by Simon Kolawole
The joke of the week must be the tweet by @chidiajuzie, illustrated with a picture of fuel hawkers. He wrote: “Nigeria has so far created 3 million jobs, all in the Ministry of Petroleum, Street Petrol Hawking Division.” I’m still laughing. Without this sense of humour, most Nigerians would be walking the streets with severe cases of madness. The searing heat and deafening generator noises are enough to blow up the fuses in the head and turn us to mental cases. But thank goodness, humour is helping us out. It is bad enough that there is no power; but to get fuel for your generator is something else. And what about the horrific traffic caused by fuel queues?
Former President Goodluck Jonathan used to count “constant availability of petroleum products” as an achievement. We used to laugh our heads off. Well, it is not so funny again. Apparently, the ability to place an order for fuel cargo is the equivalent of rocket science in Nigeria. It should be sad enough that we cannot refine our crude oil. We have now gone to the extent of not being competent enough to import from those who can refine theirs! We can’t refine and we can’t import! If any writer had packaged the story of Nigeria as fiction, it would not sell because fiction, in the real sense, imitates reality. Nigeria is fiction taken too far, an impossible story.
Why have we been spending days and nights at the fuel stations? Is fuel importation Quantum Physics? If we consume 35 million litres of petrol per day, do we need an Almighty Formula to calculate how many litres we need to stock for a specific period of time to avoid shortages? If it would take two weeks for the cargo to arrive, does it require an Albert Einstein to look at the calendar and schedule the procurement processes accordingly? Does it take the skills of a neurosurgeon to be able to engage oil traders to supply us products? How many decades will it take us to understand the nuclear science of fuel importation?
Dr. Ibe Kachikwu, the minister of state for petroleum resources, says he is not a magician — although he dresses like one. He committed a Freudian slip when he said it would take two months for the fuel queues to disappear. He came under heavy attack. But he was saying the truth, the shameful truth. The incompetence at the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) is such that to draft a simple agreement for the supply of petroleum products under the offshore processing arrangement (OPA) is too much to ask. We ended up with agreements devoid of timeframes, and the traders smartly decided to supply in May — obviously playing the market.
With severe scarcity looming because of this lacuna, I understand that NNPC rushed to the extremely expensive spot market but could not meet the forex needs. And so we found ourselves in this crippling crisis. Kachikwu has finally decided to perform some magic. He says by April 7, the queues will disappear. Praise the Lord. But I don’t know how this will work. I can only caution my fellow Nigerians that whatever relief we get will be fleeting. We are in this chaos for the long haul. This fuel crisis has been persistent in the last five months despite claims by NNPC that they had billions of litres of petrol eagerly waiting to be pumped from some storage facility.
The truth is that President Muhammadu Buhari has made the wrong policy choices and we are going to pay heavily in the years ahead. The first thing he should have done when he took power was to deregulate the oil sector and pursue the passage of the petroleum industry bill (PIB). What we have in our hands today, instead, is the elevation of NNPC to a virtual monopoly in the downstream sector. Fuel importation is now fully under NNPC, and the corporation has been building the so-called mega stations across the country under the illusion that it can sell fuel all over Nigeria at the official price of N86.50k. It is meant to prove that NNPC can work. There you go.
I would love to ask one simple question: when was the last time we had diesel scarcity? You probably can’t remember. The diesel market was liberalised ages ago by former President Olusegun Obasanjo. Government has no hand in it except to enforce regulations. If there has ever been any scarcity since then, it was most likely caused by tanker drivers going on strike. You may say we don’t consume as much diesel as petrol, but the counterfactual is so easy to prove: hand over the importation of all Nigeria’s diesel needs to NNPC today and let us have this discussion again in another three months. Their incompetence will win international awards.
To be clear, I do not hold Buhari responsible for the rot at NNPC. The corporation has been a cesspool of decay and headquarters of incompetence for decades. And we’ve been experiencing fuel shortages from the days of military rule as far as I can remember. In fact, fuel queues were a logo of the Gen. Sani Abacha regime. What I cannot understand is the path Buhari has chosen in trying to address these age-old issues. Not having a minister of petroleum and effectively leaving the entire oil industry in the hands of one man is beyond what I can understand. Buhari believes he can turn NNPC into a well-run state-owned company like Petronas of Malaysia. Good luck, sir.
