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Protests Postmortem: Locating ND and Ndigbo in the Fuel Subsidy Political Ecosystem

--Cutting-Edge Analytics--

By: Franklin Otorofani
 Published January 18th, 2012

Let's be clear about one thing before revisionists begin to rewrite our recent history in a hurry as it relates to the aborted fuel subsidy protests. The fuel subsidy protests, while indisputably popular as they are bound to be in any society that had been used to such entitlements suddenly withdrawn, were by no means spontaneous, but meticulously pre-planned and executed by vested interests that had been feeding fat on the backs of the people using labor as their battle axe. Labor's action plan had been rehearsed, pre-packaged and put on the shelf to be picked up and implemented nationwide on D-Day, which was long expected as the government had insisted on going ahead with its plan.

In some democracies including the one I happen to live in at the moment, which is fairly representative of all democracies, labor leaders do not embark on strikes or protest actions without first having the rank and file members voting on it and approving it. In other words, it is a democratic exercise rather than a dictatorial fiat by its leadership. That is the true meaning of the words, “power to the people”. As such, labor leaders do not have the final word on such matters, but the rank and file would have to make that determination in a democratic fashion. I know this because I once functioned as a lower level union leader who attended meetings and had to mobilize my members in my shop to take part in such actions. So, I have been there, done it. That was many years ago but it is still the same even today because the labor laws have not changed in that regard to enthrone dictatorship. In contradistinction to this, however, NLC and TUC leaders in Nigeria could wake up on the wrong sides of their beds, and like generals in the army, simply order, not just their members, but all Nigerians out into the streets to protest whatever tickles their militant appetites. And we, as obedient citizens are supposed to obey their orders without question whether we agree with their reasoning or not as though they were our lords and masters. All I can say now that the madness is all over is that this has got to stop, because we are in a democracy, and no one can be forced to participate in a protest or strike action against his/her will more so as there was a subsisting court order by a court of competent jurisdiction. That is the basic rule in labor relations and the law of the land that ought to and must be respected by all law abiding citizens. And if we poured out into the streets in protests in obedience to the orders of labor leaders, we were all aiders and abettors of outlaws in Michael Imoudu House. Undue militancy is unwelcome in a civilian order in a democracy, and labor leaders should be in the vanguard of bringing civility to bear on all public actions in a democratic fashion. 

That labor leaders were openly boasting that no court or power could prevent them from organizing fuel subsidy protests testifies to the absolute lawlessness and outlaw status of labor leaders in Nigeria. Thank goodness they are living in a country like Nigeria otherwise they would have been visited with the same fate that befell comrade Tusan of the TWA, who flouted the law and went to jail for it in New York City, because brazen lawlessness carries a definite price under the rule of law in a democracy. No one is compelled to agree with a court order in a democracy. If you disagreed with a court ruling, you go to the court to discharge its order or appeal the ruling to a higher court. What you are not allowed to do, however, is sit in a couch in your living room to declare a court ruling illegal and incompetent, arrogating to yourself the powers of an appeal court you do not have and, therefore, cannot legitimately exercise---Nemo dat quo non habet. Willful disobedience of a court order that one does not agree with has no place in a democracy and ought to be swiftly punished appropriately by the relevant authorities. The president himself referred to the court disobedience by labor in his address to the nation, and I guess that is the end of the matter, not even a mere reprimand from the court and the government. But please pardon me for my sermons on legalism and rule of law. I forgot momentarily that I was discussing Nigeria where no one but the poorest of the poor cares about court orders, and not Britain or US where the law is no respecter of persons. I get it. Labor leaders are above the law; one set of laws for them and another set of laws for the rest of us who have no powers to order all Nigerians out into the streets with a snap of our fingers like NLC and TUC leaders could do. I get it. That's what places them high up there above the laws of the land. 

