Thursday, February 22, 2024

Proposed electricity tariff hike is insensitive, almost wicked – Falana

In this interview monitored by BRIGHT JACOB, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria, Femi Falana, has advised the Federal Government on ways to raise money to cushion the effects of the economic hardship on Nigerians. The human rights activist looks at the issues surrounding the fuel subsidy as well as the looming tariff on electricity tariff hike. He also condemns the position of former President Muhammadu Buhari on why his administration shifted the removal of subsidy to the present government. Excerpts:

Do you think the Federal Government has done the right thing in removing the fuel subsidy?

I think Nigerians have been sufficiently blackmailed to believe that the criminality that goes on among a few government officials should be blamed on all of us.

I get disturbed when a government complains about oil theft, oil smuggling etcetera. And you ask yourself what is the purpose of government?

Why do you have a government in place? Is it not to take care of these crises? If the government says they are removing fuel subsidies because a few people are benefiting; why not identify those few people and deal with them instead of unleashing economic woes on the people.

Take for instance the government claimed that about $10 billion per annum was being spent on fuel subsidies.

Why is it that Nigeria is the only oil producing country in the world importing petroleum products?

Secondly, who are the people behind smuggling of petroleum products in Nigeria and who are the people behind oil theft in the country to the extent that our OPEC quota is 1.8 million barrels per day whereas we hardly produce one million barrels per day?

Do you blame the people for that? Once a government can identify the highly placed criminals behind such levels of criminality, you can then ensure that the government makes sufficient money to take care of the people because subsidy is part of governance all over the world.

The people have to be subsidised for one way or the other. The vulnerable in the society have to be subsidised and the poor have to be subsidised but what happens in Nigeria is that it is only the rich that are subsidised by the government, through the policy of the government and through duty waivers. In the five years of the last administration, about N15 trillion worth of duty waivers were granted. Once you run an economy that subsidises the rich to the detriment of the poor, you are bound to have problems.

What we have been saying over the years is that government should fix the refineries, build new ones and try to compete with Aramco of Saudi Arabia and others alike so that at the end of the day, the government will make sufficient money to take care of the people and address infrastructural development.

How will you react to the planned hike in electricity tariff?

Nigerians should resist economic policies that are designed to further inflict economic pains on them. With respect to the proposed electricity tariff, it is insensitive, it is almost wicked.

Nigerians are yet to absorb the pains of removal of the so-called fuel subsidy and the government is planning to increase the electricity tariff.

Nigeria is planning to devalue the currency for an import-oriented economy. The economic crisis that will be unleashed on the country through the dollarisation of the economy via the devaluation of the currency is high.

So for me, we must take all these problems holistically.

Removal of fuel subsidy, increase in electricity tariff, proposed increase in school fees, proposed increase in the price of diesel with the adoption of 7.5 percent Value Added Tax and so on.

Unless we take holistic analysis of all these, we may not be able to appreciate what Nigerians are meant to go through.

Meanwhile, no government official at the stage of local government, state level and at the federal level is prepared to make any sacrifices.

When you go around you still see public officials with fleets of cars like 20, 25 or even up to 30 cars following them.

We cannot run a system like that. No public official has said he or she is not going to receive security votes in order to cut governance costs.

Unless people in power are ready to make sacrifices, the masses won’t take them seriously.

In the past 40 years since the government started embarking on the increase of fuel pump price, apart from the late Abacha regime which set up the Petroleum Trust Fund incidentally managed by Buhari, Nigerians have never seen the positive impact of increase in the price of petroleum products.

“In the five years of the last administration, about N15 trillion worth of duty waivers were granted. Once you run an economy that subsidises the rich to the detriment of the poor, you are bound to have problems”

The media quoted former President Buhari as saying that Tinubu would have lost the election if he (Buhari) had removed the fuel subsidy; the question is, is removing the subsidy a worthwhile venture if it could have led to the All Progressives Congress losing the election?

The Buhari administration didn’t bother whether APC won or lost the last election; I know about that. If he said he didn’t want to remove fuel subsidies so that APC would win, why did he allow the monumental fraud that characterised the importation of fuel?

Why didn’t they fix the refineries until the tail end of the administration when the Buhari regime earmarked $1.5 billion for fixing Port Harcourt Refinery and $1.4 billion for fixing Kaduna and Warri refineries?
Why did the government invest $2.7 billion in Dangote Refinery?

But the government didn’t take the demand for fixing state-owned refineries very seriously. To now turn around to say ‘we didn’t remove subsidy because we didn’t want to lose an election’ was an insult because that is not a choice for the Buhari administration.

The choice for them was to build new refineries, fix the old ones, make money for fuel export, ban fuel import and allow Nigerians to enjoy their lives.

But to say ‘we didn’t punish you sufficiently because we didn’t want to lose the election’ for me is an irresponsible talk.

Rather they ought to have told Nigerians how much was wasted in the importation of fuel.

They would have told Nigerians why they didn’t fix the refineries and it is not rocket science to build refineries.

But the government must not make the mistake of believing that the Nigerian people have been defeated, you know the demonstration that greeted the scarcity of currency last year.

You had the nationwide protest against police brutality in 2020. So when Nigerians are pushed to the wall, they won’t wait for the Nigeria Labour Congress and the Trade Union Congress to mobilise them.

So what in your thoughts should Nigerians do given the looming hike in electricity tariff?

Under the Electricity Reforms Act, there is a procedure in increasing electricity tariff.

Number one, there has to be improvement in the service. So if we are still exposed to the epileptic supply of electricity, increasing tariffs cannot be justified.

Secondly, there has to be consultation with consumers. To the best of my knowledge, that has not been done, so the planned increase in electricity tariff is illegal.

So I want to believe that the attention of the government is being drawn to the relevant provisions of the law by which I also believe that relevant agencies of government are having a second thought on this.

There is a proposed increase in virtually all aspects of services like the school tuition fee, petroleum products and all that; also labour is calling for an increase in minimum wage; what is your reaction to that?

Even before the increase in the price of petrol and all that, the Nigeria Labour Congress and Trade Union Congress were calling for improvement in the minimum wage.

By the way, Section 16 of the constitution provides for a living minimum wage. There is no worker that lives on N30, 000 minimum wage, it is not possible. If a worker has to pay for transport, pay for rent, maintain a family, including sending children to school, then it is difficult to talk of N30, 000.

So a call by the NLC and TUC for a new minimum wage has become apt. There is nothing anyone can do about it. And we are not talking of the workers alone but we are talking of the masses’ survival.

In what areas can the government generate revenue to fund the country and in our own case, I have submitted a letter to the President where I believe that given the political will, the government can raise not less than $200 billion in the next six months out of which the debts of the country will be paid.

How will that be possible?

This is possible because the country is owed a lot of money by International Oil Companies, by government departments, individuals who have engaged in continuously diverting money meant for the entire country.
For instance, nobody knows Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation Limited generates so much money.

Nobody knows the amount of oil it produces daily whereas we have an Organisation of Oil Exporting Countries quota of 1.8 million barrels per day but we produce 1.2 million barrels per day.

So we are talking of a whopping 600,000 barrels. So the government must do all it can to block those unpardonable leakages.

It means the 600,000 barrels of crude that are stolen daily can be recovered by the government. The IOCs owe the government about $62 billion. The government must move speedily to collect the money.

Also, agencies of government that generate money hardly remit the money into the federation account and we are telling the government how to go about recovering these huge sums of money so that the economic punishment being unleashed on our people can stop.

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