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Simon Kolawole: NNPC: The death of a dream


Simon Kolawole: NNPC: The death of a dream

By Simon Kolawole

Heartbreaking. That is the story of the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC). Awfully heartbreaking. Norway’s Statoil, Malaysia’s Petronas and our own NNPC were all set up as state-owned companies in the 1970s with a similar dream: to conquer the world of oil and gas. Today, the Norwegian company, now named Statoil ASA, has operations in 36 countries. It is ranked by Forbes as the world’s 11th largest oil and gas company and the world’s 36th largest company by profit. Petronas, founded in 1974 – two years after Statoil – is ranked by Fortune as the 68th largest company in the world and the 12th most profitable company in the world. It is Asia’s most profitable company and has business interests in 35 countries.

Where is our own NNPC? It is the typical Nigerian story – stunted, scam-ridden and downtrodden. A cesspool of decay. Veteran joint venture partners. All dressed up and nowhere to go. NNPC could have been up there competing with Statoil ASA and Petronas. It was established in 1971 as the Nigerian National Oil Company (NNOC). The military government, under Gen. Olusegun Obasanjo, restructured and renamed it NNPC in 1977, having merged NNOC with Federal Ministry of Mines and Steel. The aim was to step up the game and recover lost grounds. Just think about it: NNPC could have been all over Africa exploring oil and gas today. NNPC could have been ranked Africa’s most profitable company. NNPC could be featuring in Fortune 500. What a misfortune.

Imagine: NNPC’s operations could have been very transparent, meeting every standard of global best practice. NNPC could have been the pride of Nigeria, a jewel in the crown. It could have been a Shell, not the empty shell it is today, fully content with being a plaything. That we are discussing NNPC in these terms today is a modern tragedy. It could be worse. It is even to the credit of the Minister of Petroleum Resources, Mrs Diezani Alison-Madueke, that an NNPC subsidiary, the Nigerian Petroleum Development Company (NPDC), is finally exploring oil – about 130,000 barrels per day – but, again, some aspects of the deal are shrouded in sleaze. Nigeria, O Nigeria!

That brings us to the current face-off between the governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN), Malam Sanusi Lamido Sanusi, and NNPC. You would conclude that Sanusi is having problems with his mathematics. You would think that he is looking for scandals by any means in NNPC. So he writes a letter to President Goodluck Jonathan, raising the alarm that $49.8 billion is “missing”. A few days later, he says “I am sorry” and reduces the figure to $12 billion. And then, shortly after, he jacks it up to $20 billion. The onlooker is forced to ask: what exactly is going on? What is the actual figure? Why is Sanusi going back and forth? Didn’t he do his homework very well?

A careful look at Sanusi’s letter would reveal that the CBN governor has not made an outright allegation that the money was “stolen”. He said it was yet to be accounted for. The fact that something has not been “accounted for” does not mean it is “missing” or has been “stolen” – no matter the sensation we try to create around it. It is a normal process in audit to query figures. What Sanusi has said is: “Hey, dear NNPC, in our records, this is what you sold but this is how much you remitted to the Federation Account. What’s the matter, guys?” But Sanusi’s letter was ignored by those who should have taken action immediately in the interest of accountability.

It took the leaking of the letter for the concerned authorities to rush together a defence – ranging from accusations of political mischief to incoherent explanations that still left a gap of $10.8 billion or $12 billion. Sanusi actually reduced his figure to $12 billion, still leaving us with a significant difference of $1.2 billion, which is by no means chicken feed (to appreciate the figure, if you give me $1.2 billion today, I will not go to work tomorrow). NNPC tried to explain the $10.8 billion away as having been spent on the usual suspects – subsidies, pipeline repairs and what have you. But Sanusi took them on again: even with all the reconciliation, $20 billion remained unaccounted for.

Ladies and gentlemen, let’s stop kidding ourselves: something is pathologically wrong with the NNPC. The accounting process is a shambles. If the CBN governor, who keeps government accounts, is getting his figures in bits and pieces, that says a lot. But I query NNPC’s accountability as much as I query Sanusi’s statistics. This has apparently been going on for decades. It is easy to treat Sanusi as the fly in the ointment and a pawn in the political game, but if the previous CBN governors had looked out for the national interest, we would possibly not be where we are today. That is why no matter our suspicion of Sanusi’s motive, history will favour him if we manage to sort out this NNPC quandary once and for all.

