Traders and buyers at Katangowa Market, Abule Egba, Lagos, defy COVID-19 safety protocols as they struggle to earn their daily bread…yesterday PHOTO: SUNDAY AKINLOLU

• Hike In VAT, Cost Of Electricity, Petrol, Foodstuffs Unbearable, Nigerians Lament
• Mass Action Looms
• Petrol Marketers Back Deregulation

As governments in other climes strive to ameliorate the adverse effects of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) through palliative measures, bailouts and waivers, the Nigerian government appears to be aggravating the impact on its citizens and businesses. Rash of hikes and increases in cost of products and services, is thereby making life unbearable and near impossible for recovery.

First, it was an increase of Value Added Tax (VAT) from five to 7.5 per cent, followed by resuscitation of Stamp Duty Charge, all in the bid to boost internally generated revenue in the midst of dwindling foreign earning from crude oil. This year also witnessed the introduction of Stamp Duty on house rents and C of O transactions.

But the hike in the price of petrol and the cost of electricity within a space of two weeks appears to be the tipping point. For a people most of who had all along complained of not receiving government assistance or palliative during the lockdown period, had to take pay cuts or lost their means of livelihood, these hikes, coming at a time they were gradually getting back to a new normal life is unimaginable.

For labour activists, lawyer, public affairs analysts, student leaders and other Nigerians, who have bemoaned the rise in the cost of living due the resuscitation of the Stamp Duty Charge, hike in VAT, the recent increase in electricity tariff and petrol pump price amid the ravaging coronavirus (COVID-19) is already making life unbearable.

Speaking with The Guardian in Ibadan, a labour activist and rights lawyer, Femi Aborisade, said: “All of the measures are punitive economic measures. While government spoils the business class, in terms of reliefs, harsh economic measures are heaped on the masses.

“It shows this government is anti-ordinary people and pro-rich. The masses cannot survive, unless they organise and resist through peaceful mass actions.”

But marketers of Premium Motor Spirit (PMS), otherwise known as petrol, especially the Major Oil Marketers Association of Nigeria (MOMAN), urged Nigerians to bear the current deregulation of the downstream market of the petroleum sector that has led to the price adjustment.

Chairman of MOMAN, Tunji Oyebanji, said while the association does not dictate prices to its members, as this would be anti-competition in a fully deregulated market, the marketers welcome governments action in allowing the market to determine prices.

“We believe it will prevent the return of subsidies, while allowing operators the opportunity to recover their costs. This will in the long run encourage investment and create jobs.

“We all must remember the country is broke and can no longer afford subsidy. There is no provision for it in the budget. With this the incentive for smuggling will be reduced. More funds will be available to the government for investment in infrastructure, roads, health, education and power.

“Deregulation means that prices will go up and down. They went down in April, now they will go up as we are entering the European winter season and demand for refined crude goes up,” Oyenaji noted.

He said fierce competition would also moderate the price, adding that Nigeria has been presented with a historic opportunity to get things right.

National Coordinator, All Workers’ Convergence (AWC) and a former chairman of Trade Union Congress (TUC) in Oyo State, Andrew Emelieze, said: “COVID-19 global scourge has exposed governance in Nigeria. Besides the woeful response from the Nigerian state, government has continued to prove that it is not ready to learn from its flaws and make amends.

“Rather, our government is further sinking in bad governance by further infliction of untold hardship on her citizenry, despite the devastation already caused by COVID-19 on the populace.

“Almost on a daily basis, our government is dishing out policies that add to the existing pains in the land. From VAT increments to hike in electricity tariff, deliberate devaluation of the naira and now a monthly increase in the price of petroleum products.

“Apart from harsh economy and increased cost of living, our people are no more secure in Nigeria. Daily mass killings and insecurity is now the order of the day. Of concern is the protest rate and resignation of our security personnel, especially from the military.

“All these points to the fact that government is not ready to redeem its image. All that is being done now by people in power is a mockery of governance and democracy. Our so-called leaders have demonstrated to us that they have an agenda different from the collective aspirations of the masses.

“We, the Nigerian workers, are terribly disturbed by the horrible state of the nation and afraid that if the people of Nigeria don’t make attempt to rescue Nigeria, our country might implode into a dangerous abyss.

