ANALYSIS..Subsidy Gaffe: How an out-of-script Tinubu self-sabotaged his moment of triumph

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The inaugural address of freshly-minted President Bola Ahmed Tinubu has continued to trigger reactions. At first, the reactions appeared overwhelmingly positive. Longsuffering free market advocates waxed lyrical over his endorsement of unification of the exchange rate system, removal of subsidy, reversal of multiple taxation, and repatriation of funds by foreign investors. It was the ultimate moment of redemption for the liberal economists long abandoned in their wilderness echo chamber by perceived socialist, Muhammadu Buhari

Even the most virulent critics of the APC, and Tinubu for that matter, exhaled, punching the air in perfect synchronization to a blurt of ”at last!”.

Then the fuel queues began. The all-too-familiar but dreaded battle for survival at the filling stations became a fixture across the country, at a speed never before experienced. The power of a president’s words was in full glare. The depth of his command on the markets— both mainstreet and the financial markets— was visible to all. And the debate started in earnest. “Should the president have been more careful? Should he have been specific? Shouldn’t he have consulted widely before taking a definite position on subsidy removal? Isn’t he aware of the unique behaviour of Nigerian petroleum marketers?”, some asked.

Others countered that he had not done anything unexpected. They contended that he was clear during campaigns that subsidy would go, and more so, the law already took care of the subsidy question. They pointed to the Petroleum Industry Act (PIA) which does not have any provision for petroleum subsidies, and the extant appropriation act which has set the termination of subsidy payments for June, 2023. And the arguments have continued.

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As someone who listened to the speech, I’ve followed the arguments without thinking for a moment of the remote possibility that Tinubu may have veered off-script for what has now become the defining and most impactful statement of his inaugural address. Given the number of gaffes and controversial statements he made during the seemingly endless campaign season whenever he was off script, perhaps I should have done my due diligence before following the debate. Thankfully, by sheer happenstance, I watched a re-cast of a TV show online where it was mentioned by one of the guests during conversations that Tinubu went off script when he mentioned that subsidy was gone. I was immediately jolted and set off to research it. I got hold of the script of his speech and indeed that part— the explosive part— was an ad lib. What a nightmare it must have been for his speech writers!

For the record, the section of his written speech on subsidy is provided below:

“FUEL SUBSIDY

We commend the decision of the outgoing administration in phasing out the petrol subsidy regime which has increasingly favoured the rich more than the poor. Subsidy can no longer justify its ever-increasing costs in the wake of drying resources. We shall instead re-channel the funds into better investment in public infrastructure, education, health care and jobs that will materially improve the lives of millions”.

What Tinubu actually said was:

“On fuel subsidy; unfortunately, the budget that has eclipsed [sic] before I assumed office, and what I have heard is that no provision is there for fuel subsidy. So, fuel subsidy is gone.

“Subsidy can no longer justify its ever-increasing costs in the wake of drying resources. We shall instead re-channel the funds into better investment in public infrastructure, education, health care and jobs that will materially improve the lives of millions”.

What a missed opportunity! By replacing the first part of his written speech which actually attributed the removal of subsidy to the Buhari regime (by way of tactical commendation) with the ad lib, Tinubu took on a fool’s errand. His definitive “subsidy is gone” was a needless assertiveness; it placed him firmly in the centre of the most toxic debate in Nigeria. Oh how his speech writers may have wept! Now, they’re left battling with walkbacks and entangling back-and-forths.

Had Tinubu stuck to the script, he may have prevented the crisis that followed, one we cannot tell when or if it will ever end. Whatever your take on the subsidy question, what is clear is that sensitive policy issues require tact, deliberation and great caution, especially when you’re in authority. It is almost never safe to go off script on such issues.

Tinubu has been served his first lesson as president— words matter, and communication cannot be casual or careless except one is of a dystopian streak courting the whirlwind!

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