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Fuel Subsidy: TINUBU RISKED IMPEACHMENT -Ex-Rep Jerry Ugokwe

...Says labour unions insincere

Ambassador Jerry Ugokwe, a chieftain of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) from Anambra State, is a former member of the House of Representatives and later Nigeria’s ambassador to Austria. Ugokwe spoke to Akani Alaka on issues of national interest, the first part of which interview was published last Monday. In this concluding part, the former lawmaker commented on the removal of fuel subsidy by President Bola Tinubu, the reactions of labour unions and other issues.


President Tinubu got many Nigerians, including the labour unions angry with his ‘fuel subsidy is gone’ announcement in his inauguration speech. Many Nigerians believe that the announcement was hasty and that he should have at least discussed it with stakeholders before making that announcement. Do you agree that the President was too hasty to announce the end of fuel subsidy?

You need to look at what the President said and how he said it. In the President’s statement, he said, ‘Subsidy is gone.’ Now, what does that mean? The President was handed certain documents by the outgoing administration. Now, one of those documents also contained what you call PIA, formerly, PIB – the Petroleum Industry Act. That Act says six months after the signing of that act into law, the subsidy ends. And if you count six months from the day it was signed, you will see that subsidy ended on the 18th of February. That’s the correct thing. Now, the outgone government was not open to the people. On that day, it should have summoned everybody to announce that the subsidy is over or even announce that on so, so and so date, the subsidy will be over. But I believe what they did was to say, ‘Let us continue to subsidise till the end of June’, which is when, according to the law, the current budget for subsidy would have elapsed. So, when Asiwaju said that, he meant that by the end of June subsidy will be over. There is no longer provision for it in the law of the land. If we have to obey the law strictly, if you put in subsidy into the budget, one, it will not be approved by the National Assembly, two, it is also an impeachable offence – that is disobedience of the law. So, Asiwaju was bold enough to tell us on the first day that this thing is gone, let us be aware. For me, what should have happened is that the petroleum marketers, including the NNPC which is a private company now, should have continued selling their products at the same price until the end of June. So, at the end of June, they can hike the price depending on the amount they buy it. But what is happening now is that you have subsidised fuel for petroleum sellers and they are making a kill, becoming billionaires. Imagine somebody whose tank farm is full of millions of litres of fuel which he bought at say, about N100 a litre, to sell at N150 and now he is selling it at over N500. Some people after that will retire from business; you don’t need to do anything again after that. The point I’m making here is that we always point the finger at the government. But is Asiwaju Tinubu a petroleum seller? Does he own a tank farm or a filling station? If we are honest people, we must see the change we want to see. The man says ‘subsidy is gone’, did he go to his petrol station to hike his price? Meanwhile, you, as a Nigerian, before the man finished his sentence, changed your price.


But the marketer took cues from the NNPC and the belief was that the President could have stopped the NNPC from releasing that pricing template which other marketers followed to also immediately hike their prices…

It is now ‘NNPC Limited,’ isn’t it? It is no longer NNPC which was an arm of the government. Different agencies own shares in it and very soon, like it is happening with other entities, they will start selling their shares and you can buy. However, who we should blame is whoever is leading the NNPC, not the President. What I assume is that he is acting like a businessman rather than a government agency. So, my blame for him is not because I am connecting him to the President or with the Presidency. My blame is that as a businessman, you can’t buy something at one naira and sell it at N7.


But NNPC has argued that though subsidy as indicated in the 2023 budget is supposed to end by June, there has been no cash backing for the provision in the budget. NNPC said the Federal Government owes it over N2 trillion in unpaid subsidy claims…

So, are they telling us that the governments don’t need to pay them anymore? So, they should subtract whatever they got from the day they hiked the price from that N2 trillion. That will be my suggestion.


But Labour seems not to be interested in all this argument. They believe that the President can order the reversion of the fuel price…

To start with, Labour is not sincere about the position of the new NNPC. The new NNPC has a board. So, the President cannot even order him to do anything. Whatever the President told him, he will go back to his board. The NNPC is now a private entity, and the chairman of the board signed the registration form. It was not the President who signed the resignation form. So, if that is the case, the President can only advise them, they will go back to the board and the board will take their decision. Can you imagine the calamity that will happen if the government wakes up now and says, reverse the prices? Do you know the crisis it will cause in so many areas? Assuming the President gave that order and the NNPC says, ‘No, we cannot go back, we have done it.’

