Re:Yar'Adua, Obasanjo and the labour strike 

I realize that Olusegun Adeniyi, President Yar'Adua's Special Assistant on Communication, has a job to do as spokesperson of a beleaguered and unsure presidency. It's difficult enough to be a paid defender of a government minted by a fraudulent election. This is why I read in disbelief Adeniyi's illogical and pedestrian defense of Yar'Adua's handling of the now called-off strike action by a coalition of labor and civil society groups (published in Sunday Trust, June 24, 2007).  Adeniyi seems to want to compound his boss's legitimacy crisis by insulting the very Nigerian public that is yet to connect with his troubled presidency. How else does one explain Adeniyi's regurgitation of the trite anti-people logic that his boss's predecessor routinely advanced to rationalize the frequent fuel price increases during his tenure?

{mosgoogle}Such a giddy, over-the-top defense of the fuzzy logic of fuel price increases invites a reasoned, detailed response.

Adeniyi started his piece with a nauseating piece of revisionist history, claiming that Obasanjo's so-called economic reforms were designed to remove inefficiencies from public institutions and to infuse into them "genuine and durable improvements." Coyly, but understandably, Adeniyi abstained from telling us whether this dual vision was achieved to any degree in eight years of the Obasanjo presidency. In fact, it is in the realm of the so-called economic reform that the chasm between Obasanjo's declared visions and his actions and their outcome was most vividly exposed. At no other time in Nigeria's postcolonial history have there been such a dissonance between governmental rhetoric and the actions of those who put themselves in charge of declared grand visions. Inefficiencies and waste have not only endured and multiplied in some cases, the savings purportedly realized from chaotically implemented policies like retrenchment and monetization have yet to be declared, let alone put to use to improve the lives of Nigerians. Let's not over-flog the ubiquitous criticism of the other aspects of Obasanjo's "reform" project, like the scandalously corrupt privatization program, in which the former president is deeply implicated.

Adeniyi also claims that in the pursuit of Obasanjo's reform agenda "some people [were] bound to get hurt." Yes, economic reforms, whether of the neo-liberal or radical socialist variety, often have losers and winners and often hurt some people. The reason why this logic does not apply to Obasanjo's so-called reform is that it didn't hurt "some people"; it hurt most people. And that is a crucial difference in vision between reformers who seek the greatest benefit for the greatest number of citizens and those like Obasanjo who are committed to awarding the greatest benefit to the smallest number of citizens. It is to the eternal shame of that much-vaunted reform program (which Adeniyi celebrates) that its only verifiable ‘achievement" is the creation, quite literally, of a greater number of politically invested billionaires
than any previous government had managed to do.

Adeniyi should learn to fight his boss's fight and not that of Obasanjo. He should pick his fights wisely, and even then he should not pick fights with the Nigerian people, whom his boss is still trying to convince about his problematic ascendance to power. Adeniyi pretends to spot a contradiction in Nigerians' simultaneous vilification of Obasanjo's government and their insistence on the 15 percent salary increase "promised" by him. This, he claims, is an unconscious admission that the ex-president formulated some good policies. If Adeniyi wasn't so eager to rehabilitate the image of a failed and hated ex-president, he would have noted two interrelated facts: that to make a promise and fail to uphold it is worse than not making one at all, and that the 15 percent salary increase was not a promise or "commitment" as alleged in the write-up but a demand made by organized labor in exchange for its reluctant acceptance of the previous government's retrenchment exercise. To put it another way, it was a deal between labor and Obasanjo that the latter failed to keep.