That said and with the protests happily over, it is time to do a postmortem on the whole corpus of the protests. The responses of Nigerians to the street protests varied from one part of the country to another. While the protests were noticeably pronounced in the northern and south-western regions going by media reports, they were at best muted in the south-eastern and south-southern regions--two contiguous regions that presumably have greater stakes in the stability and success of the Jonathan administration than any other regions. The attitude of these two regions to the protests is personified in the person of the veteran labor leader and governor of Edo state, the venerable Comrade Adams Oshiomhole, whom labor leaders had counted on as their arrowhead and ambassador extempore in the executive branch to militantly plead their case in Abuja, both in the public and at the emperor's courts. But it turned out that he wasn't at all interested in their protest agenda.

Oshiomohle virtually told his former colleagues, "No, thanks...I am doing just fine where I am," and that he was not interested in their gratuitous offer. Do you blame him? Which governor would? But no sooner he slammed the door in their faces at his executive mansion on Dennis Osadebey Avenue, GRA, Benin City, than he picked up the phone to tell Mr. President that he had accepted his appointment as a member of the presidential committee on fuel subsidy palliatives. "Good riddance to bad rubbish!", the fiery labor veteran would spit out the words with a growl from his den like the lion he once was and still is, and labor felt exceedingly disappointed and embarrassed, and called him names. One from the south/west actually said Oshiomhole was a “confused” man who had abandoned his traditional constituency. But he didn't miss a heartbeat and couldn't be bothered by their destructive gamesmanship laced with politics as usual. Oshiomhole's man shot back to put the rude labor man in his proper place for taking on the lion of labor in Nigeria. 

While Oshimohle may have somewhat incurred the wrath of his former colleagues by embracing the Jonathan's policy initiative, his lukewarm attitude to the demands by labor, if we may so describe it, was borne out of practical considerations and the financial and economic realities facing the states that find it difficult; in fact, near impossible to pay the new national minimum wage of N18, 000 negotiated with labor only a few months ago. He who wears the shoe knows where it pinches and Oshiomhole is wearing the shoe presently unlike when he was on the other side with labor. There is consequential role-reversal in this game. Shouldn't we assume then that he knows where the shoe pinches? I think we should. Presently only a handful of states are solvent in Nigeria and many are in reality no more than glorified local governments that rely wholly on federal handouts just to pay salaries of civil servants with nothing left for real development, because they have nothing of their own to supplement federal monthly or quarterly allocations. Even Lagos state relies on federal allocation. They can't tax their poor citizens who have no jobs to begin with. Now, that is a vicious cycle that must be broken and broken now if we are to move forward as a nation. Whether we like it or not, it takes huge funds to develop state economies. Oshiomohle is one of the governors who came to power with ambitious, larger-than-life development programs the execution of which has been utterly frustrated and stymied by the poor shapes of their states' finances, and had had to approach the capital market in Lagos to float development bonds like the Greeks and Italians did in Europe, which has brought untold misery to their nations and citizens. Are there no lessons to be learned from Europe?

You think if Greece and Italy that are now busy cutting social benefits to their bare bones suddenly have crude oil today they would give it away in subsidy to their citizens? I don't think so. If anything, they would impose gasoline tax on it as many European countries do. Their governments are now wiser to the fact that welfarism is an unproductive and dangerous ideology that is tanking their economies. That is basically what NLC and the so-called progressives are rooting for in Nigeria. Simply share the money from oil and we will all be fine and happy! Sorry, it doesn't work that way. The good news is that the Nigerian government is not indifferent to what is happening in the eurozone. It has been keenly watching those developments with eagle eyes and taking proactive actions to prevent similar contagion from afflicting the growing but fundamentally fragile Nigerian mono-cultural economy. Every good economic manager would do the same thing. And labor is not an economic manager, but one that is wedded to the pursuit of parochial interests that could be contrary to national interests.