Can the NNPC disobey the President?

It is not about disobedience. We are talking about working by the law that sets you up. And as far as I’m concerned, labour has become partisan – Is it not labour that is saying that they own Labour Party? Is that the same labour that you are talking about?


But the labour unions are fighting for the generality of Nigerians who are feeling the pains of an increase in the price of petrol as a result of the removal of the subsidy…

There is no problem fighting for the generality of Nigerians. If they want to be honest, they should also know that their own leader said he will not even stay one second in power before removing the fuel subsidy. Did you listen to the tape of the presidential candidate of the Labour Party? Let’s be honest with ourselves. And now, you are supporting that party, saying it is your party and you agree as part of your agenda.


The labour unions said they have been opposed to fuel subsidy, even when Peter Obi was touting it during his campaign… 

So, why didn’t they campaign against him because the removal of fuel subsidy is not in their interest? Why didn’t they oppose him when he was saying it and has continued to say it till today? Why are they approbating and reprobating?


What about what former President Atiku Abubakar said that the President should have called and consulted with stakeholders on the palliatives to be put in place before the removal of the subsidy?

I don’t know if people really understand. The President did not remove the fuel subsidy. He just told you that the fuel subsidy will be gone. It is ‘us’ that now removed fuel subsidy, whether we like to believe it or not. If the President had announced it and our people, the marketers, continue to sell at the normal price, waiting for the end of June, will you be talking about it? The President would have waited and when it is the end of June, he will tell them that my budget has no subsidy anymore.


That’s what the people are saying the President should have done, wait for the end of June before announcing that the subsidy is gone…

No, what he has done is tell you that there can no longer be a subsidy when he begins to work. As at that point, he hasn’t started work, that’s one. Two, starting work is the first time he will take a budget to the National Assembly  – a supplementary budget and there will be nothing for subsidy there. That’s what he was simply saying. But you don’t want to talk about somebody who bought at a lower price and immediately jacked up the price? Labour don’t want to storm their filling stations and say,  ‘You can’t sell it.’


But it is what the President said that created the opportunity for the marketers to jack up prices…

So, if the President said that and they went and increase the prices, we should clap for them? Labour should go and block petrol stations and tell them that you are selling petrol to us at over N500 while you are still buying it at so, so and so price.


But the marketers said the NNPC which is the sole importer has increased the price it is selling the product to them and they are also bound to increase their prices…

Whether it is NNPC or not, Labour should go there and block them, that’s what I’m saying.  NNPC is a limited liability company – it’s just like it is my company. So, Labour can come here and say you can’t sell this for this amount. It has nothing to do with Tinubu. The President didn’t say from this day, don’t sell the product at this price anymore. Let’s see whether they will drink the fuel.


But do you also believe that Nigeria’s refineries should have been rehabilitated and working, producing petrol locally so that the current pain of high prices is avoided as Labour unions are arguing? 

