If Nigerians are unhappy with President Buhari, as the on-going fuel scarcity bites harder, it is because Nigerians had believed his claimed better knowledge of the petroleum industry and had trusted that Nigerians would not have to endure similar suffering under his watch. Several times during his campaign, the president had assured that, as a one-time Petroleum minister, he knows exactly what to do about the industry, which rather than become a redeeming grace, was fast becoming a doom. Hence, Nigerians had believed that it was in the hope of making things better that he had opted to keep the petroleum ministry portfolio under his armpit.
Of course, fuel scarcity and the dislocations that it brings on the nation and its socio-economic life has been such a recurrent decimal that one would have thought that subsequent administrations would have devised better handles on it. Alas, such an expectation had continued to evaporate like an unanswered prayer, as each round of fuel crisis was handled with temporary palliatives, and no sustainable long-term measures were ever put in place.
Since I was in secondary school, over 30 years ago, I started hearing about the fact that fuel needed to be imported to supplement the local supply from the refineries. Since then, the construction of newer refineries, or even the need for the thorough and regular maintenance of the existing ones to ensure optimal production had always been mouthed, money budgeted for them, and of course, squandered. Different administrations have watched as the population grew, spiralling demand for petroleum products, and yet, none of them has gone beyond mere rhetoric to ensure enhanced production through enhanced local refining.
Helpless Nigerians had known all along that the importation of fuel was the biggest diamond mine for some privileged officials and their cronies, and they would never permit better policy management. Everybody knows that the corruption in the oil industry was possibly so huge that whenever anybody speaks about Nigeria being a corrupt country, he is most probably referring to the oil industry. No wonder, the last oil minister, Mrs Diezani Allison-Madueke, without having been dragged to any court or panel has been condemned by most Nigerians as being in custody of their stolen billions.
With the long-standing anti-corruption reputation of President Buhari, there was a widespread hope that things would be different, both in the recovery from and plugging the gaping holes of corruption that the oil industry has been, as well putting a good policy options in place to ensure that Nigerians do not continue to sweat and bleed for the resource that the Almighty had given them in great abundance. Alas, from what is currently happening, as well as from the confused reactions of the oil ministry and the NNPC, it is clear that Nigerians are in for a very long problem.
Nobody really expects that the present administration should have solved all the entrenched problems in the oil industry and its supply chain, but what we had expected is that a road map would have been unveiled by now, beyond the usual and hackneyed platitudes that have characterized the multi-speaks at the industry. For instance, one would have expected that the government of the day would have inaugurated initiatives that would lead to the passing of the Petroleum Industry Bill (PIB) which has been stranded at the National Assembly, as a way of bringing in a breath of fresh oil into the petroleum sector. For without that bill, expectations of fresh investments in the sector are most illusory.
Rather than that, the federal government, led by the new minister of state who is also the boss at the NNPC, has inherited the shibboleth of his predecessors, which is to posture around, telling lies about the true situation of things with the oil resources and their management. The level of insincerity in the management of public information by the NNPC and the petroleum ministry had gained it the title of “Petro-lying” ministry. Over the years, no reason or information that they dish out about their product stock which they usually claim would suffice for several weeks, ever turned out to be the truth.
Characteristically, instead of tackling the current spate of scarcity, Dr. Ibe Kachikwu has joined the bandwagon of his predecessors for posturing and dishing out contradicting information. First, he claimed that the scarcity was phantom, as according to him, it was caused by panic buying on the part of consumers. Seeing that that line did not work and that Nigerians were paying through their noses to get the products that were becoming non-existent, he now went on a road-show to some fuel stations at the federal capital, in what could be most appropriately described as a photo opportunity. After stomping about, Kachikwu created the impression that the scarcity was being caused by hoarders, and pronounced that thenceforth, products belonging to hoarders would be impounded and distributed free of cost to consumers.
That was regarded as cheap by many stakeholders because, in the first instance, under what legal framework would Kachikwu, a man with a PhD in Law, be impounding those products if indeed they existed? Again, where are the hoarded products? Is it not easier and more result-oriented for NNPC and PPMC to publish the names and locations of stations to which products were freshly supplied and to direct consumers to them to source their supplies? Would that not be a more civilized method of ensuring supplies?
Meanwhile, the government is chasing NASS to approve a supplementary budget, to enable it, among other things, to pay fuel importers, who have reportedly stopped supplying due to outstanding unpaid bills. The government knows that is the problem which they had refused to foresee and are instead, dribbling the public.
In any case, the minister knows that neither panic buying nor product hoarding is responsible for the on-going scarcity that is about to ground Nigeria for good, for not only do we need fuel for locomotion, we also need it to energize our power supply for social and industrial purposes. The government would have gained more respect by getting level with Nigerians by letting them into the realistic plans it has to solve this problem once and for all, even if that would take some time.
Realistically, the end of the problem would come when Nigeria starts refining all or most of its needs, locally, and Nigerians appreciate that cannot happen overnight. Rather Nigerians expect that before that target is eventually achieved all our refineries should be made to work at optimal capacity, which, in any case would not fully take care of the estimated daily consumption of over 38 million litres. If the installed capacity of all our refineries is running at full blast, they will produce only about half of that requirement, according to experts. But it would still go a long way in reducing the huge bill from imports.
While this is going on, Nigerians have failed to understand how the so-called subsidy is being computed. While the cost of crude on the international market hovered at over $100 dollars a barrel and we were sold fuel at N93 and later N87 per litre, how come the price has remained there while the price of crude has since come down to below $50 a barrel and yet we are told that the fuel is still being subsidized?
There are still many unexplained posers over our oil industry, the mainstay of the national economy and until those posers are explained properly to Nigerians, especially why it has become impossible to fix the refineries, which we heard, were working at about between 30 to 50 per-cent at the time Buhari came to power, but which we hear, are today running at the combined capacity of less than two per-cent! Something must definitely give; otherwise, the nation would hurtle towards an oil doom, at the speed of sound.
Also baffling is the war which the governments of the day – past and present – have been waging against the so-called illegal refineries at the Niger Delta creeks. My understanding of their offence is that the oil they are refining was bunkered. That being so, why not legitimize their operations, both by making them get their supplies legally and make them pay the necessary taxes and embark on all the necessary steps to take care of their environment, rather than smashing their businesses. The truth is that if it is a lucrative business, they will persist but rather than pay taxes to the government, they will pay bribes to law enforcement agencies.
Is the government pretending that it is not aware that the products from the so-called illegal refineries are part of the national supply chain? Why not encourage them by legitimizing their operations and increasing the quantum of national fuel supply. In case the government is not aware, a large quantity of the fuel used in the South South and South East come from those sources and that is why fuel is hardly ever completely scarce there, even if it costs higher.
Is such not the principle behind the smaller modular refineries that are being preferred the world over now? Or who is pretending not to remember that for the three years the civil war lasted, Biafra never lacked fuel, because it was run on the fuel produced at those types of “crude” refineries, which Nigeria is fighting so hard to destroy?