By Rotimi Fasan
The clouds are again gathering ominously in Abuja and the horizon is dark and brooding. If something urgent is not done the acidic rain of industrial unrest would start falling.
It’s all about the recent increase in the pump price of petrol and the hike in electricity tariff. Along with rising inflation that has led to a general increase in the prices of goods, food and services, now made worse by the said increase in the price of petrol and supply of electricity, these developments have left many Nigerians tremendously exercised and aggravated in the last couple of weeks.
Amid all of this, a former president, Olusegun Obasanjo, has upped the ante and apparently raised Abuja’s blood pressure with the latest in what has been his periodic interventions on the state of the nation during the Muhammadu Buhari presidency.
According to Obasanjo, the Nigerian ship of state is headed for the rocks under the watch of a President Buhari that has done pretty too little to foster national unity. For the former president, Nigerians have never been more divided. To be sure, the bit about Nigerians never being more divided might sound a little exaggerated.
There have been different moments during the presidency or leadership of Nigeria’s past rulers when the Nigerian situation or, indeed, the Nigerian project of national integration, was thought to be facing its greatest moment of threat for various reasons ranging from an authoritarian disposition characterised by crass disregard of constitutional norms, unbridled partisanship, ‘tribalism’ and even corruption, etc.
Consider the Abubakar Tafawa Balewa-led coalition of the 1960s to the short-lived military rule of Aguiyi Ironsi, the nine-year Yakubu Gowon dictatorship and the unhappy months following the toppling of Murtala Muhammed through the Shehu Shagari and Muhammadu Buhari years as a military dictator.
How about the ‘dark days’ of the ‘goggled general’, Sani Abacha, when the dictator, constantly ‘bared his fangs’, to invoke a familiar register of Nigeria’s radical press? Could Nigerians have forgotten similar moments during the Obasanjo presidency? Not even the dovish Umaru Yar’Adu and Goodluck Jonathan steered free of those tense Armageddon moments when it was thought Nigeria would topple over before it miraculously pulled back from ‘the brink’. Which is to say that we would always have those moments when things could not be expected to be worse, just like now.
There were times during the Goodluck Jonathan years that many now look back on with romantic nostalgia when people thought things could not get worse. But today, many believe the situation is considerably worse under Buhari. Do we dare hope that we won’t get to a situation when we would look back on the Buhari presidency and be apologising to our maker that we were in fact in paradise when we thought all hell had been let loose on us? Such is our ‘Lot’s Wife Syndrome’ that constantly forces us to look back when we should be striding forward.
But OBJ has thrown a challenge and as is usual with his often-polarising interventions, Nigerians are not pretending in attention. He has garnered both praise and condemnation in equal terms. While some have chosen to focus on the message and have approbated his remarks, others took issue with the messenger and have hurled imprecations in his direction.
What nobody has done is ignore the message which bears all the echoes and imprint of a similar warning issued by Chief Obafemi Awolowo, telling the Shagari administration in 1981/1983, that the ship of the Nigerian state was headed for a precipice.
Buhari is not letting things lie low. He has admonished his ministers and other officials to be more aggressive in selling the programmes of his administration which some of his supporters believe is inadequately done, if at all. But his advice has left the opposition worried that he is again letting out his attack dogs on Nigerians who, perhaps, are not unmindful of those times when the likes of Garba Shehu, Femi Adesina and Lai Muhammad have demonstrated a vexing lack of patience for criticism by giving Nigerians the rough edge of their tongues.
The Buhari administration deserves our pity and support as it is at this moment certainly between a rock and a hard place. Irrespective of its past errors, its best now has been drastically undermined by the wreckage of the economy by COVID-19 that has forced it into a furious retreat and full disclosure of its activities, including its position on oil subsidy. It would be an understatement to say that it must feel seriously besieged. After it campaigned and won office in poetry it is now governing and reaping the fruit of its campaign in bald prose. Head or tail it is not winning with Nigerians.
Having exhausted itself with its verbal gymnastics and hair-splitting about ‘under-recovery’ and simply speaking the truth about what Nigerians’ consumption of petrol entails, the crunch moment is here and it must own up to paying subsidy. The president’s foot soldiers have his imprimatur to engage labour in talks meant to resolve issues and iron out the differences between them.
But some of the president’s aides have in the past shown themselves inadequate for their role. Chris Ngige, after six years as Labour Minister, is not exactly new to the negotiation game. But many of his remarks during past negotiations have been characterised by sheer bluster and a poor sense of judgement. He was the one who said Nigeria has more doctors than it needs and the rest could move to Saudi Arabia at the height of an industrial breakdown between resident doctors and the government. His engagement with ASUU has not been less acrimonious with each side often giving Nigerians different versions of their discussions.
How about the Health Minister, Osagie Ehanire? Although a medical doctor like Ngige, his engagements with Nigerians and even doctors lack energy and empathy. He easily mishandled the issue of the Chinese doctors who arrived in Nigeria at the height of the pandemic scare with his unreliable statements on the status and purpose of the doctors’ visit.
In a similar manner, he was both ambivalent about the use of personal protective equipment by doctors and dismissive of their complaint about the inadequate supply of PPE and payment of hazard allowance. That resident doctors/health workers are fast going the way of ASUU may not be unconnected to these two men’s, especially Ehanire’s, lacklustre leadership style.
What is clear now is that, for as long as Nigeria is in the orbit of the Bretton Wood institutions, executing their neo-liberal policies, it cannot duck subsidy cut on many things – goods and services, including petrol, electricity, health and education. Either we accept this and seek how best to gain from it or implode fighting it.