Oil Subsidy Report: A Chance for New Democracy in Nigeria?

Nigeria’s House of Representative adopted nearly all the recommendations put forward by its Ad Hoc Committee on Oil Subsidy Management. The investigation into the now notorious fuel subsidy case was triggered by Nigeria’s January protests that followed the government’s unilateral removal of fuel subsidy.

The fuel subsidy probe report shows that almost 50 percent of the amount allegedly spent by government on fuel subsidy was stolen by government officials and marketers. For many Nigerians, this revelation is a huge step towards fighting corruption and building a new culture of transparency in the country. The adopted recommendations require a refund to Government estimated at roughly US$6 billion; the prosecution of various individuals; and the restructuring of the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation and other government agencies to ensure efficiency and accountability. To ensure implementation, these recommendations essentially place a heavy moral and legal weight on the executive arm of the government.

In the past, other similar reports have been shelved and government remained inert. During the review of the oil subsidy probe report, the House of Representatives speaker said that the probe was a fight against entrenched interests who are ready to fight dirty to ensure that their interests are protected. It is now obvious that these interests will not relent in their own efforts to ensure the report is not implemented in full, or at the very least, watered down.

From all indications, the presidency has shown no desire to prosecute the indicted individuals. The presidential spokesperson has informed Nigerians that the presidency will wait for the final report of the House of Representative before taking action. In Nigeria, the duty to prosecute criminals falls within the purview of the Executive – the Attorney-General. The House of Representatives only got involved because of the presidency’s reluctance to follow up on the initial allegations of fraud made against the oil subsidy mismanagement.

In reality, Nigerians may not have a willing ally in the presidency to help fight the endemic fraud within the oil subsidy management. The mere fact that these unprecedented instances of fraud have gone on under the nose of the current administration suggests either collusion or gross incompetence on the part of the presidency.

For any meaningful result from this probe process, Nigerians must challenge the government and pressure them to take action. That process will not be easy and would require a coordinated, concerted and continuous engagement. To build a mass movement, Nigerians will need to be informed on what exactly happened with the oil subsidy management. A massive public campaign project is also necessary - both to present the figures and incite Nigerians to mobilize. The January protest has shown the power of information. When ordinary citizens realize the rot and shameless looting of their common wealth by individuals entrusted with taking care of them, they are bound to react.

Nigerians should be made to understand the cost of corruption to their quality of life. The growing poverty rate and hunger across the country is sustained by irresponsible management of resources and unwillingness of government to plug the leaks. This will undoubtedly trigger interest among Nigerians and propel them to find ways of getting government to act. It is here that civil society has a duty to drive this civic education process. The information related to the probe report should be simplified and translated into local languages to ensure easy understanding. This will allow Nigerians to begin to ask questions, allowing them to better hold their leaders accountable.

Civil society groups must work together. To make any meaningful impact, civil society, labour, and faith-based groups should find a common theme and put unified pressure on the government. In the past, the government has been quick to break the ranks and undermine popular protest. Nigerians must guard against this by defining, early in their engagement, a minimum, acceptable benchmark. The sad reality is that the failure to get government to implement the probe report will have far reaching psychological impact on Nigerians. If the government does not act this time, then Nigerians may lose faith in the power of popular agitations, and by extension in the sheer value of democracy. The oil subsidy probe reveals a decay that affects every Nigerian. There is a vital need to ensure an effective movement takes place, one that demands for accountability and one that cuts across the whole federation, thereby not playing on possible ethnic sentiment.

The international community should also ask the Nigerian government pertinent questions. It is crucial that government is made to understand the link between this level of mismanagement and the challenges of insecurity in the country. Furthermore, the present probe report undermines faith in the Nigeria’s economic environment. It is important to underscore the need for government to implement this probe report and to fire individuals who have been indicted. Nigeria listens when its international image is under scrutiny.

Increasingly, analysts and commentators are discussing the irony of democracy in Africa. Yes, there is "democracy" per se, but people still do not have a say in what their government’s do, because their interests are not protected by their leaders and the political space limits opposing views and voices. Oppositions are usually treated like adversaries and individual interests of government officials are often confused with national interest.

The value of democracy is constantly undermined, paving the way for "experiments," which may have disastrous result, as the recent upheavals in Mali and Guinea Bissau have shown. The event around the oil subsidy probe is a good opportunity to galvanize public support to ensure a people-driven democracy, and not a "democracy" of exclusion. Government should be made to understand that implementing this probe report is not a choice, but a necessity. Nigerians should ensure that this probe report is not another irrelevant statistics, but the beginning of a new era—an era where the people count. There must be political and moral consequences for government inaction. It is only in this way that democracy can hold any meaning for the average Nigerian, the one who wakes up every morning not knowing where or when the next meal will come.

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