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The steep increase in the price of petrol and the attendant public outcry could have been better managed. Truth be told, subsidy removal was one of the banana peels strewn in the path of the new administration by the Buhari regime. History has now recorded the level of Buhari’s cluelessness in fixing the problems in the petroleum sector as unprecedented. For eight years, the former president doubled as president and petroleum minister but he failed to revive Nigeria’s local refineries; neither did he discontinue the scam called fuel subsidy. Today, Nigeria is the only oil producing country in the world that imports petroleum products.
We knew that this day would come. For those milking Nigeria through bogus subsidy claims, the party is over. About time too. But there is the not-so-little matter of procedure in the way petrol pump prices tripled in one fell swoop. A measure as far reaching as subsidy removal, with implications for hyperinflation in transportation, food, services and commerce, among others, should have been handled differently.
Even in our traditional setting, things would have been handled differently. In a typical African village, the elders send out messages pertaining to a death in the family in stages. If the son of the deceased lives faraway, they would send a message that his father is gravely ill and that he should endeavour to come home. Shortly after, another message would follow, saying that the illness was worsening and that his father was now in intensive care. Finally, by the evening of that day, if he hadn’t yet arrived, they would break the news that his father did not make it. My friend, Chukwukadibia, who is a master in these matters, told me that there is sense in village wisdom. You don’t just break bad news the way you break coconut.
Several times during Buhari’s presidency, I gave free professional advice on how to engage the populace in decisions that would eventually affect their lives. A good government goes the extra mile to cultivate the people’s empathy and understanding before taking difficult decisions. However, the immediate past administration was not famous for accepting unsolicited counsel.
This new government should run the shop differently. I have no doubt that the petrol subsidy thing is a gravy train that should be stopped in its tracks. However, to avoid unintended casualties and disaffection, you prepare the ground for the big decision. Say what you will about Ibrahim Babangida, the Evil Genius, the Maradona… that was one leader who knew how to involve the people in crucial debates, even where he already had his mind made up to introduce a jack-in-the-box
Every leader who wants to be taken seriously must marshal out a communication and public relations programme to sell his ideas and secure the people’s cooperation. Public communication is both an art and a science with a proven methodology that delivers positive results again and again. Winning the people’s support in these digital times, has gone beyond the traditional practice of sending veteran opinion vendors to various broadcast stations to spread unverified rumours labelled as facts. Nigerians have seen beyond those obvious cheap gambits.
When the government is in the process of introducing a programme, it is no longer enough to map out the budget implications, as if the programmes, in the final analysis, are implementable sans people. Advocacy ought to precede public pronouncements. Take the recent withdrawal of petrol subsidy for example. The bitter pill would have been easier to swallow if a massive advocacy programme had been unleashed.
Public relations is the art and science of building mutually beneficial relationships between organisations and their publics. The Nigerian government can use public relations to sell a difficult programme by using various techniques, such as media relations, community relations, crisis management, public affairs, lobbying, advertising and folk media.
A good public relations and marketing campaign can be so expertly designed that even when you’re telling the audience to go to hell, they actually look forward to the trip! But when you just suddenly drop a bombshell without preparing the audience for the shock, you alienate potential allies and justify the negative portrayal of those outside your political camp.
The Nigerian government must learn to use public relations experts at the design stage of their policies to enhance the chances of their acceptability by the populace. If advocacy had preceded the announcement of the price hike, chances are that people would have been more receptive to the idea.
It doesn’t help matters when a pro-government television guest says, “If we don’t increase the price of petrol in Nigeria, our marketers will continue smuggling the product to neighbouring countries”. Such statements actually rile the people. What is the business of the government if it cannot police the borders? Is a government that admits its incapacity to stop smugglers worthy of the name it pretends to bear?
Also, in the last eight years, the phenomenon of ghostly barges and tankers sailing into Nigeria and disappearing with millions of tonnes of crude oil became rife. In a few cases, some of the thieves were intercepted. But no one is fooled. The Niger Delta is still considered a juicy posting if you’re a military or security personnel. Stories abound of officers becoming multi-millionaires within months of getting there. When one adds up the official stealing with the unofficial thievery by local pipeline vandals, it is a miracle that Nigeria still manages to export appreciable quantity.
Mind you, this is not about the merit or otherwise of the government’s action. Most sensible Nigerians want the subsidy scam to end. On that score, half the job is already done. The problem is how to transit with minimum stress from one price regime to the other. That is why communication and public relations experts should have been consulted first.
In their attempt to justify the increase, some government officials dredge up figures from other countries to show that Nigerians are being spoilt by low prices. They selectively pick one item to the exclusion of all other variables, and conclude that any Nigerian protesting the price hike is an ingrate.
Such squint-eyed interventions only manage to win more foes for the government. And the people on the receiving end of these measures are no longer docile. They are flinging back the bricks, one after the other. One such Nigerian took up the challenge to show that singling out petrol price alone for comparison is like comparing a mango with a grapefruit. The writer says he is making his petrol price comparison in naira using the exchange rate of the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN). His analysis:
Spain – N246.9 per litre.
USA – N403.3 per litre.
UK – N330.6 per litre.
Germany – N330.6 per litre.
France – N335.7 per litre.
Nigeria – N500 to N600 per litre.
Having compared the cost of petrol per litre between the listed countries, he then proceeds to compare the minimum wage paid in each country using the CBN exchange rate:
Spain – N535,559 per month.
USA – N535,340 per month.
UK – N955,876 per month.
Germany – N947,618 per month.
France – N866,241 per month.
Nigeria – N30,000 per month.
President Tinubu recently charged the service chiefs to stamp out terrorism and economic sabotage. There should be a timeline. The era of do-nothing security chiefs should be over by now.
Nigerians believe that we are gifted with very capable security men and women, but that nepotism and corruption have eaten deeply into the system. One such Nigerian, Lawrence, took to the social media to explain that the way the Nigerian security operatives abducted Nnamdi Kanu from Kenya to Nigeria shows that they could have captured former Boko Haram leader, Abubakar Shekau, if they were so inclined. He argued further that the smuggling of petroleum products will stop on the day the military and immigration officials decide that it should stop.
Now that organised labour is threatening to go on strike from 7 June, the new administration is having its baptism of fire so early in the day. There is likely to be a change of tactics by operatives of the new administration, away from the bellicosity of the former administration’s Labour Minister, Chris Ngige. The government should take advantage of the experience of Adams Oshiomhole to navigate the negotiations with Labour, in an atmosphere of mutual respect. It doesn’t take a tarot reading to know that the government can do without a labour crisis at this stage.
Operatives of the new administration should lean on Richie Norton’s encouraging words, “Every sunset is an opportunity to reset. Every sunrise begins with new eyes”.
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