Adeniyi accuses critics of Yar'Adua's handling of the inherited unpopular decisions of Obasanjo's government of reductionism. The critics are, Adeniyi claims, guilty of reducing the present struggle over fuel price, VAT, and the sale of the refineries, to a simple matter of Yar'Adua either embracing or repudiating Obasanjo's universally despised legacy. But his write up invokes Obasanjo more than it tells of us about Yar'Adua's thoughts on the issues at stake. If anyone is guilty of using Obasanjo as a foil to frame the debate on the subject of the recent strike action, it is Adeniyi, who praised Obasanjo as a "great" and courageous leader who merely, like all mortals, made mistakes. Adeniyi is guilty of reducing Yar'Adua's presidential actions to the internal struggle within the administration to determine which of Obasanjo's actions to preserve and which to discard. If anything came loudly across from Adeniyi's write-up, it is the fact that Obasanjo's image still looms large in the Yar'Adua presidency, and that the ex-president's footprints continue to guide or shape Yar'Adua's actions. It is either Yar'Adua is acting against the counsel of Obasanjo's trusted economic advisers (like the PPPRA) or overruling them, as Adeniyi himself informed us. Either way, Obasanjo's image is still with us, validating the call for Yar'Adua to shake off his subservient sense of gratitude to the man who engineered his coming to power.

Yar'Adua is a man beholden to, and dogged by the legacy of Obasanjo. An honest conversation about VAT, fuel price increase, sale of refinery, etc, should therefore begin from an acknowledgement of this fact, from this troubling premise. Curiously, although Adeniyi's write-up oozes this acknowledgement, perhaps in a Freudian slippage, he insists on two claims: that Yar'Adua's critics are the ones reducing our current challenges to Obasanjo's controversial last minute actions and that Yar'Adua is his own courageous man, respectful of the former president but independently handling the lingering problems of state.

But one claim in Adeniyi's piece vitiates the claim of Yar'Adua's independence and courage. Adeniyi wants us to be grateful for Obasanjo's show of courage in relieving Yar'Adua of the flak that was bound to trail the fuel price hike. In Adeniyi's logic, Obasanjo courageously chose to be Yar'Adua's fall guy; he decided to take the fall for an unpopular decision instead of transferring the blowback of an "inevitable" fuel price increase to Yar'Adua's new government. This claim is revealing on several levels. First, doesn't this mean that Yar'Adua knew about the increase and allowed (perhaps pleaded with) Obasanjo to relieve him of its burden? If this is true, doesn't it put a lie to the claim by Adeniyi and other members of Yar'Adua's government that Yar'Adua inherited the problem and should therefore be given credit for confronting a problem he didn't create? More crucially, this claim by Adeniyi suggests that Yar'Adua is, far from being a courageous independent, a cowardly, unsure president, who needed his political mentor to announce for his incoming government a set of policies that he deemed necessary but was afraid to publicly associate with. Finally, is this not the greatest, most irrefutable evidence yet that Yar'Adua is not his own man? If he needed Obasanjo to help him announce and bear the criticisms of the policies under discussion, one wonders what else the ex-president is helping him with. So much for presidential courage and independence!

The only insight Adeniyi offered into the crisis management capacity of Yar'Adua, already widely perceived as a fatalistic, aloof president, is his claim that the president sought and got representations from the PPPRA, the NNPC, the Inland Revenue Service, and legal experts on the legal and financial propriety of a VAT and fuel price increase. We were not told why he did not seek the views of organized labor or civil society groups, the two organizational constituencies most representative of the Nigerian people. This casual negligence conflicts with Yar'Adua's posturing as a listening, compassionate servant-leader. The important question to pose is: should an astute, compassionate president only be concerned with the fiscal and legal costs of his actions? How about the social costs of such actions? Government, it should be stressed, exists for the people and their needs, not for abstract pursuits of legality and fiscal equilibrium.

A common thread than run through Adeniyi's write-up is that of shunning populism for the long view. Yar'Adua, he claims, appreciates the long-term benefits of the fuel price increase despite its unpopularity. This vision, we are told, has defines his approach to the agitation for reversion of the pump price to N65. No one has a problem with presidents and political leaders thinking strategically and shunning convenient populism for more profound, thoughtful, and far-reaching policies. The problem is that the logic of the PPPRA and the Bretton Woods institutions that it parrots, not to mention that of the fuel importers' lobby, upon which Obasanjo's and now Yar'Adua's long view depends, has long been discredited in theory and practice.