“We are terrified by the unacceptable reign of massive poverty on the land and the monumental wastage of human resources as a result of youth unemployment. The massive looting of our collective wealth by a few greedy politicians further terrifies us. We cannot be wrong to say that our rulers have abandoned governance in Nigeria.”

Team Lead of a civil society organisation, Cure My Nation Initiative, Mr. Moshood Adewale, said the burden is getting too much, especially for the poor masses.

“This time, government should look for a way to intervene and reduce the price of rice, as there is no much difference between the price of foreign and local rice. The poor masses should voice out, so that government at all levels will understand the pain they are going through.

“Nigerians should stop being in silence. Government at their own end should make doing business easy for the small and medium business owners by reducing the tax levied on them, focus on agricultural production and monitor every fund disbursed to these sectors to achieve good results.”

National Secretary of National Association of Public Affairs Analysts (NAPAA), Jare Ajayi, said: “Buhari since taking the oath of office for his second term, repeatedly asserted his determination to lift 100 million Nigerians out of poverty. Unfortunately, some things that were beyond his immediate control, like COVID-19, kept threatening his resolve. The steps being taken and the policies being rolled out by his government is, however, compounding, rather than ameliorating the problems.

“Events in the last one year have reduced the earning capacity of many Nigerians, especially those who are not in government. It is during this same period that government has been coming up with measures that increase pressures on the pockets of hapless Nigerians.

“How then would the people who are being impoverished every day get out of poverty? Government actions are not only self-contradictory, they portray it as insensitive, inhuman and perhaps not bothered about what the people are going through.”

Student Union President of University of Ibadan (UI), Olusegun Akeju, and President of National Association of Polytechnic Students, Benedict Olalere, knocked government for its actions.

Akeju said: “We are still experiencing the pandemic’s effects. It is unfortunate that some policies are put in place without considering the negative impact on Nigerians. They are too much to bear. These changes are in the ways of all chances of survival.

“Individuals and right activists need to put more effort in resounding the helplessness of the people to those in authority. More so, union leaders across board should intervene. Government needs to be considerate and make necessary adjustments. It is obvious that the interest of the masses are not considered.”

Olalere added: “Clearly, things have fallen apart in Nigeria. This next level agenda policy is wickedness, the government has failed Nigerians and this is not Nigeria of our dream.

“Buhari has disappointed Nigerians. We condemn this hike in prices and tariffs. Government needs to reverse these policies without human face.”

IN Kebbi State, some Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) and other stakeholders expressed their dismay over the decisions.

A member of the TUC and a leader in the NLC, Ayuba D. Sanchi, lamented that despite the current harsh conditions the masses are facing, government was still planning to increase the burden on Nigerians, adding: “This administration has not been fair to the people, instead of supporting the masses, they are increasing the poverty rate.”

Sanchi wondered how the state’s workers were going to cope with the situation, as the state government was yet to implement the new minimum way of N18, 000.

A businessman, Alhaji Bello Usman, decried the economic situation of the country, urging the federal government to rescind some of the decisions, noting: “Every food items now has been on high prices. They need to reconsider all this actions.”

The Gombe State chapter of the NLC described as retrogressive and oppressive, government’s hike in the pump price, stamp duty, electricity tariff, as well as rising prices of food items.

Its Chairman, Adamu Muhammed, said the chapter was merely waiting for directive from its national headquarters to know the next line of action, saying: “These infamous policies would only achieve one thing- make the people poorer and suffer.”

Sekhina Muazu, a student of Adamawa State Polytechnic, told The Guardian that the Federal Government had never been considerate in many of its policies, saying in spite of the hardships being experienced due to the COVID-19 pandemic, “no responsible government ought to consider adding to the plight of its citizenry.

“The whole world is just coming out of the crisis caused by COVID-19 and considering policies that would alleviate the plight of their citizenry, while the reverse is the case with our own government.”

Aliu Nasir, a commercial tricycle operator, rather than outright appraisal, said: “I pity passengers who will bear the brunt. I just cannot imagine that I will buy fuel at increased price and still collect same fares.”

