IDEAs 9th June 2023

Nkoyo Toyo on Subsidy Removal and Palliatives

Chuwudi Ezugwu introduced the guest – Nkoyo Toyo, the Convener of the Labour Civil Society Front – and the topic, which he felt everyone would be very interested to hear: the removal of subsidy and the kind of palliatives that would be most useful.

Ayo Obe feared that listeners may have been groaning at the idea of more talk about subsidy removal and palliatives, but said that the programme would be looking at matters from the perspective of Integrity, Ethics and Accountability in our Democracy.  She said that today’s guest, Ambassador Nkoyo Toyo, was not only the Convener of the Labour Civil Society organisation, but was also a well-known civil society activist, a former Member of the House of Representatives, and Nigeria’s former Ambassador to Ethiopia, Djibouti and the African Union.  As such, she was not coming from just the point of view of activism, but would also bring executive insight into what was required, what could be done and where things had gone wrong.

Ayo continued that when we talk about the fuel subsidy, one of the problems Nigeria has faced is the absolute lack of trust in what we have been told about it.  So we not only don’t trust that there is a subsidy in the first place, even now that we have reluctantly come round to the idea that – whether we understand it or not – the subsidy has gone, there is also a lack of trust over the issue of palliatives.  When we talk about subsidy gone and palliatives, and the money that is now supposedly going to be devoted to the palliatives, we are bound to ask what happened to the money that had been spent before, because we had spent trillions  on Turn Around Maintenance for our refineries for example with no tangible result.  If we don’t have Accountability for what has gone before, how do we confirm that there is nonetheless Accountability and Integrity in what is going to come – the money

that is going to be spent on palliatives (itself a catchall term that covered a multitude of sins) or that they would be properly directed.

Nkoyo said that it the real question was how we could ensure Accountability.  She noted that we have been on this issue of whether to keep subsidy or remove it for quite some time, from the Obasanjo presidency, through to Yar’Adua and Jonathan, the last President and now President Bola Tinubu.  The problem was that while the subsidy remained, there was a whole fraudulent structure in the oil sector.  It was simply not transparent enough to provide the relief and the benefits that we are looking for, so the issue was always a contested one.  However, the important thing now, was that we had all reached a point where the arguments for keeping it no longer held water.  Reluctant as we are to trust government that it will do what it ought to do, and reluctant as we are to trust even the actors who are going to take over the process, we have reached a national consensus where everybody is saying that this fraud cannot continue, that it is not serving its purpose, merely putting money into the pockets of a few.

However, Nkoyo said, we are faced with the same problem of lack of trust when looking for solutions.  The matter is even more complex because we now have the Petroleum Industry Act which has compelled the Government to work within a certain legal framework.  She felt that that PIA framework meant that we could begin to expect some level of Accountability.

In response to Ayo’s question about whether that meant Accountability for the money that used to be paid to the NNPC, Nkoyo said that we should not be expecting that.  She said that whatever was promised, for example, if Government says it is going to give 2,000 vehicles, or that it would make sure that market forces would make the prices of petroleum products cheaper in the long term, there are no guarantees of anything.  However, the PIA gives the framework that could hold government Accountable.

Nkoyo said that the money question had always been a scam, but leaving that aside for the moment, if we look at the kind of deliverables that are being tabled by the Trades Union Congress and the Nigeria Labour Congress in their negotiations with government that had led to the reversal of their strike, there are no commitments of any kind, merely wishes and proposals.  There are no concrete proposals to do anything within any time frame, there are no numbers as to what is expected, and nothing to show what government is going to do.  This showed that the trust deficit is not only in the area of Accounting for the resources that are being expended for example on the refineries, or the template that has always been used to calculate the actual cost of petrol.

Ayo asked what a group like the one that Nkoyo was convening could do to ensure that the palliatives were directed to the right quarters, remarking that in the past when the issue of subsidies was presented as something enjoyed by the rich, she felt that this had ignored the hard-working middle classes of Nigeria, citing her cousin who used his vehicle to drive his workers from one work site to another with their equipment.  Though he benefited from the lower cost of petrol, he was providing employment and he was getting work done (in the renewable energy sector).  Such people are not relaxing and rolling around in oppressor jeeps even though they might be using their personal vehicles, they should not be seen as ‘pleasure cars’.

On how the palliatives could be properly directed to the right quarters, Nkoyo referred to the work that had been done with the Independent National Electoral Commission which had showed what could be done with numbers and registers.  She said that if we want to hold people Accountable, we should go back to that structure.  It should be possible to say from the numbers on the voters register how many of them were poor, or unable to access services.  The question was how to tie together a system where the votes begin to count in terms of who gets what?  She stressed that the Accountability could not be done at the national level, nor could it be left to the State structures because that would mean that the capture would continue.  We need to be able to tie people being able to run and win an election to their being able to Account for whether they are taking care of the needs of the poor.  Time would not permit much explanation, but she said that Accountability around voters matters in the way these things are applied.  If palliatives are being given, can a voter at their level see how that was working, and whether they had got what was due to them, and whether their representatives had ensured that that happened?  She said it was not that we didn’t have palliative programmes – there were so many of them: Sure-P, N-Power, Trader Moni – but they did not get to the people in need of them.  Therefore, the elected representatives have to be involved at some point so that they begin to see themselves as Accountable, because their vote would depend on the way their voters think about them.  So if they are Accountable for what comes down to their constituencies, it will begin to matter.  It was essential that the people should be able to make the connection between how they voted and the Accountability for how any palliatives were distributed.

Ayo said that Nkoyo was talking like a real former Member of the House of Representatives, but recalled that the social intervention programmes run by Maryam Uwais under the Vice President had started off well when it had an objective approach to identifying those in need in communities.  Nkoyo confirmed that she had been involved in that, and Ayo continued that people felt that when the politicians (who Nkoyo rightly said ought to be Accountable) got involved, because it had then become a matter of “Who is my potential voter?”, rather than “Who is really poor?”  She wondered how we could square that circle.

Nkoyo said that in the end, the problem was that people who had no business being there started getting on to the registers drawn up for the social intervention .  She agreed that politicians did put pressure, but pointed out that a lot of ‘rent-seekers’ got involved – people getting onto the programmes, and then having someone else do the work and share the money with them.  She said that we must have a way of making what doesn’t work cost somebody something, because if there was no cost, it would never get anywhere.  As long as the relevant list could be bought in to, or there was collaboration between those managing it and those getting the benefit, it would not achieve its objective.

Ayo mentioned that in addition to money going to people, we might also want to see things like improved infrastructure, schooling, electricity and so on – things that we currently have to pay through the nose for, and thanked Nkoyo for coming on to the programme.

What do you think about palliatives: what they should be and how they should be targeted?  Can our elected representatives be held Accountable for ensuring that they get to the right people?  What about subsidy?  Can we make progress by sweeping the issue of all the money spent under the carpet and leaving those who profited untouched?  What sort of example does that set for the future? Why not post your views, or join the discussion below?

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