19 November 2012

Nigeria: On the March Again!


One of the most memorable tunes composed in support of the presidential campaign of MKO Abiola - the man who resoundingly won the 1993 presidential elections but was prevented from actualizing that mandate by the military - was the one with the refrain: "On the march again". The song was meant to galvanise Nigerians to troop out in large numbers to perform their civic duties. Well, that was one campaign in which we banished ethnicity and religion and voted according to our conviction. All that is now history, but one never stops wondering what could have been if we had pursued that path. Now the dinosaurs of tribe, tongue and faith are shredding our sense of brotherhood to bits, even as we continue to languish in want and national dysfunction.

The other day, the Nigerian Labour Congress (NLC) published its version of "On the march again". This version was not about elections. It was a serious warning about what would happen if the current administration went ahead to carry out President Jonathan's threat of increasing the pump price of fuel. Nothing short of the mother of all strikes will be organized to confront the monstrous policy which over the years has reduced Nigerians to vassals in their fatherland. He warned that any increase in the prices of petroleum products would culminate in a crisis that would surpass the last January anti-fuel price hike demonstration.

"The statement by the President claiming that only the removal of fuel subsidy will allow for domestic refining of fuel is highly disturbing. More so, coming at this time of the year, when many see the current fuel scarcity being experienced in most parts of the country as being artificially created", noted NLC President Abdulwaheed Omar.

I cannot fault labour's argument as ably marshalled by Omar who counselled President Goodluck Jonathan to direct his attention to tackling corruption which, more than any other factor, had held the nation's oil sector hostage. He strongly recommended the prosecution of all those indicted for subsidy fraud and the diversion of N1.7tn funds meant for the industry.

I agree with the NLC that it would be immoral to punish the generality of Nigerians for the crime of a few well-connected crooks that are not even expeditiously brought to justice as a deterrent to others.

Omar faulted the President's claim that local refining of petroleum products could only be effectively carried out by private sector operators, stressing that the nation's refineries were effectively managed until they came under a regime of official corruption. "With the wave of revelations regarding monumental corruption in the petroleum industry it will be unimaginable to contemplate any other thing than focusing on ridding the industry of the endemic corruption that has become so pervasive in the industry", he said.

If I know my country well, the next few weeks will witness appeals to labour to soft-pedal. In the league of peace advocates will be found prominent traditional rulers, political juggernauts, clerics, professional interlopers and sundry merchants who advocate peace for a fee. I think this is the time for all men and women of goodwill to direct their appeals to government not to push the people's patience over the cliff. The usual peace advocates should not wait until January 2013 to start their shuttle diplomacy round the 36 states. Let them start their missionary journey now that they don't have to go to more than one destination - the State House.

Nigerians want their crude oil to be refined locally. You don't need a referendum to know that. But over the years we have had a succession of crooks in government who made a career of destroying many public enterprises so that their acolytes can then buy those organizations at giveaway prices from the same government.

I have nothing against private enterprise. But there is everything wrong with stripping Nigeria of its prime assets and handing same over to favoured cronies. There is no reason under the sun why the federal government cannot run five or ten refineries to ensure that Nigerians have access to oil mined from their land. Decent Nigerians are scandalized that we continue to send our oil to other countries (including 'lesser' countries in West Africa) for refining. Have we lost all sense of shame and propriety?

By now, one would have expected to see the delivery of various turnkey refinery projects all over the country. Nothing is more urgent than refining our crude oil locally. But it seems that we haven't done much in that direction since the last nationwide demonstrations. The way I see it now, Nigerians will resist any attempt to make them put more money in the pocket of oil barons and oil thieves.

The implications of staring the year 2013 with nationwide demonstration are frightening. We are already underachieving. To compound that with a total shutdown can sound the death knell for our democracy. Let's stop fooling ourselves that Nigerians are mules ready for any additional burden. There is something called the last straw.

The usual official line that government means well will not wash this time. May I join other patriots in counselling President Jonathan not to buy the arguments of those advising him that the only route to life more abundant is life less abundant. Fix our refineries instead of selling them; then let them run as commercial public enterprises. That is the way to go.

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