long queues at fuel stations. Marketers suspend the importation of petroleum products wherever there are delays in payments or disagreement over claims. Fuel shortages and queues have been perennial problems in the last several years. Unfortunately, the higher the percentage of subsidy supposedly removed, the more the amount of payments made, and the heavier the subsequent subsidy claims. The expectation was that an APC government, with all its campaign rhetoric pre-April elections, would break this cycle. However, in the last three weeks there have been fuel shortages and fuel queues arising from the delay in the reconciliation and payment of N413 billion subsidy claims to marketers. Yet breaking the cycle appears simple enough. Sell the state-owned refineries which have been guzzling million of dollars in annual maintenance cost and making huge losses, that is when production is not at zero percent as happened in October. Then remove fuel subsidy, so there would be no need for payments to marketers, nor suspension of importation nor shortages nor queues. Why has the APC administration, like the PDP’s before it, found it so difficult to do what is economically sensible and socially liberating? See the sameness of change!
2) Darkness, darkness everywhere: Nigeria has been experiencing chronic electricity shortages for as long as one could recollect. From an inherited slightly over 1000 megawatts of electricity, the PDP administrations of Obasanjo through Yar’Adua to Jonathan increased total generation to above 4000 megawatts, a far cry from the 10,000 megawatts target. Even at that, electricity supply was in fits and starts. The first power minister under Obasanjo, the late Bola Ige, promised to turn stone to bread. He probably did not even find the stone before he was redeployed to Justice Ministry. And under Jonathan, Professor Chinedu Nebo vowed to tackle the witches and wizards in that sector. However, the nation sank deeper into prolonged darkness. The situation suddenly improved during the first three months of the Buhari administration in what some presidential aides attributed to the president’s success at blocking leakages and arresting sabotage. In the last two months or thereabouts the electricity situation has again worsened. As happened during the Jonathan administration, government officials have attributed the almost 24-hour darkness to the usual culprits – unknown saboteurs. Still the sameness of change.
3) The killing field: Since the Boko Haram insurgency the Northeast has become a killing field. Daily scores of people are killed, communities ravaged, hundreds displaced and many kidnapped. The Jonathan administration was mostly helpless in tackling the menace as soldiers ran away from battle, complaining of being poorly equipped. It was not until some two months before the April polls that there were attempts at some serious military operations to weaken the insurgents. Immediately on assumption of office, Buhari made the Boko Haram insurgency his top priority. He restructured the military, rallied the neighboring countries, lobbied the West for support, procured needed arms and gave the military high command December deadline to rout the insurgents or considerably weaken them. Despite claims of military successes in ridding Sambisa forest and other Boko Haram bases of sleeper cells, killing or arresting some of the group’s wanted leaders, driving the vermin out of occupied territories, and weakening the insurgents’ fighting capabilities, churches and mosques and markets and motor parks are still regularly susceptible to suicide attacks, while young ladies are still being kidnapped even as there is no progress on the rescue of Chibok girls 19 months after their abduction. With Boko Haram, as it was under Jonathan, so it is under Buhari. Oh, the sameness of change!
4) It’s business unusual: Our leaders enjoy deploying stock expressions in their speeches and statements. Such stock expressions like “it will not be business as usual” or “zero tolerance for corruption” characterize statements of government officials. But they are hardly marked by action. As it was in 1999 when Obasanjo became president, so it has been in 2015 when Buhari emerged lord of the manor. When APC top notch proclaimed shortly after Buhari’s inauguration that things would not be business as usual, many believed because of the president’s strength of character and integrity, particularly when placed against the perception of widespread corruption under Jonathan. Many believed there would be a sharp cut in the cost of running government. There was the expectation that the presidential fleet would be slashed from 10 aircraft to about three. There was the speculation that the number of MDAs (ministries, departments and agencies) would be drastically reduced, with some merged and a few others scrapped in line with a committee recommendation to so do. Even the Senate got caught in the no-business-as-usual talk during the screening of ministerial nominees. But then, the speculation and expectation have simply remained speculation and expectation. The take-a-bow, no question asked culture was pervasive in the Senate chambers. Six months on, it has been the same of the same, the sameness of change.
5) It’s due process, stupid: Due process, a popular catchphrase in the Obasanjo presidency, in its ordinary meaning is no more than fair treatment through the normal judicial system. But many decisions of the administration at the time so manifestly undermined the judicial process of fair hearing that Yar’Adua decided to expand the catchphrase to include rule of law. That, however, did not prevent some of his aides and associates from exercising presidential powers, at the expense of the then vice president, when Yar’Adua too ill to perform his duties. Jonathan equally propagated due process and rule of law but not when, particularly during election campaigns, opposition politicians had to have their movements restricted or planes grounded. Officials of the Buhari administration have also been mouthing respect for due process a lot. Yet this has not prevented security agencies ignoring a court order or the president ordering some people’s arrest. Some change!
If as they say, the morning shows the day, it is not too early to ask for the evidence of the change we voted. We want to see it. We want to feel it. And we want to touch it. We are beginning to get tired of waiting.
- This Best Outside Opinion was written by Eniola Bello/Thisday