An attendant at a popular supermarket at Baba Kasuwa in Gombe (names withheld) said the 50kg bag of rice that used to sell for N22, 000 is now N39, 000, stating: “Certainly, customers are in for it.

“Though we know there has been reduction in purchase, there is certainly no way we would sell at the old price again.”

Mr Ijeoma Ogbonna, a welder at College Road, Enugu, lamented how cost of living is increasing by the day, stressing that he barely finds work to do to cushion its effect on his family.

“I have not made up to N10, 000 this week; I come out here every other day. I cannot boast of any major work I have done that attracts pay. Yet, I have a family of five to take care of. This is certainly not the way to go,” he stated.

Ogbonna’s greatest worry was the increase in the price of petrol at a time electricity distribution companies (DisCos) decided to hike tariff, wondering how a common man can survive.

“Government is trying to make us go into crimes to survive. In my residence, I pay electricity bill of not less than N5, 000 every month. Now, they have jacked up their rate and there is no corresponding thing to raise money to pay. It means we may have to stay in darkness.

“Here in my workshop, I use electricity to work, now that petrol is high and electricity cost is high, it means there is no more work for me. This is not how a government treats its people.

“We are just recovering from COVID-19, our children will need to return back to schools and there, they will be asked to pay school fees. What it means is that some children may drop out of school over hardship this year. It is sad.

“You Journalists should tell the government that we are suffering. We are living in pains. We cannot buy anything in the markets any longer. We are starving and they must do something. Unless they want to kill all of us at the same time,” he said.

He was not alone, as Mrs. Ulomma Oha, a housewife, noted that prices of commodities took an upswing immediately government announced new increases in the price of fuel.

“Can we still eat rice again in this country, as a 50-kg bag now sells for almost N40,000? That is not all; there are other food items that you require in the house.

“This is really a painful period for Nigerians. I don’t expect a reasonable government to make life miserable for its people after the COVID-19. But what can we do?”

Director of Care Givers for the Poor, a non-governmental organisation, Mrs. Grace Ugwu, advised families to avoid ostentatious living to overcome what she described as “these painful moments of life,” adding: “There are certain things one should not look at any longer if he/she hopes to continue to survive.

“If you have to trek to certain distances you were doing with a car before now, please do so. If you have to use the phone, use it reasonable well and don’t engage in idle talks on the phone to save money. Use text messages most of the time to communicate. Discard those things that you know consume resources around you and go for the number of children you can carter for.”

She, however, asked the government to always consider the interest of the people in making policies, stressing: “After the pains of COVID-19, I expect government to help families recover and not to push them into more hardships. These increases in petrol and electricity tariff are ill-timed and have no positive bearing on the lives of Nigerians.”

Lawyer, lecturer and former national secretary of Labour Party (LP), Dr. Kayode Ajulo, said though the development is quite alarming and very unfortunate, “it is expected of government, with the occurrence of COVID-19 and its obvious effect on the economy, to salvage the current financial crisis.”

He stated that Nigeria and the world at large is passing through phases of recession and the country is looking for ways to rescue the situation and save itself from impending doom, adding: “Nonetheless, I believe the Federal Government would have handled this matter in a better light, rather than throw the entire country into a state of confusion.

“Government should have constituted a think-tank of professionals, technocrats from all fields of work to look into the financial state of the country, brainstorm and fashion out a way to keep the country afloat in this trying times.”

He acknowledged the burden on the masses, but added that it is part of the pain of this season and our collective effort is required to surmount these challenging times.

“l advise that peace must be maintained; this is not the best times to take to the street to demonstrate grievances, considering the security and health risks involved. The attention of the government can be drawn to these issues by reaching out to our representatives at the various levels of government to do the needful. And government should yield to the grievances of the masses.”

An optician in Owerri, Imo State, Sam Ekwebelam, said the hikes at the same time were uncalled for and urged a reversal, in view of its anticipated spiral effect on commodities, including food items.

In the same vein, public affairs analyst, MacDonald Enwere, described the increases as capable of triggering prices of other items, saying it is disappointing that government could take such a decision when the people are struggling to exit the excruciating pandemic.

Alex Manu, a herbalist, regretted that government could think and implement the hikes at the same time, asking: “Does the Federal Government want to kill people. Prices will go up and where is the money?”

