Corruption in Nigeria has so many guises. It also has a staying power and a remarkable resilience. To understand its character, we need to scratch beyond the surface to see its sinews and cantors, and what gives it a distinction that is uniquely Nigerian. Corruption is a normative value, a part of our existence as a people or a nation, if you will. We can gingerly recognize made in Nigeria corruption because of its distinct flavor, an identity that is wholly its own. Not that there aren’t criminal states elsewhere in the world, there are and they engage in all sorts of nefarious things.
Whatever the case, contrived fuel scarcity is one of the features of corruption in Nigeria. It is a recurrent decimal in the life of the Nigerian society. Petroleum business has since turned into a powerful multi-billion naira cartel, which appears to be more powerful than the Nigerian state itself. The effrontery of this cartel can be seen in its audacity to effectively hold the nation to ransom, which nobody can do anything about. The President appears helpless or nonchalant over the distress call made by Nigerians on fuel scarcity. The current circle of fuel scarcity makes it all too glaring that the dissonant voices of Nigerians are falling on deaf ears. But Nigerian leaders simply don’t care.
To be honest with you, I saw it coming right from that in-house altercation between the Minister of State in the Petroleum Ministry Dr. Emmanuel Ibe Kachikwu, who is apparently unsatisfied with his elevation from Group Managing Director (GMD) of the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) to Minister of State, and the new GMD in the person of Mr. Maikanti Baru, who has the nasty habit of jumping over Kachikwu to deal directly with the President over issues pertaining to fossil fuel. Kachikwu was virtually shut out of the wheeling and dealing of the petroleum sector right from the point of his elevation to a full-blown junior minister without portfolio. The cachet here is that the senior petroleum minister happens to be the President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria himself. To tell the truth, President Muhammadu Buhari has made a terrible mistake on his ill-fated decision to hold on to the Petroleum portfolio. For that singular act, he would have nobody to blame but himself. So many untoward things are happening in both the Ministry and the NNPC without his knowledge. The President looks really helpless. He demonstrated his lack of awareness of his enormous responsibility as the Petroleum Minister when he claimed that the NNPC officials constantly briefed him of the fuel shortages in the country, together with the consequent suffering that is inflicting on ordinary folks.
The fuel palaver always starts like a bad joke. One wonders why it comes around always at the end of the year, a period holiday and festivities. The fuel scarcity in Nigeria usually comes during the Christmas season. Everything appears to be as if the perpetrators of this evil act are deliberately setting out to spoil the spirit of the season. It also appears to me that this period is deliberately targeted to cause confusion in the country. Whoever is doing this to us must be inhuman, and a sadist as well. It must be persons that are quite unhappy with the happiness of fellow Nigerians. Otherwise, how can anybody callously choose this felicitous moment to get in the way of the happiness of millions of Nigerians as they prepare to unite with their families and love ones? As it is, the current round of fuel scarcity has gradually deteriorated to a level that exposes the total incompetence of those whose responsibility it is not to allow it to happen in the first place. The nation is sliding into a state of utter hopelessness due to an avoidable fuel scarcity. Somehow it is allowed to fester as if the government has not anticipated its occurrence from the body language of the fuel marketing and distribution cartel. Lack of convincing explanation from the government is however making the whole unfortunate thing intractable.
Meanwhile, the blame game between the NNPC, through its downstream subsidiary otherwise known as the Petroleum Products Marketing Company (PPMC), and the Depot and Petroleum Products Marketers Association (DAPPMA) continues with nobody doing anything to call them to order. The point of contention in the verbal exchanges between the two interested parties is mainly over the rights of the NNPC to be the sole importer of refined petrol into the country, which the DAPPMA is challenging, and which the previous government allowed them to have field day. However, the NNPC does not seem to anticipate the action of the storage and distribution cartel that is not happy with the regulatory role of the NNPC, a government company saddled with such task despite its own inexplicable corruption. While the NNPC would claim that it had made enough supplies to last Nigeria weeks and months without any glitch or hitch, the distributers would however argue differently. This form of tug of war has been ongoing for weeks without a clear and decisive government action. Both the NNPC and the government do not seem to be talking straight on the matter. What is exactly the problem? Is the government hiding something from the public? Why is it behaving as if this is not serious enough a problem? So many questions are begging for answers!