Oshiomohle knows better than the babbling labor leaders mouthing nonsensical populist rhetoric like their Greek and Italian counterparts. When a boat is sinking the first thing to do is to bail out water from the boat in order to re-float it. Fuel subsidy was sinking the Nigerian national boat in high waters and a good captain would bail out the water to re-float it. Labor is not the captain of that boat and therefore less concerned if the boat sank or not, or manages to stabilize itself by its own strength. But it is the duty of the captain to act, and Jonathan is the captain, not NLC's Abdulwaheed Omar. Governor Oshiomhole, too, is another captain, albeit of a smaller ship, and knows the mindset and modus operandi of his former colleagues. He had been there, done it. But more importantly, he knows he could do a whole lot more for his people with more funds at his disposal than a millions subsidies could ever hope to attain in a million years. He knows that Edo state's broken infrastructures, built by the dynamic two-term governor, Dr. Samuel Ogbemudia, need massive rehabilitation, upgrade, and expansion. He knows that the predominantly civil service Edo state is crying her eyeballs out for industrialization to provide jobs for her teeming youths that the subsidy is holding back from happening. And he knows too well that rather than go cap in hand to the capital market for loans like the Greeks and Italians and mortgage the future of Edo state, he would rather the subsidy be gutted and save his beloved state from going under like Greek and Italy. After all, his state is part of the oil and gas producing axis whose oil resources are being used to subsidize the transportation costs of the entire nation behind her back.

He has seen the folly of it all and with that realization comes the urgent need to reverse course before our national bus falls irretrievably into a huge ditch. And he is not alone. His state colleagues are behind him. When he accepted the presidential appointment into the palliatives committee negotiating with labor, he did so as the representatives of the governors, who are clearly on board the train with Mr. President. He is thus representing the position of the governors in general and of his counterparts in Niger Delta (ND) in particular, together with the governor of Rivers state, Amechi. He is in that committee to tell labor and so-called civil society that Niger Deltans are no longer interested in playing the Father Christmas game for the nation. After all, other regions have their own mineral resources that could equally be subsidized if that was what Nigerians truly wanted. Why must it be crude oil only that gives out subsidies while other regions keep their resources to themselves only to raid the resources in Niger Delta? That is the million naira question crying for an answer. That is the basic question Oshiomhole and his ND colleagues are grappling with daily as they should on behalf of Deltans whose resources have been commandeered by Abuja for subsidy distribution to all.  And they have come to the unmistakable and unassailable conclusions that it is fundamentally unfair to ND to be drawing her blood and bleeding herself to death to feed the nation while others keep their own resources to themselves untouched. That is simply a matter of justice and fair-play. It's Niger Deltans that should be hitting the streets protesting the retention of the subsidy these many years at their expense not labor leaders drinking rum in cozy offices in Abuja far removed from the ravages of oil exploration activities in Niger Delta.

Subsidy is a government give away that is taken from oil bearing states to feed the transportation monster. That is money that could transform ND into Kuwait, for crying out loud. That is money that could be used to produce world class scientists and technologists in ND. That is money that could turn dugout wooden canoes into speed boats and yachts in ND. That is money that could be used to establish world class laboratories, libraries, and standard health and educational institutions in ND. That is money that could clean up the polluted rivers and creeks in ND. That is the money that could transform dusty earth roads into German autobahns in ND and rickety wooden bridges into the Golden Gate bridge in San Francisco, California, or the Brooklyn bridge in New York. That is money that could light up the entire ND day and night; indeed the entire nation for that matter. Yes, that is money that would give our children a shot and fighting chance in the global competition and lift the potentially greatest black nation in the world and her citizens from the nadir of poverty, diseases, and squalor. And you want to fritter all of that away in fuel subsidies? Am I missing something here? Somebody help me please. There is more to this apparent madness than meets the eyes. And that I will address momentarily.        

