Hon. Matthew Omegara is the Chairman, House of Representatives Committee on Reform of Government Institutions. A member of the Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN), he represents Okigwe/Onuimo/Isiala Mbano Federal Constituency of Imo state. He spoke on the economy, polity and elections. EDEGBE ODEMWINGIE presents the excerpts.
Nigeria is in its thirteenth uninterrupted years of democracy, any gains?
You know, democracy is the government of the people by the people for the people. It has achieved a lot. It has given the people the opportunity to participate in their own governance. It is not like the dictatorship we went through over the years under the military. Now, people have the right to ask questions; people have the right to choose who should govern them.
And to me, that is the greatest achievement. If you are talking about achievement with respect to infrastructure, I will say we have also done well, though we have not done the best we could have done.
But, generally, we have done well. You can see the governors, like Oshiomhole, Fashola, Rochas Okorocha, Sullivan Chime and a few others that have done extremely well. You can only see this in democratic governance. In the military government, you cannot see anything. Whatever the military man says is what happens; and you don’t get to know anything thereafter.
In specific terms, the greatest of all the achievements is the passage of the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act. It took 100 years to up-turn the Official Secrets Act. And to me, that is the greatest achievement. Nothing can be more than that; when you now have the right to know how your money is spent; who spends it, what are the policies of government and how you are accommodated in that government, how you are governed, it is the greatest achievement. It is only when you have this level of freedom that you can now begin to move on.
What are your views on the rot uncovered by the Lower House on the now tainted federal government’s petroleum subsidy regime?
If in 2004, the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) and the Nigerian people understood what President Olusegun Obasanjo meant by deregulation - for government to hands off the pricing of the downstream of the Petroleum industry, then we would have really moved far beyond where we are now.
We are in what I will describe as self imprisonment, where people now politicize the issue of the sale of petroleum products; where government now tells us that they have offered us subsidy, when in actual sense we know that we are actually being cheated.
I say this because a situation where you give people millions of dollars to go and bring in fuel for you, they have already received the cost of the product they are going to bring; they have received their profit ahead of time. I do not see how they will be in a hurry to either ship that product or discharge the product so that it can get to the people. All they do is either they bring it and round trip it and collect double money or, better still, they hoard it and sell it to you at black market price.
So, we are the people holding ourselves hostage. And when you see this level of fraud going on, I think the wisest thing anybody, any sensible labour union or those who call themselves professors of economics; and this does not have to do with complicated economic principles, it is elementary economics that if government hands off, do not pay a dime to NNPC or to anybody to bring in fuel, those people will certainly bring in fuel with their own money.
Any good business man will like to invest his money in any product that the people desire. And he will be quick in selling it so that he can turn his money around. And what will you see? You will just see the prices of petroleum products nosedive. But that is not all; my concern is the number of employment it is going to generate; the multiplicity of employment and income generation because we will now begin to witness real investment in the oil sector.
Today we see flaring of gases because I don’t know who will be bothering himself refining gases and other by-products of petroleum like bitumen and all the rest of them when, in fact, all they need is to get approval from the NNPC Towers for N200billion. When your mates are getting that cheap money, why will you bother yourself building industry to refine? So, right now, we are just cheating ourselves and we call it subsidy.
And you ask yourselves these papers that people are buying up and down from the NNPC allocation, who is actually paying for it? It is the ordinary man. And who gets the profit? It is the rich man who has access to getting those approvals. But they are doing the thing as if the poor man has a lot to benefit from the increase in the price of petroleum product. I am not in anywhere supporting increase in the price of petroleum product.
But I do know, and every other person should know that once government hands off the subsidy, at the initial time, in the first six months, the prices will jump. But once many more investors come into it like we have witnessed in the telecommunication industry, the prices will nosedive. It could even go as far as N60 or N65 per litre because the market forces will now determine the actual price. And then you won’t have things like shortages and all that.
Many fear that if the federal government hands off the control of Nigeria’s petroleum products, oil marketing cartels will frustrate natural economic laws to exploit Nigerian consumers. What is your take?
If it does not come down, then that is the actual price. And it has nothing to do with anybody. If it does not go down below N100 or N120 per litre, then that is the international pricing. That is the price at which investors cannot come below. But the market forces will surely take place. I don’t know of any product anywhere in the world that is in the open market and yet people still call high prices and get away with it.
It cannot happen with even cars. If everybody wants to drive a car, you know what a car is to you. Those who do not have cars desire it. But today, anybody that wishes should go and import a car. Some people bring in their car and sell it with only N100,000 as gain. If car were to be regulated, they will add N2m-N3m as their marginal profit and nothing will happen.
But today everybody brings in cars. Some people even sell at a loss. Some people buy their cars, when they need their money and they are not getting people to price it well, they sell it at a loss. So, there is no product that cannot be subject to market forces. Let us not deceive ourselves.
There is a cabal that is operating in the system; and they are richer than the government. When about ten or fifteen people share N1.7 trillion and 150 million of us share N500 billion, you can imagine how powerful those guys are. They go around, bribe the labour leaders. And I say this without fear of contradiction: labour leaders are very corrupt.
And they go around, find some academics to come and give us junk economic theories or principles about the poor man and subsidy. If as a lawmaker I own ten cars and go to the filling station and put 50 litres in each of them, I would have taken away 500 litres from that filling station. And the person you call a poor man is in a bus that has just bought 50 litres, and there are about 20 of them in that bus.