However, no Nigerian is willing to sympathize with the plight of the fuel marketers and distributors because of their notoriety. They are always giving Nigerians a raw deal whenever there is a slight fuel scarcity. Take the current situation, for instance, when most of the retailers have their reservoirs filled up to the brim before their decision to switch off the filling stations. Nigerians are not stupid. Every keen observer has already seen it coming. Except of course that the Buhari government is behaving like an ostrich with its head buried in the sand or at worst a chameleon, which is slow to react to happenings around it, which also thinks it has the whole time in the world at its disposal. But there is sheer insincerity on the part of the fuel marketers to claim that their depots or tanks or even filling stations are empty. At the point of writing this piece, I assure you that these people are in fact making brisk sales in their different filling stations at prohibitive and deregulated prices of between N200 and N300 per liter. And these people are conspiratorially happy about the development despite their lame excuses. Government monitoring and regulatory mechanism seems to be absent from the scene. Its agents are suddenly missing in action. The regulatory agency is either complicit or part of the racket considering the level of daring of the fuel cartel.
As a matter of fact, some of us have agreed with the accusations made by some critics that see nothing but the incompetence of government in handling this mess. Reason being that the government is not reading the social costs of fuel scarcity in a context where the entire Nigerian economy is strategically linked to the fortunes of the oil and gas industry. If the pump price is low or high, it tends to have ripple effect on other vital sectors of the economy like transportation and the aggregation of commodity prices across board. Right now, as the fuel pump prices are indiscriminately fixed, there are correspondingly inflationary rates and astronomical rise of goods and services. The prices of commodities are aiming at the roof. Food items are also steadily soaring in the market. And all this is because of the mindless hike in transport fares and petroleum products.. Retailers have since started jerking the prices of items up.
In this brutal chain of economic insensitivity caused by government and fuel cartel in Nigeria, the ordinary folks are bearing the brunt. And from the looks of it, nobody seems to care about the desperate economic situation in which Nigerians found themselves. I won’t hesitate to ask a question. Does it at all require basic tutoring in economics 101 for the Nigerian President to understand this development with his aloofness and holier than thou attitude? Clearly, he does not appear to have understood that his one-track obsession with neoliberal approach to economic rejuvenation is not working. This is the man who promised during his campaign rallies that he would reduce fuel pump price but only to jerk it up disproportionately. The economic situation then became aggravated with his devaluation of the naira, which has tremendously caused unbearable inflation in the land. What happen to the enticing promise of making things easy for ordinary Nigerians? As things are, Nigerians are looking for a way out of biting economic hardships. If I were the President, my primary concern would have been the satisfaction of the aspirations of ordinary Nigerians at all costs. That is the least that the ordinary folks who voted for him into office are expecting, nothing else.
As I see it, for the President to rescue his integrity on this matter he needs to do a couple of things to stop the perennial shortages of refined petroleum products. First and foremost, he should resign as the Minister of Petroleum because the current imbroglio has shown that he cannot cope with an added responsibility of heading the complex Ministry of Petroleum. A capable hand needs to be appointed as a substantive Minister. It is absolutely necessary for Mr. President to embark on a major shake up of both the Ministry of Petroleum and the NNPC. They are largely seen as dens of corruption. It is vital to do so because officials in the two units are not in anyway different from the unwieldy fuel cartel. Again, nothing under the sun will stop President Buhari from negotiating with countries like China to build newer refineries in Nigeria to stop the mammoth racket of petrol importation from other countries. Finally, the half-hearted oil and gas reform also needs urgent rejuvenation. Otherwise, fuel shortages will soon turn out to be the nemesis of this administration.