The continuous implementation of the subsidy on petrol has been the most thoughtless decision of the Nigerian administrations in the past two decades. Therefore, on May 29, 2023 when he was inaugurated, President Bola Tinubu announced that petrol subsidy had been removed. It was the wise thing to do. By announcing it on the day of his inauguration day, Tinubu believed that he was taking a decisive step that former President Muhammadu Buhari could not take throughout the eight years of his presidency.
However, there was a snag in that announcement by Tinubu. Beyond the shock of it on the populace, which made the price of petrol to rise from N189 per litre to over N500 in one day, it was the most hypocritical action Tinubu could have taken.
In January 2012, after months of consultations and discussions with different Nigerian stakeholders and general public, the administration of Dr. Goodluck Jonathan eventually began the implementation of the removal of petrol subsidy. Tinubu, as the national leader of the opposition Action Congress of Nigeria, condemned the removal of petrol subsidy. He called it “Jonathan tax” and accused Jonathan of breaching his social contract with the people. He noted that with the subsidy removal, the people would become “enslaved to greater misery.”
Buhari, as the national leader of the opposition Congress for Progressives Change, was also fully against the removal of petrol subsidy. He said that subsidy did not exist but was only a smokescreen for corruption. Buhari said inter alia: “Nigerians are being deceived on the issue of fuel subsidy. The Federal Government takes out fuel for refining, only to come back and talk about removing the subsidy. That is nonsense and an attempt by a clique within the PDP-led Federal Government to siphon the proceeds to be realised from the removal of oil subsidy.”
A protest tagged Occupy Nigeria held in different parts of Nigeria for many days. Especially at the Ojota, Lagos rally, different musicians and celebrities performed. They took their turn to lambast the administration of Jonathan as insensitive and out-of-touch with the masses. Different personalities spoke at the rally, hitting hard on Jonathan.
It is believed that the seed of the merger of Tinubu’s party (the Action Congress of Nigeria), Buhari’s party (Congress for Progressives Change) and the All Nigeria People’s Party was sown during that protest against Jonathan’s removal of the petrol subsidy. About one year later on February 6, 2013, the key opposition parties merged under the umbrella of the All-Progressives Congress. That merger succeeded in ousting the People’s Democratic Party at the next election in 2015.
However, when Buhari assumed office in 2015 as president, to the shock and embarrassment of many Nigerians, he continued with the same subsidy he had claimed did not exist. Not only did he continue its implementation, he even spent much more money on subsidy than his predecessors that he condemned. In addition, Nigerian oil production dropped drastically as a result of oil theft. Even though the Russian invasion of Ukraine created immense wealth for oil-producing countries, Nigeria was getting poorer and running deeper into debt under Buhari. For eight years of his administration, Buhari never apologised for implementing the same petrol subsidy he denied its existence. He never apologised for being in charge at a time corruption was worsening in the oil sector, even though he was also the minister of petroleum all through the eight years of his presidency.
Nigeria is reported to have spent a whopping N21.7tn in the last 18 and a half years, according to a recent computation by Thisday using data from the Nigeria Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative and an independent review of figures from 2005 and the first half of 2023. The report shows that in 2005 when the computation started, Nigeria spent N351bn on petrol subsidy. By 2012 when the subsidy protest held against the Jonathan administration, the subsidy payout had risen to N1.36tn. Ironically, by the end of 2016, the first full year of Buhari as president, Nigeria paid N240bn on petrol subsidy. That was almost twice the amount paid in 2012 when the petrol subsidy protest took place. And by 2022, the last full year Buhari spent in office, the subsidy payment had ballooned to N4.4tn.
What compounded the woes of the Buhari administration was that he did not have the spine to remove the subsidy despite its terrible effect on the country. The irony is that one of the unique selling propositions that made many people vote in Buhari was that he was a retired military major general who was projected to have the courage to take decisive actions in the interest of the country. But even after his re-election in 2019, he went back and forth on the petrol subsidy removal, and eventually postponed its removal until after his exit, thereby setting up his successor for a face-off with the masses from inception.
With Tinubu taking over from Buhari and announcing the removal of petrol subsidy, it is surprising that Tinubu is taking such an action that he condemned vociferously as a member of the opposition without offering any apology to the public. During that 2012 protest, some Nigerians died; some property was destroyed; many companies lost money. During the succeeding 13 years of petrol subsidy, Nigeria lost a lot of money that could have been put to good use. The continuation of petrol subsidy also helped to impoverish many Nigerians and create more crime and instability in Nigeria.
However, Tinubu did not explain to Nigerians if he was wrong in 2012 for opposing subsidy removal. He did not explain to Nigerians what has changed between 2012 when he opposed subsidy removal and 2023 when he became the president and chose to remove it. That Tinubu could do a volte-face on petrol subsidy without any explanation or apology is not surprising about a Nigerian politician. To expect an apology from Tinubu, Buhari or most Nigerian politicians is like expecting a ewe to grow horns.
The brand of politics practised in Nigeria is negative and retrogressive. It is politics of arrogance, kingship, subterfuge, and non-accountability. Politicians say and do whatever they believe will earn them votes, not concerned about the practicability, truthfulness, or common good in such. Once power is acquired, such politicians can deny making the promise, even if they were recorded in video. They can also claim that it was their aides or party that made such a promise and not them. They can also simply decide not to even bother to respond to such an allegation with the belief that it will not cost them anything. But one thing that is rare to see a Nigerian politician do is apologise for any action or speech in the past or for going against any opinion held in the past.
It is part of the reasons Nigeria is under-performing and retrogressing. The leaders of Nigeria are rulers who have no respect for Nigerians. They don’t take Nigerians seriously. They don’t see themselves accountable to the people. And if leaders are not accountable to the people, the chances that they will be committed to the welfare of the people will be low.
Although it sounds like wishful thinking, one can only hope and pray that Nigerian leadership pattern can change and be like that of countries that are showing clear progress. The fastest way for a country to make progress is to copy the examples from countries which are making progress.