NOW governors Oshiomohle and Amechi no doubt have the confidences of their Ndigbo counterparts across the mighty Niger without exception. For starters, Ndigbo is tangentially embedded in ND parts of which were parts of the good old eastern region of old. And she has her beloved Imo state in the heartland of Ndigbo in Nigeria's mini OPEC crude oil cartel, and probably Abia state, too. Though oftentimes mutually antagonistic to each other like siblings, both regions are literally joined at the hip like siamese twins such that what affects one affects the other. The Pan Igbo cultural organization, Ohaneze Ndigbo, made this absolutely clear in the run up to the 2011 presidential election when it came out boldly and loudly to endorse the Jonathan candidacy over Abubakar Atiku's in the PDP. And as they say, the rest is history. That pact is the beginning of this odyssey.

However, that history is yet to be fully written; in fact, we are still plotting the outlines of its early chapters in the Jonathan presidency. Suffice it to state, however, that Ndigbo did not invest in the Jonathan product just so she could align herself with labor to fight the Jonathan administration for oil subsidy. Far from it. Rather, she did so to pursue and realize her own agenda in regard to what is in the best interest of Ndigbo in the present dispensation. And I don't see where fuel subsidy fits into Ndigbo's own basket of interests and demands from the Jonathan administration. There is simply no room for it as fuel subsidy is not on the shopping list of Ndigbo or, of ND for that matter. Let me give them some tips here good for the next time around: Let them tell Ndigbo about the 2nd Niger bridge; talk to her about international airport and inland river port at her commercial hub in the bustling city of Onitsha. Let them tell her about abandoned federal highways; about modern coal powered power plants at Enugu. Let them whisper gently into her ears that her civil war ravaged topography will be made whole again. Oh, let them hand her her due entitlement of a sixth state to balance the geopolitical equation in the nation like every other zone. That is the kind of music that would get Ndigbo up to the dancing floor and she would be locked in arms with labor dancing to  the rapturous beats of  "Ogene" sound in no time. But please, please don't let them bother her about fuel subsidy because that would be an unwarranted distraction from her laser-focused goals of real physical development in Igboland. Nidgbo might be crying of federal neglect alright just like ND in the national scheme of things, but her tears have not blinded her sights to mistake her destination, and labor would be well advised not to even attempt to seek to misdirect her to the path of subsidy away from her own chosen path because that would not cut ice with Ndigbo or ND for that matter. So stay off ND and Ndigbo, labor because they are not in your corner. 

It should be made clear to labor operatives that Ndigbo is not in the business of unionism that is the forte of labor. Why so? Simple enough. It is because she is not in the business of civil service with labor unions' endless demands for more pay with less work. Nigerian civil service is the least productive in the world and that is the backbone of labor. And that is no accident. Labor has no training facilities of any kind whatsoever for its members to improve their productivity or themselves for that matter. Rather, she is in the business of entrepreneurship, self employment, and creation of economic values. You would find that spirit abroad walking in the streets of Onitsha, Aba, Nnewi, Awka, Enugu, and other Igbo towns and cities, where indigenous technologies are being incubated like the Japanese and Taiwanese did in the last century, which has catapulted both nations onto the top of the heap technologically. Now, some cynics have dismissed this Ndigbo spirit of economic independence and entrepreneurship as the natural reactions to discrimination suffered after the Nigerian civil war. If that is the case, it has served them exceedingly well.    

Of what use then is fuel subsidy to Ndigbo? How would that get abandoned federal projects off the ground in Igboland? How could that for that matter get Igbo governors more funds to do their own part in the overall development of Igboland? It would not and Ndigbo would be first to say it loud and clear. And they said it by roundly rejecting labor inspired fuel subsidy protests in Igboland and flung the doors of their markets open to all without any forms of molestation. They have their eyes permanently fixed on the ball. And they ask disdainfully of labor: So what if fuel price increase leads to general inflation? Ndigbo would not become the victim but the beneficiary of such happenstance unlike others who rely on government's fixed monthly salaries, which would soon end up in the deep pockets of Ndigbo traders. That much is certain. So unlike others, the independent, enterprising Ndigbo would simply adjust the prices of their goods and services to even up and remove the pangs of the subsidy. The same is equally true of Igbo transporters who dominate the transportation industry. So head or tail Ndigbo wins while others are running around like chickens with fire on their heads crying about inflation. That is the missing piece in the economic constitution of other ethnic groups in Nigeria--dependence on government. Depending on government means they are all civil servants to be ordered around by NLC leaders to turn right, left, and right again, like zombies. Labor would rather prefer that Nigerians be eternally dependent on government to the private sector, and that's why it is opposed to deregulation and privatisation so it could retain the powers to order Nigerians around and intimidate the government at will. This power it does not have in the private sector. It likes dealing with the government. But being an independent minded people and republicans, Ndigbo does not fit the government dependency profile of labor, and we saw that displayed during the subsidy protests. Ndigbo was not on board. And by the way, why would fuel prices stay stagnant in the name of the poor when the costs of other goods and services are rising? That is not the realities anywhere in the world and we better wake up to that reality rather than living in some utopia. Price stagnation is not terribly good for the economy neither is high inflation rates. But the idea that higher gasoline price would automatically kill people in their homes is sheer bunkum.   

