The matter of removal of subsidy on petroleum products, especially premium motor spirit, being the most contentions of the lot, is a double-edged sword. We must, however, give credit to this regime because it has given Nigerians a long notice on the matter. The Minister of Finance, Budget and National Planning, Zainab Ahmed, had long told Nigerians that subsidy on petroleum products would be removed this year, and Nigerians must brace up to pay more tax.

The nation has also been told that 40 million vulnerable Nigerians would get N5,000 each to cushion the effects of the pending price hike. Those in the know have done the math, and come away with the finding that more money would be spent to cushion the effects than is being spent on subsidy. If that is true, as some energy reporters have noted, it were better the   sleeping subsidy dog be left to lie.

It is either government does not intend to pay or it would certainly not pay as much. The payment would be another cosmetic show, exemplified in the Tradermoni and Marketmoni shows done at the inception of this regime which saw the Vice-President, Yemi Osinbajo, going round select markets to promote cash transfers that ended up a rather cosmetic way of “lifting a hundred million Nigerians out of poverty.”

This concept of cushioning transport cost with cash transfers does not seem to be well thought out. Subsidy removal is the sing-song of every successive Nigerian government. None has got a handle on it. Gen. Ibrahim Babangida, one of the most cerebral military men to preside over Nigeria, did something that looked innovative in one of the removals he effected. He came up with the idea that private vehicle owners would pay more at the petrol stations than commercial vehicles. No one told us why it was discontinued, but it was evident that it was an uphill task to implement. It was his own way of cushioning the effects of fuel price increase.

Try as Nigeria has, its financial backbone has remained oil, which is why the matter of removing oil subsidy has turned a constant decimal for every regime. There is no regime in Nigeria, from the days of Gen. Yakubu Gowon, which has not tinkered with the price of petroleum products. All governments since Gowon have adjusted the price of fuel. For me, the reason is that oil is the mainstay of Nigeria’s economy, and governments, over the years, have just been too lazy and laid-back to look for alternatives.

Nigeria once had a head of state who said the country’s problem was not lack of money, but that the nation was at a loss about what to do with money. That regime allegedly paid the salaries of civil servants of a certain indigent county, which came cap in hand. It was an irony of sorts that the regime also pounced on fuel prices when funds began to dip. There is a temptation to conclude, going by the history of this subject, that fuel price increment shall never end.

My search shows that Gowon changed the prices from 6 kobo to 8 kobo, Gen. Murtala Muhammed moved it to 9 kobo, Gen. Olusegun Obasanjo moved it to 15 kobo in his first coming before he handed over to a civilian President, Alhaji Shehu Shagari, who moved it to 20 kobo.

Gen. Muhammadu Buhari stayed for 18 months in office when he came as military head of state on December 31, 1983. He did not change the price before Babangida replaced him in what looked more like a palace coup in 1985. Babangida changed the price four times in eight years. He met it at 20 kobo, but left it at 70 kobo when he “stepped aside” in 1993. Ernest Shonekan, who passed away two days ago (may his soul rest in peace), had a short reign but he made a monumental change in the price, shooting it from 70 kobo to a whopping N5!

When Gen. Sani Abacha removed Shonekan, he probably played to the gallery by reducing the price to N3.25, but the price was N11 when he died in office in 1998. Gen. Adulsalami Abubakar left it at N20. In eight years of his second coming Obasanjo changed prices seven times. He left it at N75.

Umaru Yar’Adua reduced it to N65. President Goodluck Jonathan left it at N87 in 2015 when he left office. Today, the price is N142 but Nigerians are told to get set to pay over N300 in the coming weeks or days. 

The matter is a cycle that may never stop for so long as oil remains the mainstay and cash cow for government. When labour, led by Adams Oshiomhole, who made a success of turning his popularity to political capital, held President Obasanjo by the jugular, on the matter of subsidy removal, Obasanjo reportedly told them that raising the price to N42 would be the last. The President eventually had his way, but it was not the last. The price was on the upward bound at least three times before he left office.

Nigerians have known it to be a part of life. The reason has not changed. Few people, the authorities would say, benefit from subsidy.

It has become a rather intractable problem. It is such a riddle that people like Buhari and his late friend, Professor Tam David-West, said there was no such thing as subsidy. Both men did not speak from the blues. They were former ministers of petroleum. But when Buhari got into office, he appeared to have come face to face with reality. All the previous talk about nonexistent subsidy may just be political talk meant to tarnish the opponent, and get him out of office.

My contention with removal of subsidy is that, in my layman’s observation, it is the major driver of inflation. A study of the historical trajectory of fuel prices would make the point clearer. It begins the cycle, given that all other prices will rise in tandem with increased transport fares. It will spark increased prices across all sectors such that workers would agitate for increased wages, cost of provision of infrastructure will spiral, government will lack funds to meet the demands and it will increase fuel prices again. The cycle continues as it has over the years.

There has to be great effort to think outside the box, if this cycle must stop; else, it will be endless.

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