There is trouble in the land. Anywhere you look there is consternation. The people of Nigeria are unhappy. Government seems to be failing in its critical responsibilities to the citizens. Many Nigerians had very difficult Christmas and New Year celebrations because of a suffocating fuel scarcity. President Muhammadu Buhari
(PMB) threatened to find out the so-called saboteurs who caused the terrible fuel scarcity that disrupted the peace of most Nigerians over the Christmas/New Year celebrations and to punish them severely. He made this threat in his New Year address to the nation.
Firstly, I was not minded to take him seriously as it is common for government officials to manufacture “enemies” to explain away their failures. Sometimes the threats are merely empty threats, just made to give the citizens false comfort as nothing happens thereafter. For example, look at the several threats issued by government after each orgy of violence by marauding Fulani cattle herdsmen and practically nothing happens until the next round and then new threats are issued.
In the last two weeks, Benue state has been boiling because the militant Fulani herdsmen invaded Guma and Logo LGAs, killing over 70 men, women and children while razing down homes and destroying other property. Before the furore could die down, it was reported that the militants hit the Lau LGA in Taraba state and about 55 lives were taken in the onslaught. Rather than display integrity and humility and accept blames for their failures, the government will always look for a fall guy or someone or group to blame. Every government does this but this particular government in power has excelled more than previous governments in manufacturing enemies and bulk passing. Nearly three years after coming to power, they have seldom ceased from blaming the past government or PDP for every of their failures.
Now they seem not to find a way to pin this embarrassing fuel scarcity on the past government, hence they have come up with imaginary saboteurs. Soon, to prove their point, they will arrest some ‘powerless’ fuel distributors perhaps by EFCC in the usual theatrical manner, parade them, charge them to court, and then after the drama of arrest and the imposition of ridiculous bail conditions by the compliant judicial officers, the case will die down till the next crisis and we look for another set of fall guys or enemies!
True, we have watched this drama, long enough and many of us are getting bored. This art of pursuing shadows instead of substance has reached a crescendo. Let us be sincere to face the real issues and stop playing games with Nigerian citizens. Where are the saboteurs? The first are those we have elected or selected to run our government that have failed, refused or proven incapable of taking simple but bold decision to fully deregulate the downstream petroleum sector. If that decision is taken today, Nigeria will finally say bye-bye to this nagging and actually annoying perennial problem. I do not know what else anyone needs to say to PMB and his team to convince them to let go. They stubbornly refused to let go, even when a pricing parity was achieved following the drastic fall of oil prices in 2015/2016 time frame, only to allow a drastic price adjustment that dislocated the economy and helped to fuel inflation. They are holding on again, and dilly dallying, seeking unsustainable options, till the pressure becomes unbearable and then they will be forced to allow another precipitate price adjustment, that will add insult to existing injury. Why we cannot allow the market to determine the price of PMS as it is determining the price of diesel, Rice, yam, garri, sorghum, millet, medicines, cars, books, air tickets etc etc, leaves me perpetually perplexed.
Recently, the Minister of State for Petroleum resources, Ibe Kachikwu, announced to a bewildered nation that the NNPC had wasted or lost 85.5 billion Naira of our commonwealth in subsidizing the importation of PMS. This same subsidized PMS was what most of us paid for again at 250 Naira per litre at different locations in Nigeria outside Lagos and Abuja and those who paid 145 Naira per litre lost many productive hours in long queues at filling stations in the two towns, which meant that almost all paid economic prices that were in excess of the official price. What a double or even triple jeopardy for Nigerians! This is the same story for years, so much so that in 2011 or so this nation wasted nearly two trillion Naira in questionable subsidy payment. How long must we suffer these avoidable wastes or losses? If we were looking for economic saboteurs, should we not first ask these government policy makers why they are wasting our scarce resources, resources that can be used to provide roads, railways, modern security and quality education amongst other critical needs crying for attention in Nigeria. Is there an addiction somewhere that is proving impossible to break?
If we are looking for saboteurs, the second place to look is NNPC. We are sure to find many who are either directly sabotaging government’s wishes or collaborating with others to do so. It is commonly alleged in the Petroleum downstream sector that no one gets to lift PMS from many NNPC depots in the country without paying premium to the depot management in normal times. At abnormal times as we are just passing through, the premium is multiplied by factor ‘ x’. Even at that, not all retailers are able to even buy directly from these depots at these elevated premiums. The scarce commodity is preferentially allocated to some well connected marketers who now resell at an additional mark up to other retailers. After buying at these inflated prices, the jobless DPR officers now start parading the streets to force the hapless retailers to sell at official prices and even go further to confiscate the fuel of some retailers, selling them off for free to Nigerian motorists. What a travesty of justice!
Yes, there are a few retailers and marketers who can get extraordinarily exploitative and I fully support that they should be punished but the real problem is not with such. The real problem is that the NNPC and their officials make it impossible for many retailers to sell at the official price of 145 Naira per litre, for the simple reason that their cost of purchase is above 145 Naira per litre. According to NNPC, the current landing cost for those who import directly is 177 Naira per litre. It will therefore be economic suicide for such retailers to sell at 145 per litre. It is becoming clearer to many that some of the NNPC and DPR staff like this situation of monopoly of supply and price fixation. Many of them will become poor and some jobless if the downstream is fully deregulated and full supply is established. Anywhere in this whole wide world that you create monopolies, corruption will thrive and distorted pricing regime will reign. Anywhere in the world that demand exceeds supply, prices will rise and if supply exceeds demand, prices will fall. And when the demand for an important utility like petrol exceeds supply as we have recently seen, no force (all the army plus police, plus DPR, plus NNPC) can stop prices from rising. May be some day, Nigerian policy makers will come to accept the reality of this Economics 101.
PMB sounded angry and serious when he was making this threat to arrest the saboteurs who caused the recent fuel scarcity. I pray he will stop playing the ostrich. He should live up to his famed courage and integrity and take actions to dislodge the cabal at the NNPC depots who trigger the problem and as National Patron to the herdsmen, call them to order and punish the culprits and the security personnel who are collaborating with them and bringing this great embarrassment to the nation. When some renegade policemen or military commit crimes in the society and they are then asked to investigate same crimes, often nothing happens, which is why many crimes remain unresolved today just because the enemy is inside. Let us stop pursuing shadows otherwise things may get out of hand.
Mazi Sam I. Ohuabunwa OFR