In Bayelsa State, a right advocate, the NLC condemned hikes at a time people are grappling with COVID-19-induced suffering.

Right activist, Morris Alagoa, while condemning the increments, said it is unfortunate that prices of things and cost of living are rising in the country, especially at this time when Nigerians are still recovering from lockdown.

He said: “Food prices, such as rice, even local rice that they are not importing, have gone high. As for fuel hike, I don’t want to even talk about that, because some of us who protested against the fuel hike in 2012 saw some other Nigerians who said they were ready to go and buy at any cost.

“So, I don’t have anything to say about fuel price, if they like, they can raise it to whatever level, it concerns them, this is the government that they voted for. But the electricity tariff is unfortunate, because we are not getting power supply and paying for darkness.

“As am talking to you now, my generator is on, we are buying fuel. That is where the Federal Government is also cheating us. We are buying fuel, putting on our own generator as if we are local government ourselves.

“Politicians are not doing anything; they are only oppressing the masses. Instead of government to ensure that Nigerians live a happy life and are protected from the adverse effect of the economy, prices of almost everything are increasing every day.
That is why we are saying that there is no human face in our economy.

“We are not happy, Nigerians are not happy, I am not happy. Politicians should also know that they are part of the country and should make sacrifices.”

State Chairman of the NLC, John Ndiomu, vowed the Labour and workers would reject the increase in fuel, but awaiting directives from the national body.

Ndiomu, who said he was surprised at the increment in almost every prices of commodities and services in the time of lockdown, said government have once again shown its insensitivities to the plight of workers and the masses, noting: “It is quite unfortunate that Nigerians and workers in particular are going through various increases in prices at this time that things are already very difficult and we are trying to gradually come out from COVID-19.

“It is sad that government is increasing almost everything that could benefit the common man and working class. Let’s just look at all these increases compared to the increase in salaries, it means that they have taken away far more than what they gave to the workers.

“The small increase in salaries, which took workers years of struggle, now they are using the other hand to take all of it.

The ruling class in this country should consider the common man and working class. Government should be able to benefit the ordinary people and not just those in leadership.”

A trader at the Swali Market, who simply gives his name as John, decried the increment at a time most families can hardly feed, stating: “In Bayelsa here, we have been paying for darkness and yet, we get bills everyday, and now they have increased our fees for darkness, increase fuel price and the price of a bag of rice is now N35, 000. Do you think there is any hope of survival for the masses in this country?”

Meanwhile, life is becoming very difficult to many in Benue State, as most families can hardly afford the essentials due to hike in price of petrol, VAT and electricity tariff.

Consequent to this, many Makurdi residents have resorted to trekking long distances in search of sources of livelihood, as transport fares rise.

A motorist, Thomas Okwe, told The Guardian they had no choice but to increase the fairs to at least make a small gain, as petrol sold at least N162 per litre in most of the petrol stations.

Okwe contended that it was a wrong time to implement such hikes.

A senior civil servant, Mr. Adoyi Alaka, noted that the burden of the increases amount to systematic death sentence on Nigerian, adding, “How can we cope with all these in the face of COVID-19 pandemic and the school fees of our children? We are not even feeding well.”

Expressing disgust, a 300-level student of the University of Calabar, Luka Ngobar, wondered why the present government has deemed it fit to continually unleash hardship on the masses.

Luka, who said his sponsors have just retired from the state civil service, but without payment of their benefits, wondered how he would get money to go back to school now that government has okayed reopening of universities.

“Frankly, I do not know what to do. I am relying on Almighty God’s intervention,” just as he urged government to repeal the hikes for the interest of the poor masses.

Executive Director of Centre for Social Justice, Eze Onyekpere, said these are challenging times for the people and government, noting: “The challenge of price and tax increases is not the real challenge facing the masses and the productive forces of Nigeria; the real question lies in the management of the economy, its macroeconomic fundamentals, corruption and waste in the system.”

Onyekpere stated that the very low tax revenue base made it imperative that enforcement of stamp duty collections becomes more vigorous, but quickly asked: “Are all due sums collected and remitted to treasury? Are there leakages in the system where public officials collaborate to withhold due taxes and convert it to private use? What is the money used for when it gets to the treasury?

