(Vanguard of Sunday, May 17, 2009)
I was telling you last week about what happened when we launched a massive enlightenment campaign to educate our people on why they should pay more for fuel so that we would have access to money to finance projects. When the increase from 39k to 42k a litre was announced, the whole country exploded in protest.
In writing a letter to Ernest Shonekan , head of the provisional council in 1993, to warn against anchoring enlightenment campaigns on subsidies, I suggested that the people should be told that they are being taxed for using fuel instead of telling them that they should pay just a little more than they are spending on fuel because the government is subsidizing every litre of fuel that goes into their tanks. We continue the letter to Shonekan:
“The next time increases emerged, there was no campaign. The price was raised from 42k to 60k for cars and passenger vehicles were to still pay 42k a litre. But because of abuses, the pricing was evened out at 60k. There was no whimper. Then, one day, people woke up to discover that a litre of petrol had moved to 70k.
The heavens did not come down. The point I am trying to make is that any attempt to build a political mountain out of an economic molehill will backfire. The discussion of a subsidy in whatever form has become a volatile political question. If it ever was an economic question, it lost its economic connotations… because it had been very successfully politicized.
If you encourage the debate of adequate pricing of our oil to be based on the SUBSIDY question, you and the Council and this country will have your fingers burnt because there are people who are interested only in making trouble and would use any peg to start it off. Subsidy or no subsidy is a good enough peg for troublemakers to hang on to.
My point on this issue is simple. If we want N100 billion for our services, we would not just ask the Central Bank to print the money. We would have to earn it through, among other ways, making the best use of our resources. Oil is the most important of those resources. Internationally, we cannot dictate the price.
Locally, we have 300,000 barrels to consume. Do we distribute it to Nigerians on quota basis, even free of charge, being, as some people argue, a natural asset, or we ask that they pay for it? If they are to pay for it, how much do they pay to enable us generate the funds we need to run the many projects that are lined up in the different sectors? The choice is a simple one but we have complicated matters through debates that would be uncalled for when hard economic decisions have to be taken.
I believe that this country is in dire need of the development of the minds and bodies of its citizenry. I believe that the development will succeed through adequate provision of schools, accommodation, jobs, hospitals and facilities for recreation on the one hand and on the other, through an upbuilding programme that would enable the Nigerian to recognize his HUMANNESS and the responsibility that is attached to such high recognition.
I believe that the resources for meeting the commitments already well settled above must be identified and mobilized, even if through overpricing, to meet the commitments. The other obvious choice is to forgo the commitments and then face the music. We already have on our hands a colossal administrative structure of a three-tier system that we must sustain and the means at our disposal do not permit of any substantial amount for development.
Before long, we would be struggling to earn only to pay the commitments of wages and no more. Yet, we have failed to imbibe a culture of contributing to a pool to sustain the structures imposed by a pre-occupation with seeing freedom only in terms of elaborate involvement of the citizenry in direct governance.
I believe that we as a people have not been given the benefit of an educational programme that recognizes a duty to the future. We live from hand to mouth, from government to government. We have no heroes because we shy away from harbouring pictures of eras that would loudly attest to our guilt.
The God we are comfortable in serving is the one that is arbitrary in the extreme, the one who is blind to our humiliating indiscretions, who had to be different from the God of our neighbour, and distant, too. I believe that no one owes us a living. I have always sung this song and shall continue to sing this song.
General Babangida knew this and programmed for us to take off to be masters of our fate. But through pressures and threats and false alarms, we are going back, sliding back to the position when we started to impose restrictions. It is not healthy for a nation to import food when it can grow it even when so-called donor nations make the importation a condition precedent to the aid being given.
Who says we need the aid we so much crave for! How right would I be to insist that a bank should lend me money which the bank manager knows I would spend in areas as unproductive as self-aggrandizement through praise singing?
I want to emphasise that we cannot leave the decision to price our resources adequately to a referendum or to the elected President to take. The more we sustain a debate on the subsidy peg, the more you would find it difficult to take a decision. You have very little time on your hands to fulfill your mission before August 27 (when an elected president was expected to take over).
If there is anyone whose name and image I want redeemed, it is that of the President. But I do know that all those yelling and crowing now were the very people who contributed to the impasse that led at various stages to the extensions of the programme. Please do not drag your Council into a situation where there is chaos and therefore the need for another extension because no one will believe that anything that happens to derail the programme was not pre-packed as part of a so-called hidden agenda”.
I promised I would not send any copy of the letter to the press. But I did send copies to the secretaries (as ministers were called) for Petroleum and Mineral Resources, and Information and Culture, and also to the presidency. In the last case, Babangida was still president and would be leaving office on August 27, 1993. I did not send any copy to the newspapers. The full letter, titled Must We Today Eat Up Our Tomorrow is now chapter 11 of Tony Momoh, Spiritual Essays released on my birthday last month.
(Published in Vol. 3 of Democracy Watch, A Monitor’s Diary by Tony Momoh, pages 322 -326; Lagos, 2008).