Somehow, I find it very gratifying that the NNPC is finally trying to explain things to us. This is unbelievable. I never thought that in my life time, I would hear the NNPC explain how it spends our money. They have always been above the law. But even in their latest explanations, you could sniff a stench. Some dots are not just connecting. There is a notion that the NNPC can be spending Nigeria’s money without appropriation. NNPC’s account has been serving as “imprest” for presidents for decades. Anytime they needed money for unbudgeted expenses, as Olusegun Adeniyi pointed out recently, the way out was to call the NNPC chief executive. This created a cover for the NNPC guys to take care of themselves too.

Imagine what must have happened under the military whom we could not even question because everything was treated as state secret. Imagine what must have transpired under President Olusegun Obasanjo, who did not bother to have a petroleum minister for seven years. The ongoing controversy again puts into perspective the trend in our democratic experience: we can now ask questions. Can you imagine a CBN governor writing to Obasanjo over “missing” money in NNPC? And imagine Obasanjo asking the CBN governor to resign and that one telling him to his face: “No, I won’t!” EFCC would have arrested and handcuffed him as he stepped out of Obasanjo’s office.  We need to be thankful, therefore, that the atmosphere is now more liberal. I see a lot of things happening today that would have been impossible under Obasanjo.

My conclusion, after my lamentations, is that rebuilding the NNPC ruin is not impossible. The dream of the founders may be dead but NNPC is not a completely lost case. The Petroleum Industry Bill (PIB) – which has been stalled by all sorts of ethnic and political considerations – holds the possibility of setting the corporation free from its demons. The lawmakers must expedite action on the PIB. Let NNPC run as a proper, world-class business. It is possible.

• Follow me on twitter @simonkolawole

And Four Other Things…
Buoyed by Nigeria’s new status as a net exporter of cement, the Jonathan administration is dreaming big. Rice is next in line, while Alhaji Aliko Dangote has promised that in another four years, we will be exporting sugar. Minister of Industry, Trade and Investment, Dr. Olusegun Aganga, while unveiling the Nigeria Industrial Revolution Plan (NIRP) in Abuja last week, said the plan would cover auto assembly, oil and gas, agriculture, textile, etc, create jobs and enhance skills. President Jonathan described NIRP as the most ambitious and comprehensive roadmap for transforming the nation’s industrial landscape. The talk raised my hopes. Action please…

I disagree with the Minister of Petroleum Resources, Mrs Diezani Alison-Madueke, over the so-called kerosene subsidy. Trying to justify the non-implementation of a presidential directive stopping the subsidy, she said the poor would suffer if they had to buy kerosene at N150 per litre instead of the subsidised tariff of N50. But when was the last time the “masses” bought kerosene at N50? The product is hardly available at the stations. It is diverted to the black market and sold at N150. These guys are callously feeding on the suffering of the masses. There must be hell, for goodness sake!

When will our military chiefs learn to talk less and do more? Just a few days after the new Chief of Defence Staff, Air Marshall Alex Badeh, promised that Boko Haram would be out of circulation by April (they called it “motivational speech”), the insurgents launched several attacks, killing civilians and soldiers. They kidnapped girls. Some schools are now deserted following threats of attack. If indeed Badeh wanted to motivate the soldiers, he ended up motivating Boko Haram. In the classic movie, The Good, The Bad and the Ugly, Tuco memorably said: “When you have to shoot, shoot. Don’t talk.”

What a week. What a few weeks. Joseph Mbu removed as Commissioner of Police in Rivers State. Mike Ogiadhome sacked or resigned as Chief of Staff to the President. Four ministers left – or were sacked. Gen. Aliyu Gusau is back in President Goodluck Jonathan’s cabinet. I must confess that the spate of activities in Aso Rock in recent times has been frenetic and dizzying. That is to say nothing about the PDP regaining its majority in the House of Representatives. A lot of people say Jonathan is getting ready for 2015. All too obvious. Do not adjust your set…

– This Best Outside Opinion was written by Simon Kolawole/Thisday

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