“Are we getting our investment priorities right or are we paying for the lavish and wasteful lifestyle of a few? Are we collecting these monies and using same to inflate contracts? Lots of posers for which the answers seem tilted against the masses of Nigerians.”

Executive Director of Civil Society Legislative Advocacy Centre (CISLAC), Auwal Ibrahim Musa stated that COVID-19 brought to fore, the many challenges Nigerians face, in terms of inadequate and dilapidated infrastructure and the additional challenges of job loss and salary cut caused by the pandemic and economic situation of the country, lamenting that the petrol price hike is going to further subject Nigerians to more difficulties, as the decision to carry out the policies is rather not well thought-out.

“If government is looking for money, then they should block all avenues of stealing, diversion and wastage by some public officials rather than this double exploitation on Nigerians. It is rather very unfair on Nigerians, especially when there is no policy effort to mitigate the burden it creates on Nigerians.

“The increase in electricity tariff came as a surprise, because the sector has been privatised. The question that begs answer is why the government is interfering in how much Nigerians pay for electricity.

“It is expedient that Nigerians negotiate the value of service they get, vis-à-vis the tariff they pay. This is not tax. It is the responsibility of the citizen/consumers to challenge the process of investment in the power sector and why government is still meddling with how much the people pay for the services they receive.

“The power sector should run as a business that it was privatised to be. Citizens have the right to challenge the service providers on this; it is not the government that should do that,” he stressed.

According to Musa: “Literarily, it could be termed as too much burden, because there is no reciprocating infrastructure provided to absorb the effect of the high cost of living. In many other climes, people pay high tax, but they still move on because all public amenities are provided and they do not have to spend the remaining fraction of their resources/income on providing the same amenities that the tax paid should have provided.”

He charged: “The people should rise from docility and demand for accountability from government. The people should stop being sentimental along the dividing lines of religion, political party loyalty, ethnicity and challenge any form of misappropriation of public resources and also put pressure on the judiciary and other responsible institutions to bring defaulters to book.”

For government, he said: “They need to step up their game in prudent management of scarce resources. They owe the people explanation on every step of change in the governance process. The people deserve to know what is going on; ignorance breeds suspicion.

“There should be an obvious step taken by government officials to cut down the cost of running their offices, especially the legislature and those institutions within the oil and gas sector, who live flamboyantly on resources that they do not even generate.

“The interest of the masses will not be a part of misappropriation or other forms of ineffective strategies of government, but it is another thing for the masses to also fight for justice and enthronement of good governance. It will be beneficial to everyone if we shun sentiments and stand for the right thing, no matter whose ox is gored.”

Ekiti State workers, artisans and residents condemned the increases, describing them as inhuman and anti-people, as this has affected prices of goods and services; hence called for immediate reversal in the interest of the suffering masses. Chairman of the state chapter of TUC, Sola Adigun, said the policies are ill-timed, wondering whether it was the reward for obeying the lockdown due to COVID-19, whose debilitating impacts are still being felt by Nigerians. “The prices of goods and services have gone up immediately. We are not saying that subsidy should not be removed, but it ought to be done in phases; 100 per cent removal is uncalled for. The hike in electricity tariff, I know an average Nigerians would want to pay for the services rendered, but the Discos are not given us the best. “In Nigeria, the Discos deliberately withdraw meters, so that they can exploit poor Nigerians. For them to have increase tariff is uncalled for.” An artisan, Ojo Ilesanmi, said government has demonstrated aversion for the people, adding that the plight of the people no longer matters, but the interest of the few, noting: “This government has become anti-masses and it is time for Nigerians to rise up and reject these policies. If they cannot provide for our welfare, let them pack and go. The time has come for us to take our destiny in our hands.” A politician, Obadofin Ayodeji, stated: “If they can take us to the promise land, let them return us back to 2015 era, where they took off. We are tired of excuses. Government priority should be the welfare of the people it led. “Government should reverse the anti-people policies. COVID-19 has dealt with our people to the extent that majority are out of jobs. It is wicked for a government to choose this period to inflict more pain on the people.”