You and I should understand what is going on. I saw something on the internet, in which a truck belonging to the so-called NNPC was seen taking fuel across the border – I don’t know whether it is true or not. But we have been subsiding for other countries. Some people take one million litres from here, sell 100,000 litres locally and they will go and sell the remaining 900,000 litres in the Benin Republic or other places. Go and ask how much fuel is there now because these people can no longer buy at subsidised price here and go and sell there. They are making a kill. These people will buy millions of litres, take it outside to Cotonou and sell it. But let them go and sell now at the price of N500 and something. If Cotonou buys from you, that is your business. Now, the important thing is that the subsidy which is being paid to some people – trillions, billions of naira has ended. We are just enriching some people. Some of them own about three, four private jets. But now, let’s take that money and take it to do even rails in the cities. I will give you one example. When I was Ambassador in Austria; I decided to visit every staff of mine. I asked my driver to draw up a list of all of them and not to tell them. Every evening after work, we just drive to the house of one of them and interact with them, greet them and their children. There is somebody who was my private secretary. She had worked for us for about 30-something years at that time. When the driver was taking me to her house, it was like from here to either Markurdi or Lokoja. And I keep asking the driver, where are you taking me to? He said ‘I know the place, I have been there.’ Lo and behold, when we got there, we discovered that it was this woman’s house. I asked her, ‘Is this where you come to work every day?’ She said ‘yes’ to me. And she is always the first to come to the office because she dared not come after I had arrived and she is always the last to leave. And she doesn’t have a car. So, I said to her, ‘When we get to the office tomorrow, I will approve some money and they will buy you a car.’ But the woman started laughing. She said ‘Thank you, your Excellency, I don’t need a car. If I have a car in Austria, I will pay for a licence plate every month. So, what old people who can’t drive do when they are very old is to remove their licence plate and return it to the licensing office. Once that licence is with you, you must pay for it every month. So you pay for the licence. You pay for parking even in your apartment, and you also pay for parking in the office. If you want to get into some parts of the city, you pay. Then, she said she would be driving that distance every day, buying fuel. Then, she will repair the car when it is faulty. She said to me, ‘Sir, if you look in front of that apartment, there is a train station and I remembered, across the office, there is also a train station and the train runs every 30 minutes, 24/7. She said once she is paid her December salary, she buys a one-year ticket that will take her anywhere she wants to go to in Austria. So, inside your one month’s salary, you can buy one year ticket. So, if from your salary, you can buy a one-year ticket, what is your problem if they fix the price of petrol at N1000 per litre? So, that taught me a lesson. If she wants to come to work by seven, by 6.30, she will take the train and she is in the office. If we close at 2 am, she will go and take the train, and before 2.30 am she is at home without stress. So, why can’t we use such money to do something like that? At a time, I called the governors in the Southeast, that now that the Constitution has given them the power to do rail, why can’t they do rails across the region? We can use this money that we are putting in the pockets of individuals to buy private jets to do rails across the country so that if you want to buy a car and buy fuel at N1000 a litre, that is your business. That’s how people work. It’s a luxury to be driving these vehicles up and down. In London, there are areas where if you drive your vehicle there, you will pay up to one thousand pounds to get in. That’s another way to make money. if we do this rail, and you now want to drive into the central area of Abuja, you will pay N50,000 to get in. So, if you are a big man, be ready to pay.


These are all good things. But what people are saying is that we don’t have them because the government has failed to plan for the people in the past and now removing subsidy without all these options of transportation in place is like trying to punish the common people, the masses for failures of government…

It’s the failure of you and I. When you say the government in the past, – are they not Nigerians, not human beings, not people you took money from to go and vote for or to go and rig elections for? To me, Nigerians don’t want to be honest. We are our greatest enemies. I have contested elections and I say these are the things I will do. But they will rather go and take money from the other man and vote for him, instead of saying ‘Let’s vote for this guy because we want him to do this or that.’ It is our responsibility. Somebody can argue that they rig elections to come in. Who are the ‘they’? Is it not the same people that will say don’t worry, we will do it for you? Will the person running the election go and carry ballot boxes and be thumb printing? No. So, if we want to be honest with ourselves, it is okay. But if we want to continue to be dishonest, so that we can be pointing at government and politicians, that is up to us. As I said, let everybody be the change he wants to see. If I make a difference in the little place that I am and you make a difference in the little place that you are, we won’t be where we are today. Anytime I watch the television and people are saying ‘Politicians are doing these things’, I laugh at them. Go out on the streets, and see how people behave. You will wonder whether it is politicians that are telling them to behave like that. So, we must be ready to change, if we are not ready, let us take what we see. That’s my attitude.


So, what is your advice to the President on how he should handle opposition to the removal of fuel subsidy, especially on the side of Labour?

Well, the President should continue to talk to them. The problem for me is that Labour has associated itself with a party and their opposition was because Labour Party did not win. You see them on the podium with the Labour Party’s candidate and on the same podium, the Labour Party candidate said subsidy will not last a minute if he won the election. Why didn’t they scatter that podium? They accepted it. It is also part of the manifesto of the Labour Party. They are being partisan.