By Nduka Uzuakpundu
“A huge national embarrassment, for which many heads should have rolled. Never in the annals of this political dispensation have Nigerians had it so bad.” Issa Aremu, a top official of the Nigerian Labour Congress (NLC), couldn’t have put it any better. His opinion on the recent, nationwide fuel scarcity is a reflection of the views of many Nigerians, who had to bear the onerous burden of astronomical increase in the prices of almost every essential goods, food stuffs, mainly – and transportation, amongst others, especially during the recently past Christmas period.
The National Board of Statistics (NBS) quoted a conservative figure as high as 120 per cent rise in transportation fare across the board, in both rural and urban areas, and an inflation figure of 0.2% (per cent), for the brief period of Christmas.
For one thing, the petrol scarcity, which bore every ethos of an economic sabotage, by a few, coldly calculating engineers of evil, came – and from the pronouncement of the officials of the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC), the petrol scarcity still lingers in places like Ogun state and the South-East geo-political zone as well as in Lagos where queues at petrol stations resurface on Sunday just when Nigerians where beginning to heave a sigh of relief that the country was gradually crawling out of a deep recession.
The timing of the scarcity was quite instructive; the fact, for instance, that it was at a major festive time, made it appear as though it was to make Christmas a bleak occasion for a majority of Nigerians, especially for those who had to travel from such urban centres as Lagos, Abuja, Port Harcourt, Ibadan, Kaduna, Enugu, Jos, and Calabar, etc. to visit their relatives.
Some analyst, who are quite familiar with the petroleum industry, have also posited that it was a deliberate act of inflicting some, if brief, agony and torture, on the majority of Christians in the country, so that they would have less of a memorable Christmas celebration. And that view is one that raises the question as to whether such an egregious act of economic sabotage, as the fuel scarcity, would have happened during a festive period marked by the country’s Muslims. Is it the plan of the rather faceless evil-doers to do same for Muslim, come the Eid! It will be morally unfair if they fail to do so! These two views would always bear a repetition given the Nigerian factor that trails virtually every development that has a religious or political complexion to it.
Perhaps, it’s safe to argue here that the historic fuel scarcity was an evil that was waiting to happen, in that, as Aremu, who was a former General Secretary of the NLC, posited, “There is no acceptable defence for the scarcity for us as tax-paying and law-abiding Nigerians. The petrol scarcity is an indictment on the captains of the Fourth Republic, because it’s just not defensible that two decades into Fourth Republic, Nigeria – one of the world’s major oil exporters and a member of the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) – is still importing refined crude oil.”
Nigeria’s case is an interesting paradox of a rich nation – one that is vastly blessed with crude oil and other natural resources, but her lot is one of seated poverty for a majority of her nearly 200 million population, on account of bad leadership, unfair distribution of wealth and crass corruption in high places, that has come to assume the features of a national menu.
As Aremu, one of the participants at the National Conference under the Jonathan Administration, rightly observed, “Nigeria is about the only major exporter of crude oil, in the very powerful OPEC cartel, that has no functional refinery.”
He told journalists in Abuja, recently, that, one of the few, but very sure ways out of the petrol scarcity, is for the Buhari Administration to repair the old refineries in Warri, Kaduna and Port Harcourt.
And because the country’s refineries are no longer functioning, he figured, was an act of sabotage. “There’s no acceptable reason, in the first place, why all the refineries have, since the early 90s, gone silent, if it was not for sheer wickedness and greed on the part of a few, but powerful individuals, who have never meant well for the orderly progress of sustainable human development in this country,” Aremu argued.
Doubtless, while the recent petrol scarcity was one that fuelled gloom for a majority of Nigerians, a less insignificant few – including all the officials at one of the dens of corruption in this country – the NNPC – must have smiled to the bank.
A veteran journalist, Adamson Momoh – who covered the labour and energy beats, for more than a decade between the 80s and 90s – and now works as an official of the National Union of Petroleum and National Gas Workers (NUPENG), in Lagos, nodded at Aremu’s offer that Buhari should set up a panel of investigation to find out precisely what caused the recent national embarrassment called fuel scarcity; and see to it that everyone out there at the NNPC – alongside Independent Petroleum Marketers Association of Nigeria (IPMAN), Department of Petroleum Resources (DPR), Depot and Petroleum Products Marketers Association of Nigeria (DAPPMAN), and amongst others, Major Oil Marketers Association of Nigeria (MOMAN), who must have played a part in it, was punished severely.
Such a national embarrassment – an unrelieved act of economic sabotage – is the kind that should bring down any government in a democratic setting, in that there’s just no cogent explanation for it. In the interim, if Nigeria would have to borrow sorely-needed money from say, China, Japan, Canada, African Development Bank, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), to build new refineries, she should do so. “Her economy cannot do well when she’s importing petrol for local consumption. The act, itself, is a vicious drain of her foreign reserve. The act, again, is feeding the bottomless pockets of a few, powerful, cabal who have silenced her refineries. That, too, is an act of corruption – one that is perhaps worse than the looting of her treasury by public officials,” Momoh said.