So, if you ask them to share the fuel in their bus among themselves, what quantity of fuel will each poor man get, and how much subsidy has government paid for that common man? Has government not paid so much for me, the honourable, the senator, the minister and all the big men? It is senseless for anybody to say the increase in the pump price of fuel to 50 per cent or 100 per cent is all the hardship the poor man wants to cushion.
And if you ask me, I will tell you that the jobs the deregulation of the petroleum industry will bring is what the ordinary man wants. And I tell you, once we deregulate the petroleum industry, the issue of minimum wage will leave this country. Wage will be question of how much you are going to pay.
Elections have been a contentious issue in the polity as evident in the post election violence and the ‘pull-him-down syndrome’ critics accuse opposition parties of. What are your views as a member of the main opposition party?
The greatest challenge the democracy has faced is that those who lost election want to bring down the government at all cost. I do not subscribe to it. I am a member of the Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN). I won my election under ACN. But I will not support the ACN if they support the bringing down of any government in power.
That is not to say that I support every economic principle by the government that is in power. But once you win an election, you should be allowed to run out your term. And another opportunity will come when, if ACN thinks they will serve better; when they should put their ass together and do what they ought to do. The PDP wouldn’t have won this election if the CPC-ACN merger did not collapse. It was human beings that made it collapse.
It was people seeking self interest; what was going to be their position, will I be the President or the running mate? So, if you have made that mistake and the arrangement collapsed and the person you believed was not the proper person to win happens to win, then he becomes the proper person to win and should be allowed to run out his term.
Every loophole is sought by the opposition to bring down the government especially at the centre. And of course you know that this is not obtainable in the advanced democracies. Look at the just concluded French election, the defeated incumbent President quickly congratulated his opponent who won the election and there was nothing like going to court.
And that brings me to the issue of our INEC. The nation’s electoral umpire should learn to do much better job. People will want to see that they actually lost. I don’t know what is stopping this bio-data voting. We were promised bio-data voting that the machine will read our finger print. But on the day of election we ended up in manual voting which now promoted the fraud.
If you vote twice, there should be a process of knowing that you have voted twice. I don’t know what it takes for us to have a voting centre that has a camera or a central recording system so that once you vote it will be captured at the central database. If Nigeria Immigration Service is able to stop fraud in the issuance of passport by ensuring that once you put your finger print, your data is captured anywhere in the world, why won’t INEC buy into that system, that once you thumb-print in any election, your data is captured in the central data system.
So, there will be no question of when you are transporting the material from the ward level to the local government level and the result changes. Such things should be avoided. And once we get to that point you will see there will be peace.
Some people will go to court only to waste their time because the court will have no choice, and even the allegation by some people that court cases are being manipulated will be less because it will be the same electronically transmitted results that will be printed and presented. People will see no reason to go to court in the first place.
Many political pundits have concluded that Nigerian political parties do not have ideologies upon which they operate; do you agree with this?
My party, ACN, has ideology, and I think APGA has ideology. I also think a couple of other parties have ideologies. But I am yet to know the ideology of the ruling party because what they are doing does not pay anybody anything.
But all the same, I will not subscribe to bringing down the PDP or any government that is in power, that is elected. I disagree with the use of OPC, MASSOB, militants, Boko Haram - or whatever name they are called - to run down an elected government. In fact, I totally disagree with the settlement of any militant, whether from Niger Delta or anywhere, because that will encourage other insurgent groups to spring up. And that is what we are witnessing; because you settled the Niger Delta militants, Boko Haram wants to be settled. So, it becomes a way of life. You don’t patronize criminality.
In terms of development, what is the way forward for Nigeria if she is to achieve her lofty economic goals?
The answer is simple. First, at the federal, we have to have private sector-driven economy. Government must hands off everything it is subsidizing. Government must not increase the price of petroleum as deregulation. Deregulation is “Government take off your hands”. Whatever they are doing in the petroleum industry - who is importing; who is building refinery - should not be government business. Let the businessmen do it.
That is what is called deregulation. Government should set a standard that people should meet. Government should only collect taxes and regulate the practices, and that is all. Deregulation is not when government says, ‘give operating licences to Mr. A, B, C, D and don’t give anymore. That is not deregulation. That is cheating the people that gave you power. Increase in price is not deregulation; deregulation is when you throw the door open for private investors to come and invest. Once you do it, that is all. At the state level, governors and legislators and whoever made electoral promises should deliver their promises to the people.
Once the people get what they were promised before they voted, the tension will go down. For the public, my advice is that they should stop taking money to cast their votes. When you take money to cast your vote, you sell your right. When the person you elected gets there, he recovers his money first. But when you elect people without taking anything from them, then you will have the moral right of removing them. So, you don’t remove people because they were not giving you money when they were there.
Every living human being should get himself engaged in a commercial activity that can feed him and his family. Most Nigerians have left that principle and embarked on professional politicking. Even those of us here as politicians, must have two addresses. There must be a business entity where you come from; when you leave here you return to your business.
So, politics should not be a professional thing that you are there to make money and acquire wealth by hook or crook. You should identify those who have really worked for the improvement of their community and vote for them. If you do that, you will be surprised at the rapid transformation that we will go through under this democracy.