The saddest thing for me is that I am sitting in front of my laptop, tapping the tired QWERTY keyboard and moaning about fuel scarcity again. I have been doing that in the last 16 years. The more we say things have changed, the more they remain the same. The refineries did not work under Abacha. Obasanjo was in power for eight years and the refineries did not work. President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua came around for nearly three years and the refineries remained useless. Jonathan held power for five years, same story. I don’t even know Buhari’s strategy, but repairing the refineries is a waste of time and resources. They can’t even meet our needs in any case!
I have deliberately avoided discussing the power crisis to protect my sanity. When Obasanjo became president in 1999, we celebrated generating and distributing 4,000mw. Under Vision 20-2020, we were supposed to be at 10,000mw by 2007. When Obasanjo left in 2007, we were still celebrating 4,000mw. Yar’Adua promised to declare power emergency “within 100 days” of his inauguration. Instead, he stalled the projects started by Obasanjo and kept grumbling that $15 billion was spent on power with “nothing to show for it”. Jonathan came, saw and left us celebrating 4,000mw. We’re still stuck at roughly 4,000mw — where we were 16 years ago. Buhari has promised us 10,000mw again!
Anybody who left Nigeria 30 years ago and returned last week would be amazed that we are still discussing the same issues.
Newspaper headlines are so alike. We are still discussing run-down refineries, collapsed education system, epileptic power supply, corrupt police force, hopeless hospitals, bad roads, unpaid salaries, forex crisis, diversification of the economy and all that. We have changed presidents, changed forms of government, changed parties and we are still cutting and pasting the same issues. No wonder an exasperated Fela asked in the 1990s: “Wetin I wan sing about again?” He had been “yabbing” government about the same issues for decades!
I am so desperate to see Buhari succeed not just because I like him but also because this is a very rare opportunity to have such an upright and strong character as president. If he fails, we’re stewed. My theory all along is that for Nigeria to develop with the tenacity of purpose, we need a patriotic, honest and strong-willed leader working with a competent team. I will therefore keep making this point: Buhari must be flexible in the area of policy. If a blueprint is not working, you are allowed to modify it to accommodate new ideas. NNPC is going nowhere the way it is. The power situation will continue to get worse as things stand. Pragmatism is no corruption, dear president.
Four other things
Now that no-one has come forward to confirm alleging that her daughter was sexually harassed by a teacher at Queen’s College, Lagos, what should be our conclusion? That the allegation was mischievous and baseless? Or that the accuser chickened out for fear of victimisation? Baffling. This is worth forensic investigation. Nevertheless, I am still curious that some students spent their pocket money to buy placards and protest in favour of the teacher — during school hours. They even granted newspaper interviews claiming they did it willingly. Wow. Wonderful. We never enjoyed such “aluta” privileges from principals as secondary school students. Fishy.
And so, the 2016 budget is still cooling its feet somewhere. The stained budget was finally passed by the National Assembly recently but President Buhari has refused to give his assent because only “highlights” were initially sent to him. The details were withheld. And there could be devil in the details. Can you imagine a lawyer giving you only the last page of an agreement to sign without letting you into the details? Something funny is going on. The civil servants had done their own by padding the budget and embarrassing Buhari. The president is now saying “never again!” Cautious.
I was so happy when I first heard that the Lagos state government had removed the restriction on movement during the monthly sanitation exercise — although it turned out there was some misinformation somewhere. In truth, the restriction on movement is a carry-over from the military era. Curfew is a military mentality. In my house, we do sanitation everyday and we are very proud of it. So I always find it absurd when I want to go out on the morning of the last Saturday of the month and I am told I cannot move around because of “environmental sanitation”. Ridiculous.
Once upon a time, qualifying for the Nations Cup was our birthright. From 1976, we never failed to qualify until 1986 — when the football authorities reacted irrationally to Nigeria’s loss to Tunisia in the World Cup qualifiers. They disbanded the Green Eagles, sacked Coach Chris Udemezue and appointed Pat Ekeji for the two-legged AFCON qualifier against Zambia, which we lost. But we recovered thereafter and never dropped out in the qualifiers until two years ago (we missed 1996 and 1998 by choice). We have now failed back-to-back. This, unfortunately, may be an indication that abnormal is the new normal. Frightening.