He offered that the Buhari Administration should overhaul the NNPC, if only because, “as the nasty experience that a crushing majority of Nigerians had during the petrol scarcity has clearly demonstrated, those whom he put there, at the helm of affairs, have proved a failure.”
Truly, just how decisive and responsive to a national issue, that is so crucial to the country’s economy, as unchained supply and availability of petrol for local consumption, is the task that faces Buhari presently. It’s one that is well beyond sentiment, on which his credibility rests, as someone, who’s committed to a crusade against corruption in high places.
It was Momoh’s opinion that there was a need for the Central Bank of Nigeria to recraft its foreign exchange policy to accommodate, in a post-scarcity era, members of IPMAN, DAPPMAN, MOMAN, so that they, too, could be very active players in the importation of petrol, in liaison with the NNPC, which, currently, is the sole actor. Perhaps, as Momoh argued, there wouldn’t have been the recent petrol scarcity, still less the attendant unpleasant effects, had IPMAN et al been in the hub of the business. Was it an indictment on the IPMAN et al that it’s only the NNPC that is importing petrol? Perhaps, yes. Granting them some forex concession, as Momoh offered, some have posited, could be abused: Such Forex could be diverted into another business or never used at all for an agreed business of petrol assignment; a betrayal of trust that could assume the dimension of a calculated economic sabotage.
Still, Momoh said that as the Buhari Administration goes about resuscitating the old refineries, it should accommodate private investors in the construction of new ones. The modular refineries in the Niger Delta should be brought into the club, in that they would provide, in their right, some jobs for the restless youths of the region. In effect, he said, “government cannot do it alone; the Nigerian economy, especially the petroleum sector, should be reformed and opened, a bit more, to embrace local content – investors, capital and professional advice and consultancy, amongst other cluster inflexions – and much-sought-after foreign direct investment (FDI.)
Perhaps, worried by the experience, a Chieftain of the All Progressives Congress (APC), Bola Tinubu, said, at the recent Daily Trust Dialogue, in Kaduna, that market forces should be allowed to determine the price of fuel, because the present subsidy arrangement caused more problems than it solved. Said he: “Bottlenecks of long queues, erratic power supply, resultant economic dislocations for consumers, from lack of fuel and the corrupt practices of trade by insiders, undermine the good intentions, upon which the subsidy is based.” It was Tinubu’s view that, “Currently, the subsidy does not benefit the average person. It sweetly profits the elite, who manipulate the programme to their own advantage. We need to allow market forces to determine the price of petrol. We need to open the market to let in more suppliers. In this way, we may better harmonise supply and demand, where they do the most sustainable economic good.”
For Buhari, the petrol scarcity has been a question to which, at its height during the last week of December, 2017, he had no immediate and assuring response. For him, it was probably being mired in an awkward situation that was sharpened by the fact of his having been a former Federal Commissioner of Petroleum in the late ’70s; a post he holds, presently, as a Minister. Buhari shares in the blame for the petrol crisis, but not as much the thieves and saboteurs at the NNPC.
The Group Managing Director of the NNPC, Maikanti Baru and Buhari’s Deputy in the Ministry of Petroleum Resources, Ibe Kachikwu, were quite remorseless in their entire pronouncements, as they tried to explain the scarcity. It’s only in this country that as much as 2,501 trucks of fuel would be diverted to cause artificial scarcity, as Baru tried to make the Senate Committee on Petroleum Resources believe. And that the NNPC had lost nearly 500 million litres of petrol to diversion by only God knows whom. And if it’s, indeed, true that the NNPC has subsidised the importation of petrol to the tune of N300billion, the National Assembly has demanded why it was so, without resort to proper process of appropriation. This is clearly a dent on the change mantra and campaign against corruption by Buhari, as an individual.
At N145 per litre, the NNPC has long made it known as far back as 2015, that petrol was no longer being subsidised, and at that price, its scarcity was history. Buhari should ask why the scarcity took place. Nigerians would be pleased, if he sends Baru and Kachikwu, for instance, out of the NNPC, pending the completion of an inquiry into the petrol scarcity. The two characters, who have gained a national, if egregious, notoriety, were the leaders on the scene, when things went, agonisingly, awry when the stream of petrol distribution was dammed viciously, and for which they should, naturally, carry the can.
The urgency, for which Baru and Kachikwu should leave the NNPC, is that it took place on the eve of the 2019 general elections, which Buhari intends to contest, for a second term. For that, Buhari should see Baru and Kachikwu as Judases within; enemies of his good intentions to press the welfare of Nigerian workers and tax-payers – a sweeping majority of whom have invested their votes, hope, confidence and informed trust, in him. He should take charge – Nigeria and her economy can do without a duo that has gain so much notoriety for the worsening shadiness at the NNPC – if he still wants discerning Nigerians – a sweeping mass of whom were badly bruised by the fuel scarcity – to vote for him, come 2019.
Fuel scarcity, Buhari Administration and the enemies within
By Nduka Uzuakpundu