Journalism in the service of society

Subsidy removal: Time for strategic action

The Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) last week served notice of commencement of a nationwide strike this week to protest the hardship suffered by Nigerian workers as a result of the withdrawal, June this year, of the Federal Government from further payment of subsidy on premium motor spirit (PMS).

The workers body had earlier in June mooted taking action on the development but was stopped by the court and public opinion which did not favour the action because of the popular nature of the government action, the partisan nature of the NLC and the fact that it was too early in the life of the administration which was barely a month in office.

However, capitalising on the groaning of workers and the masses generally as a result of the rise in the cost of almost every basic necessity that followed the subsidy removal, the NLC again served notice that it will pull workers out of their work places beginning August 2, if government failed to do something substantial to cushion the resultant hardship.

Even though we are in support of the subsidy removal and would not support any action challenging it, we are also in agreement with the call for urgent action by government to ensure that the current pain suffered by the people is promptly arrested and dealt with.

The Federal Government has already requested for N500 billion to among other things provide N8000 for 12 million poor families for six months while other strategic actions would be taken after consultations with relevant bodies including the NLC and the Trade Union Congress (TUC). Following public outcry against the amount considered as paltry and unreasonable, the Presidency ordered a review of the initially proposed N8000 per household.

An obscene twist to the development is the proposal by the National Assembly for N70 billion as palliatives to cushion the effect of subsidy removal and N40 billion for the purchase of new vehicles for members. This then throws up the question as to who actually the palliatives are targeted. Is it the poor masses or the already affluent legislators?

It must be stated clearly here that it would be unfair, if not irresponsible, for National Assembly members who are to be paid huge monthly salaries and allowances to be asking for another N110 billion as palliative and car allowance. It is unacceptable and should not be considered. Palliatives are meant for people who are struggling to survive, not for the already pampered members the National Assembly. Those in authority must also learn to tighten their belts in times of adversity and stop increasing the burden of the masses through their profligate lifestyles.

One of the reasons given for the subsidy removal was that it benefited a few rich people to the detriment of the masses, but it does seem that the masses are the ones really suffering from the effect of the removal. While government is focusing on the very poor and the legislators are eyeing huge palliatives, the middle class is left yawning. Those in this class are the civil servants, public sector workers and middle income earners in the private sector, who actually own cars and are likely to suffer firsthand the effects of the subsidy removal. In Nigeria today, the middle class is gradually being phased out, as there are hardly policies that favour or protect them. It is either you are rich or you are poor.   

This government must be told that the favourable disposition that was building up due to its initial proactive moves is gradually waning as a result of the slow approach to taking concrete decisions on, and the continued delay in dispensing the palliatives. It must expedite action on the implementation of agreed measures as the effect of the fuel subsidy removal is biting harder on the people with every passing day.

Apart from the immediate N8000 (or more) per poor household and other tokens the government is considering as palliative measures, it should commence a medium term plan for an effective intra-city public transportation system to avoid a situation where the people are subjected to clearly avoidable hardships whenever there is a hiccup in the fuel supply system. Government should be working on metro-lines, including trams, well-coordinated bus transit system, intra-city taxi service and official shuttle services for public workers whose offices are off mass transit routes.

An effective mass transportation system, including inter-city haulage facilities, will definitely take away a sizeable part of the heavy burden from the people whenever there are issues with petroleum product supplies and pricing. While the rich that can afford the costs can use their cars, the masses can find solace in the subsidised public mass transit services.

There is no doubt that Nigerians are going through a lot of stress and pain right now, but it is a wilderness experience for which more patience is required if the country is to get out of the current economic woods. Although palliatives might assist in cushioning the effect of such withdrawals especially when done without ready alternatives, continued reliance on palliatives could create a dependency syndrome which would not be too different from relying on subsides.

Although we support wholly the immediate provision of palliatives to cushion the heavy burden on the people, unthinking and insensitive requests must not be accommodated.

The Federal Government should therefore reject the supplementary proposal by the National Assembly for an additional N110 billion for members’ welfare. The legislature must live within its current approved budget, especially at this time of economic adversity. They cannot be asking for sacrifice from ordinary Nigerians and not doing same. Like every other establishment of government, official cars should be for principal officers while others should operate under government’s monetisation policy framework. The practice of providing new and expensive cars for every member every four years must stop. They should let the masses breathe!

The lawmakers need be reminded that they were not elected to a life of luxury, but to represent the people. The 10th National Assembly has not brought up any serious issue about the people nor embarked on any concrete legislative action since it was inaugurated almost two months ago; the loud noise from the chambers is about members’ welfare, cars and all. They should focus on the primary objective of their being there – to represent the people.  

Workers’ unions must devise more pragmatic ways of bargaining for better welfare packages for members instead the recurrent resort to strike threats and actions which hardly result in anything concrete for workers. It has now become an avenue for labour leaders to grandstand and feather their own nests in the process. In the instant case, we urge them to continue to negotiate favourable palliatives with government for the workers instead of rushing to call workers out of their offices.

Although it is expected that such surgical operations as the sharp removal of fuel subsidy would always come with pains, especially if is without application of anaesthesia, the long term relief is bound to be more beneficial if properly handled. We there urge government to do everything necessary and possible to ensure that the healing process does not last longer than necessary.

Although Nigerians are not often favourably disposed to the talk of ‘short term pain and long term gain’, it is time we face reality and as well urge government to also play its part well. All hands must be on deck to salvage the country, the economy and the people from the current critical state.

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