By Christopher Akor
After spending over N90 billion on Turn Around Maintenance (TAM) of the nation’s refineries without much result, the administration of former President Olusegun Obasanjo, decided to sell 51% equity stake in the Port Harcourt and Kaduna refineries to a consortium – Bluestar Consortium Limited for a sum of $721m. The consortium, made up of Dangote Oils (55%), Zenon Oil (25%), Rivers State Government (15%), and Transnational Corporation (5%), promised to get the refineries working at full capacity within months. The process, which started in 2003, ended at the twilight of Obasanjo’s regime making people to suspect it was a parting gift to his associates.
The Nigerian Labour Congress, NUPENG, PENGASSAN, and the NNPC strongly opposed the deal and, after a two-day strike that completely shut down the economy, the barely two-week old government of late President Yar’Adua was forced to cancel the sale. The unions, as well as the NNPC, unanimously agreed that the NNPC was capable of turning around the fortunes of the refineries to make them function at 100% capacity within months. Yar’Adua consequently directed the NNPC to revamp the refineries. Also, in withdrawing from the deal, the consortium challenged the NNPC to resuscitate the refineries within one year or they (the consortium) will bid again for the refineries. But that was never to happen as the labour unions prevailed on the late President not to privatise the refineries.
Five years down the line, the refineries are still in a comatose state and the nation is reeling under the heavy cost of importation of refined petrol. Neither of the NNPC, NLC, PENGASSAN, or NUPENG has come out to explain why the refineries had not been fixed nor have they apologised for the role they played in stalling the sale of the refineries. Their voices went dead until the Jonathan administration announced its plan to deregulate the downstream sector and remove subsidy payment. As if woken up from slumber, the rested activism started: labour started criticising government for failure to fix the refineries and threatening industrial action if government went ahead to remove the subsidy on petrol.
Adams Oshiomhole, the erstwhile labour leader, spent his entire labour presidency years leading campaigns and industrial actions against the Obasanjo government’s planned deregulation of the downstream sector and increase in the pump price of PMS. He got so popular in the process that he won governorship elections in Edo State. Now that he is governor, he has made a volte face and is now leading the campaign for the removal of subsidy on petrol. He is yet to tell Nigerians why he is now supporting a policy he so vigorously fought against and which gifted him the Edo State governorship seat.
John Atta Mills, the so-called Social Democrat, won the presidential elections in Ghana in 2008 on the strength of his virulent criticism of the Kuffor administration for increasing fuel prices to cut down on subsidy. Then Ghana was not an oil producing nation. Now he is the President and Ghana has joined the league of oil producing nation. Curiously, his government, on December 29, announced further cuts on subsidy sending petrol prices to about N186/litre. According to the government, “subsidising fuel is not sustainable, and removing it is the right thing to do, so we can sustain our fiscal consolidation.” Reminded of his criticism of his predecessor on the same matter, he quickly recanted saying he now understands that it is a necessary and right action to take.
Subsidy removal or increase in the pump price of petrol appears now to be a global trend. Yet it remains a very unpopular policy for any government to pursue. Citizens often revolt against such policies since it affects them directly. Herein lies the opportunity for opposition politicians and aspiring politicians to gain popularity. The game plan is simple: be a leading critic of fuel subsidy removal, stage protests or lead workers in industrial actions against such policy, gain the support of the gullible masses, go into politics and with the support garnered, win elections and once in power, make a volte face and confess that you hadn’t seen the complete picture then and that you now understand that subsidy removal is the best policy. This line of action is made easier in a country where the government suffers from deficit trust.
This appears to be the path organised labour in Nigeria is threading. It opposes the deregulation of the industry and the privatization of the refineries, ensures government maintains control over the industry by fixing the price of PMS, and goes on strike every time a price increase is announced. Once the sector is deregulated and government hands-off price control, it loses the right or ability to go on strike or to protest price hikes. And since it has built its image around leading strikes to oppose hikes in pump prices of PMS, its fortunes may dwindle considerably and its leaders less popular as they are now.
In all of these, the poor masses are the real victims. They have had a very rough deal with government overtime and are understandably angry. Labour is now exploiting this anger to further their political and selfish interests. Like the Tea Party protests in the United States showed, many people could be seduced into demonstrating against their true interest. I strongly suspect that this is the case here. Sadly, either due to fear of adverse public opinion or the desire to appear to be on the side of the people, many intellectuals and leaders of thought have been pandering to popular sentiments and obfuscating the issue. Failed politicians and those with scores to settle with Jonathan have suddenly found their voices also and calling for the impeachment of the President.
A smart labour union would have known that deregulation is a question of ‘when’ not ‘if’ and would use this opportunity to press government to reduce the high cost and size of government. But as it is, labour is only interested in the pump price of PMS and nothing else. If I understand the yearnings of most protesters, it is not so much about the removal of subsidy as about the over-bloated government, obscenely high recurrent expenditure and the almost criminal salaries of government officials. For now, while most Nigerians are asking the government to lead by example by drastically cutting down the cost of government, labour is more interested in fixing pump price of petrol knowing that sooner than later, government may want to tinker with the price again, and it will be another opportunity to mobilize Nigerians for another industrial action. For how long shall we continue like this?