Friday, December 23, 2011

Nigerians won’t pay for govt’s ineffiency

From Ayodele Samuel, Lagos Labour and civil society yesterday used the Town Hall meeting organised by the Newspaper Proprietors Association of Nigeria (NPAN) in Lagos to reiterate their stiff resistance to the planned removal of subsidy on petroleum products by the Federal Government. Their position was sequel to a debate which with delegates from the Federal Government led by the Coordinating Minister of the Economy and Minister of Finance, Mrs. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, including the Minister of Petroleum Resources, Diezani Alison-Madueke, the Group Managing Director of NNPC, Austen Oniwon and the Attorney-General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Mohammed Adoke, SAN, as well as the Central Bank of Nigeria Governor, Sanusi Lamido Sanusi. The bigwigs in government canvassed reasons why subsidy should be removed with opposition to it coming from labour leaders, members of the civil society and prominent human rights lawyers, including Femi Falana, Olisa Agbakoba and others. The Vice-president of the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC), Comrade Issa Aremu said while the labour body was entirely not opposed to the planned deregulation, it has strong fears that the aftermath of the removal of subsidy would be immediate catastrophy for the nation. “Nigerians will resist any attempt to pay higher prices for imported petroleum products,” Aremu vowed, adding that the government should move from subsidising import to subsidising local production of petroleum. Human rights lawyer, Femi Falana urged the Federal Government to listen to “alternative suggestions” and allow for more time to engage Nigerians before going ahead with the plan to remove fuel subsidy. He said that the fuel cabal had a field day because the government had refused to implement all the necessary laws that would have prevented them from ripping off Nigeria. “Don’t impose further punishment on Nigerians. They cannot afford to pay for the corruption and inefficiency of government,” he said. “20 licenses were given to build new refineries by former President Obasanjo but nobody made use of the advantage since the licenses were given to same people importing the petroleum products. Obasanjo increased fuel prices six times in eight years yet nothing changed; government should listen to alternative suggestions,” he said. To lawyer and activist, Olisa Agbakoba (SAN), though there is nothing “conceptually wrong” with the promise of competition and free market that fuel subsidy removal will bring, government has to sacrifice more before going ahead with the policy. “We are not giving subsidy removal a bad name; if you want to put a burden on us, show us the one you (government) are carrying,” Agbakoba said. In defence of zero subsidy however, Okonjo-Iweala, in her presentation, said fuel subsidy removal was long overdue to allow for better regulation of the oil sector and for transparency. According to the minister, government could no longer sustain the subsidy which she said gulped about N1.3 trillion in 2011 alone amounting to over 30 percent of total government expenditure. Letting markets determine the pump price of petrol in Nigeria would push it up to N120 ($0.74) per litre, she said, from N65, but it would save over N1 trillion ($6.13 billion) in subsidies in 2012. “The subsidy is not benefiting Nigerians, but few people that have found themselves in the oil industry.” What the federal government is trying to do is to use the money (subsidy) for the benefit of the poor citizens in the society. “What we should argue about is the issue of lack of trust between Nigerians and the government,” she said. Okonjo-Iweala admitted that there were some “untoward things” going on in the management of the oil sector, but said continuing with subsidy payment would be unwise. However, the Central Bank Governor, Sanusi Lamido Sanusi, appeared non- definite on the matter. His words: “those in government are to promote a policy that is meant for all Nigerians, We (Government official) don’t have power. Infrastructure, Agricultural sector is poor, and there is no job, if the price of petroleum increases today, it will be 100 percent increase of consumable goods, we want to remove one trillion naira to whom? But in another breath, Sanusi drew applause when he said Nigeria spent $16 billion of its foreign exchange on costly imported fuel in the first 11 months to this year - $8 billion sold by the bank to petroleum importers and a further $8 billion spent by the Treasury on the subsidy itself. “Removing the fuel subsidy is not some magic silver bullet that can solve all the problems of Nigeria ... but the burden is unsustainable on the government’s finances,” he said. “We can keep paying the subsidy into 2015, but the next government will be saddled with the debt,” he said. He acknowledged the move was likely to prove unpopular, but asked: “Is it our responsibility to pursue the popular policy or the policy that is right for Nigeria.” The Petroleum Resources Minister, Alison-Madueke explained that to lessen the impact of subsidy removal, government is working to make the country’s refineries function at 90 percent capacity utilization in 24 months time. “The government has good policies on ground to build refineries and repair the existing ones,” she said, adding that plans are in the offing to upgrade major highways across the country to lessen the pain that may accompany the planned removal. Governor Adams Oshiomhole of Edo state in his contribution, said he was not against subsidy removal in principle, but against realistic measures not being taken ahead to serve as a buffer for Nigerians. “Whatever the NLC decides is my stand because I will always be for labour. The question is not fuel subsidy, but if we must subsidise, what must we subsidise?, he asked. President Jonathan should be commended. It is on record that the last time when Petroleum price was increased it was during Obasanjo regime, Jonathan has never increased the pump price instead Late Yar’Adua reduced it to 65 naira, but the situation which the president brought is far more complicated than those before him. However, we have the right to insist on subsidy removal or to say no for government either executive or legislature to benefit from the removed subsidy.” “The price of transport could double ... The poor man cannot afford that,” said Ben Bruce, CEO of popular Nigerian television station Silverbird. “(If you) remove the subsidy, this is what you have to do: subsidise transport for the poor folks trying to go to work.” ($1 = 163.2500 naira) The roll call of dignitaries who graced the occasion is not limited to Chairman of Dangote Group Alhaji Aliko Dangote; chairman Silverbird Group Ben Murray Bruce; Zenon Oil boss Mr. Femi Otedola ; Veteran Broadcaster and owner of Channels Television John Momoh , TELL magazine Nosa Igiebor ; Vanguard’s publisher, Sam Amuka-Pemu; Ray Ekpu, formerly of Newswatch, former Ogun State governor, Chief Olusegun Osoba and former NPAN president, Isa Funtua.

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