Now what does this all mean for ND and Ndigbo? Simply put, it means both Ndigbo and ND should mount extreme vigilance to thwart and utterly frustrate the diabolical designs of the anti-Jonathan political forces out there operating under different guises. They may have been defeated today with the calling off of the protests but that was achieved by the government undercutting labor by reducing the price unilaterally. They are out to precipitate artificial crisis and create political instability in the polity sufficient enough to invite the military to take over power and have their kinsmen in power. Otherwise, why would NLC and TUC refuse bluntly to even negotiate palliatives with the federal government and imposing conditions by literally ordering the federal government to revert to the status quo ante as if it was a court of law or the Emperor. Does the subsidy belong to NLC and TUC or were they parties to its institution in the first place? I don't think that was the case. Ndigbo and ND must therefore not play into their hands because they are executing a script written in the dark by dark forces opposed to the Jonathan administration. In that I have absolutely no illusions because they had promised to make the nation ungovernable should Jonathan become the nation's President.

What is happening therefore should be placed in its proper historical and political contexts and relates to political forces operating in league with fundamental Islamic forces presently situated in Boko Haram. That much was said in the President's broadcast to the nation reducing the pump price to N97 thus meeting labor half way and save its face, which this writer however sees as postponing the evil day though politically sound nevertheless given the present political  exigent:

“It has become clear to government and all well-meaning Nigerians that other interests beyond the implementation of the deregulation policy have hijacked the protest. This has prevented an objective assessment and consideration of all the contending issues for which dialogue was initiated by government. These same interests seek to promote discord, anarchy, and insecurity to the detriment of public peace."

When a sitting governor and sitting senator are being implicated as sponsors of Boko Haram; when truckloads of arms destined for Nigeria are being intercepted in African countries what more do we need to understand and interpret what is going on in the under the cover of fuel subsidy? Why would Boko Haram suddenly transform itself into an insurgent group under Jonathan? Ever heard of suicide bombs in Nigeria before now and the targeting of Catholic Churches? We would be deluding ourselves if we viewed these happenings in isolation. They are embedded in ethno-religious politics. That is the common thread running through them. I'll illustrate this with a personal encounter with a Nigerian client of mine who is a staunch Muhammadu Buhari's supporter and a known Jonathan antagonist before and after the 2011 presidential election. While I was preparing this piece this lady called me with apparent glee in her voice that Jonathan was getting the heat and sought again my position on the fuel subsidy now that the "masses" had risen up against Jonathan over the issue. I guess she thought that the protests must have made me to change my support for Jonathan hence she called. When I reiterated my anti-subsidy position she immediately flew into a rage. She was simply transferring her political animus and antipathies for Jonathan to his economic policies--mixing politics with economics.