The idea that all subsidies are bad or that it is wrong, regardless of the product or sector involved, for government to maintain a subsidy, is economically passé. Perceptive and humble economists, some of them Nobel winners, have acknowledged that limited, strategically targeted, and carefully policed subsidies on strategic products and industries are not only necessary for the growth of young economies, they are compatible with the nurturing of a capitalist economy. Similarly, countries that have defied the Bretton Woods institutions and initiated or preserved sector-specific subsidies have done well economically, even recovering from crisis brought on by the fanatical application of free market orthodoxy. Malaysia's recovery from the Asian economic crisis is a good example. More relevant to our situation is the fact that Brazil, Saudi Arabia, and Iran, and other major oil producers heavily subsidize petroleum products for their citizens and not only have they done well economically, they cannot by any stretch of the imagination be described as socialist, non-capitalist economies, the label that our approval-seeking reformers shun like a plague.

Adeniyi claims that Yar'Adua had, through his consultations prior to the strike action, decided to revert to the 5 percent VAT, to reduce the pump price of petrol by N5 and to pay the 15 percent salary increase to civil servants. The implication is that the strike action was unnecessary since all these decisions had been taken. My question to Adeniyi is: if Yar'Adua had already decided on what would later be advertised as "government's offer," why were these same decisions advanced by government's negotiators and spokespersons as "concessions" to labor? There is, it seems, a clever attempt here by Adeniyi and other government people to control both sides of the debate. The "concessions" cannot be prior decisions, and the "decisions" cannot be repackaged as concessions. One explanation has to give.

Adeniyi's logic was at its most hollow in his defense of the sale of the Kaduna and Port-Hacourt refineries.  He claims that the BPE's explanation of the sale is incontrovertible. Thankfully, he is the president's spokesman, not BPE's, so we can ignore his shabby attempt to usurp the role of whoever speaks for the BPE.

Adeniyi should know that most Nigerians do not quarrel with the sale of inefficient and failed government corporations that no longer fulfill the role for which they were set up and/or have become a drain on the public purse. That debate has long been settled. Nigerians object to the lack of transparency that has characterized the entire privatization process, especially the corruption and politics that have defined the sales. The refinery sales are the latest in a long line of fraudulent sale of government enterprises without the constitutionally required scrutiny, oversight, and bidding process. Some people argue rightly that the Pentascope/Nitel deal, and the subsequent sale of Nicon Hilton, Nitel, Ajaokuta Steel Complex, Alscon, and other state assets sold or negotiated away to politically connected allies of Obasanjo and Yar'Adua's PDP at below-market prices emboldened Obasanjo to authorize the sale of the two refineries without relevant approvals and consultations.

The other reason why the sale of our national assets to politically invested investors is controversial is because Nigerians have no idea how the funds accruing from the sales are being utilized, especially since there has been no improvement in the electricity situation; major roads are in terrible condition; security is as poor as ever, and unemployment and poverty continue to soar to new heights.

Nigerians are distrustful of their government, for good reason. But they are not unreasonable critics of government. There is a method and reason to our madness at the Yar'Adua government's refusal to define its identity by fighting over its own policies rather than those of the previous government. Adeniyi's haughty pontifications on the presidential wisdom of Yar'Adua's unsatisfactory handling of the unpopular decisions of his predecessor are insulting to Nigeria's suffering people.

The strike has come and gone, and government has essentially won a N5 increase in the price of petrol, never mind all the talk about "concession" and "reduction." Nigerians are once again the victims of a nightmarish economic regime that has outlived their legendary patience. There is only one privilege that comes with victimhood: the victim can at least suffer in peace, without further insult or injury. I beg Adeniyi and his employer to at least concede to us this privilege.

 Moses Ebe Ochonu

Kaduna, Nigeria