Buhari Must Not Put The Cart Before The Horse - by Abiodun Ladepo

The current fuel crisis may be causing President-elect Muhammadu Buhari to rue his fourth and successful quest for the presidency of Nigeria and revisit the old maxim: Be careful what you pray for, because you just may get it. The intractability of the problems associated with fuel scarcity is so overwhelming I would not wish it on my enemy. Most people would not wish it on their enemies either. But obviously, not Goodluck Jonathan; he quickly washed his hands off the tottering ship of the nation’s economy, conceded defeat, called it a day and earned the “hero” appellation to boot, after doing nothing to prevent the situation for six years!

How was he now ever going to get petrol from the importing vessels to the filling stations without using the greedy marketers? (Build pipelines across the nation? Use the trains instead of tankers?) How was he going to bring down the cost of petrol without subsidising the marketers? (Refine our crude oil here in Nigeria?) How was he going to refine our crude oil so that the marketers he was subsidising could be defanged? (Fix our dilapidated and comatose refineries? Build new ones?) He was indeed in a quandary.

These were some of the basic questions for which any person presiding over the affairs of Nigeria had to find answers in April 2015. Who would have wanted to have to deal with those rapacious, unpatriotic marketers whose stock-in-trade had always been hostage-taking? They held Nigeria by the jugular and would not let go until their viperous, predatory and insatiable vampire-like thirst was quenched, only to be, of course, renewed in a few months’ time when they would be thirsty again. Uneasy, really, did lie the Jonathan head that bore the crown.

It did not bother the oil marketers that Nigeria was going through a hellish period of epileptic supply of electricity where whole communities, nay, whole local government areas remained in total blackout for weeks and months.They didn’t even care to know that if you didn’t have electricity but you managed to have a generator, you’d need fuel to power that generator. And that if you couldn’t buy fuel or you had to spend a chunk of your salary to buy fuel, life for you might not really amount too much. By the way, how could a civil servant in, say, Osun State, who had not been paid for over six months, find money with which she could feed her children, let alone buy fuel for her generator, and fuel for her car? The marketers knew that once the cost of fuel went up (and up it went by 300 per cent in some places), the cost of public transport also went up, and concomitantly, the cost of food and related items went up. Add this astronomical rise in the cost of everything to salary delay for months, and you have created another veritable incubus that’ll eat deep into the very fabric of our nation.

But they didn’t care. They didn’t care just like the university and polytechnic lecturers who went on strike for months didn’t care about their students; just like doctors and nurses didn’t care about their patients when they too went on strike. They all claimed they did it for the sake of their respective institutions. But we all knew they did it as a way of getting their own shares of the national cake. They saw the politicians earning ungodly salaries and emoluments for doing nothing and on top of those, cornering huge amounts in kickbacks for unexecuted contracts. They had to have their own shares.

And so, periodically, those in the oil industry too must manufacture their own blackmail and subject us to the vicious cycle of strikes, negotiations and settlements. This Sisyphean struggle we face with the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation people started with the criminal neglect of our oil refineries over the years, which led to their breakdown. It then progressed to the sabotaging of the same by deliberately throwing clogs in the wheel of every effort geared towards reviving them. (Why would the oil cabals facilitate anything that would interfere with the subsidy scam that allows them to rake in tons of dollars for services poorly performed at best, and rarely performed at all in most cases?) This blackmail has now morphed into songs for the outright sale of the NNPC. Remove the subsidy, say the economics gurus in their grandiloquence, and allow the “market forces” to rule.The “market forces” to which they refer is the absence of federal control over oil prices, allowing private investors to operate in a “liberalised economy”. And the “liberalised economy” to which they refer is the environment in which the elite who stole our money from the NNPC in the first place will now buy the same NNPC, continue to capriciously determine when they provide us with services and how much we pay for those servicesREGARDLESS of how poor those services are – just like we now do with the power companies! This same school of thought, if pressed for a solution to the Nigerian military’s problems, will surely advocate its privatisation! We have to treat our oil industry like smart nations treat their energy industry: like it is a national security issue because it is!

Removing subsidy right away is a portentous peregrination on which the Buhari administration must not embark because it has doom and gloom written all over it. If the economists are right and Buhari must remove the subsidy, he must not put the cart before the horse. He must not further raise the cost of fuel on the ordinary folk before aggressively embarking on the repair of oil refineries and the building of new ones, including encouraging private sector investment. He must not raise the price of fuel before ferociously attacking the entrenched, systemic and ingrained corruption in the entire oil sector. The man on the street will never understand why he has to pay more for fuel (on top of all the other pains he is suffering) when he knows that some privileged people are hauling Ghana-must-go bags of oil-related dollars for personal use.

As things stand presently, Nigerians don’t feel the effect of oil subsidy. They know that government is not subsidising the oil they consume but the un-lifted and undelivered phantom oil being claimed by the marauding marketers. You have to plug that leakage before you can accurately determine if subsidy is worth it or not. If Buhari walks over the landmine of subsidy removal laid for him by the outgoing government, the All Progressives Congress can rest assured it would lose the next presidential election to the opposition by a landslide margin. Nigerians didn’t vote for Buhari because they thought he was the Messiah or because the APC had a plethora of better ideas in its manifesto. They voted massively against the serial philistinism, ineptitude and above all, corruption that characterised the Jonathan administration. They saw Buhari as an epitome of incorruptibility, competence and honesty.

Whether or not subsidy is removed, the monster of corruption in the NNPC must be excised and exorcised as a matter of urgency. The ordinary man will be more than willing to sacrifice if he sees known embezzlers in the NNPC regurgitating stolen funds on their way to the prison. Any attempt to punish ordinary Nigerians before punishing oil thieves, subsidy scammers and refinery saboteurs will be seen as a lazy and escapist approach to solving the problems in the oil sector. It will lead to another “Occupy Nigeria” movement. And this time, the Nigeria Labour Congress may not be as pliant as it was with Jonathan. It is a scenario from which the APC may not recover.

- Abiodun Ladepo is a communications specialist based in Ibadan, Oyo State