At the end of her tirades against Jonathan, I posed a simple question to her for her to explain to me why she would gladly pay $4.00 plus per gallon for gasoline in the US, tax included, and would want subsidy in Nigeria whose economy is not even up to 1000th of the US economy? Or for that matter, why she would not complain about the New York City MTA that raises its transit fares every year to meet up with costs when its executives and contractors are taking home huge paychecks? Her response to that was the familiar drivel: "Because they use the money to develop the place but Nigerian government will just steal the money!" Fine, so then what is the solution to that, I asked. We should starve the Nigerian government to death so that it would not have any more funds to steal? Incredible! This echoes the arguments being made by labor and others. That is their mindset. What a smart formula! And what a smart development strategy from our Nigerian development experts!

This is the insanity that is ruling the pro-subsidy crowds. And these are the same folks running around complaining of lack of good roads, water and electricity, and poor educational and health institutions in Nigeria preaching to the choir that the best way to develop the nation is to starve Nigerian government of funds to prevent it from stealing public funds. If this is the way the black man reasons, he has a long, long way to go indeed. If this is the black man's formula for holding his leaders accountable he will get nowhere in the development race but remain below the first rung of the development ladder. Is the NLC and TUC fighting for public accountability? No, they are fighting for subsidy retention. It's all about benefits. Yes labor is talking about corruption in the subsidy administration. But here is the question: When last did labor in its long history of unionism called out workers to protest government corruption? Not in this world. Maybe in another world it might consider that part of its duty, too.   

Now why should ND and Ndigbo care at all about the Jonathan administration when no other regions would? For two reasons: (1) To protect and safeguard their investments in the Jonathan administration. That is self-evident enough because Ndigbo has to stick with Jonathan in writing the history of his presidency and be part of it. (2) For the same reason that blacks and minorities care about the Obama administration in the United States. It is not because they have benefited from the administration in any significant way because they have in fact not benefited from it. It is the symbolism that it holds for them and their children. And that symbolism translates to: "We belong here, too, just like you!" It is the symbolism that says “We can be leaders too in our own country like every other people”. That symbolism may not have any material substance to it but it is more powerful than material things. And they would not let anybody take that away from them under any guise or false pretences because eternal vigilance is the price of freedom. However, as the African-American talk show host and one of the most ardent critics of the Obama administration, Tavis Smiley puts it in a recent public forum: "The challenge now is to move from symbolism to substance." In the US, that means delivering the goods to the blacks and other minorities. And in Nigeria that means delivering the goods to ND and Ndigbo as promised because symbolism, even while terribly important is not nearly enough.

That said, that Ndigbo is poised to benefit from the new policy is already indicated in the 6,000 26-seater mass transit buses awarded to Nigerian auto assembly plants of which two are located in the South/East. As reported by the Sunday Sun newspaper:

"Innoson Vehicle Manufacturing Company Limited (IVM), Nnewi; National Truck Manufacturers (NTM), Kano; VoN Automobiles Nigeria Limited (formerly Volkswagen of Nigeria, Ojo, Lagos); ANAMMCO, Enugu; GM Nigeria, Lagos, Leiland-Busan Limited, Ibadan; Steyr Nigeria Limited, Bauchi; and A.G. Leventis, Lagos,..." all benefited from the federal government largesse, which the paper hailed as "the largest single government patronage in the history of the domestic automotive industry" that "may also put the long neglected sub-sector on the road to recovery."

The benefits are already rolling in and Ndigbo is primed to benefit so is ND. While all Nigerians would benefit from the subsidy removal by way of improvements in social infrastructures it is fair to state that both ND and Ndigbo could become the biggest beneficiaries. It is therefore up to leaders of thought in these contiguous regions to extract maximum benefits from the subsidy removal to help transform these two long neglected regions. Let's face it: the Jonathan administration is the best shot they have today at righting historical wrongs in these regions as it is indeed for African Americans and the Obama administration. It is, therefore, in their own interest to stand firm on the side of the administration and protect it from the diabolical designs of its detractors. The Jonathan administration may have dodged the bullet, but there is no question in my mind that the political enemies of the administration will come up with something else down the road to destabilize the administration, since this has failed to stick apart from the Boko Haram menace. 


Franklin Otorofani is an attorney and public affairs analyst


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