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Chido Nwakanma re-examines the credibility of fantastic tales our public officials intermittently weave to deceive on the fuel subsidy matter.

On the fuel subsidy matter

The Federal Government is preparing to “remove the subsidy” on the prices of petroleum products. Note that the message is no longer about “deregulation of the downstream oil and gas sector”, as was the mantra some months ago. The PMB administration no longer waffles about punishing citizens of Nigeria.

So, I looked at the matter again. This column addressed it two years ago. The facts have not changed. Okay, there have been some changes.

The federal government has taken more loans of doubtful applications. What did they do with so much money in loans?

Ten years after the national uproar over hikes in the price of an essential item, Nigerians are back to the same spot and preparing to repeat. Citizens agitate over the double whammy of increases in the pump price of petroleum products and the electricity tariff. More significantly, there is a communication challenge.

Unlike ten years ago, the Federal Government is sparse with information. Checking the feedback on various channels will take a while for that message to communicate.

It is currently a tangled web. “Oh, what a tangled web we weave when first we practice deceiving!”. (Sir Walter Scott, 1808). Many citizens are disbelieving of the numerous reasons that supposedly informed these actions. The government itself skirts around it.
The truth will bring clarity and make the messaging more credible. The fuel price increment is a tax! It was a tax in 2012 and led to the establishment of SURE-P. It was a tax in 2015 when the new Buhari government raised fuel prices. It took the admission of Lai Mohammed then that the government needed more money to douse the tension.

The energy tariff increments come five years late. The Federal Government is now under pressure from its poor handling of finances and external funders to do what the Jonathan and Buhari governments failed to do since 2015. Why are they not admitting and saying so? The truth will set the nation free, cause some anger, and change the narrative positively to a solution orientation.

Déjà vu. The rest of this article recalls the scenario in January 2012 when I wrote on the matter. The title was “Carving on rotten wood in fuel subsidy communication.”

“The uproar over the increase in fuel price imposed on Nigerian citizens by the Federal Government has raised questions about what communication took place or its effectiveness. While the Federal Government has released much information, communication has yet to happen, hence the breakdown and descent into riots and strikes.

Reform efforts come under change communication. The United Nations and its agencies call them development communication; they emphasise integrating strategic communication in development efforts. All communication seeks to influence the behaviour of target audiences, but it is even more imperative in communicating change or reform, such as the removal of fuel subsidies.

Because change communication aims to achieve stakeholder buy-in through strategic engagement, experts assert that it is not enough to disseminate information, educate or raise awareness about an issue. It requires understanding the perceived or actual barriers the people see to adopting the change, listening to their feedback and responding appropriately.

Managers of the communication effort on subsidy removal face many challenges in the message, the platforms for message delivery and the choice of delivery. These have been the areas where they have also made mistakes.

The message concerning the removal of subsidies is garbled. Government officials speak of removing subsidies and deregulation in the same breath as if they are the same thing. There is also talk of increasing revenue for the government to enable infrastructure provision. There is yet another message about fighting corruption. What is the real news?

Beyond the content is the question of message delivery. This message has no owner. Sundry groups have taken over the newspapers and airwaves, supposedly selling the notice of removal of oil subsidy as part of the Jonathan Transformation Agenda. The President himself took responsibility for the message that forms a key plank of his reform only after generating negative responses. There is no central spokesperson for the government, and no main message, with up to five spokespersons: Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Diezani Alison-Madueke, Sanusi Lamido Sanusi, and Labaran Maku. Atedo Peterside weighs in on behalf of a committee. Reuben Abati has advisedly stayed off messaging on the matter given his anti-removal advocacy in his earlier capacity as an ordinary citizen.

Then there is the matter of messaging platforms. The government and its agencies are losing out on the social media platform, and this has turned out to be one of the main playing fields for stakeholder engagement on the fuel subsidy matter. Active publics on the issue are utilising these platforms to devastating effect. Note that the social media platform is a double-edged sword. In the absence of regulation, users deploy it to both excellent and obnoxious ends, thus requiring active monitoring and engagement.

All of which leads to the matter of message credibility. Unfortunately for the government, what it did on January 1 reinforced citizens’ scepticism about deregulation. History shows that deregulation for Nigerian governments has always meant only one thing: fuel price increase, with promises of benefits but no delivery of the securities. The Federal Government made no effort whatsoever to show any difference in its approach or objective, even when government officials admit its lack of credibility. They followed the same script. The government thus played into the existing mass sentiment or general social consensus that sees only price increase and hardship in deregulation.

The Christopher Kolade Committee, for instance, reprises the Petroleum Trust Fund, save that in the case of PTF General Sani Abacha admitted that the price increase was nothing but a fuel tax from which government would make additional income. In the period between broaching the issue of removal of subsidy and actual implementation, also, opponents have successfully cast doubt on the integrity of the government’s claim as to the actual cost of Nigeria’s PMS and justification for an increase. No one has addressed those doubts at all!

Communication scholars identify various publics concerning any issue: non-publics, latent, aware and active publics. Non-publics are those for whom the issue at hand has virtually no effect. Latent publics have no awareness of their connection; aware publics understand the importance of the case to them but have not acted, while active publics are doing something about it.

Therefore, the critical issue is that communication of the subsidy removal lacks credibility with stakeholders other than the government. It has the challenge of ensuring that government opponents do not convert all the different publics to active publics against the government’s stance on the issue.

The government’s communication managers need to go back to the drawing board to clarify the message, messenger, delivery mechanisms, and platforms. As the Chinese say, it is an incredibly tricky challenge because you cannot carve on rotten wood. The fuel subsidy matter in Nigeria has taken the form of rotten wood.

First published on September 20, 2020