Tuesday, April 23, 2024
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The petrol queues and the hollow ritual

Here is a timeless wisdom. If you cannot solve a problem, delegate it to a committee. President Muhammadu Buhari has just opted for that wisdom. He recently set up a 12-man committee to solve the national shame and embarrassing problem of fuel shortage that forces Nigerians to waste productive hours daily in fuel queues at petrol stations.

The president chose motion, not movement and placed the burden of movement on the committee. A committee performs two functions, namely, it investigates a problem, identifies the cause, or causes, and proffers solution (s) to it. I wonder what this presidential committee will investigate here. Is there something it will unearth that has not been in the public domain all these years?

Fuel shortage is not a new national problem; fuel queues are not a new national shame and embarrassment. We have lived with them for as long as anyone can remember. They form part of our national ironies and contradictions, to wit, Nigeria is the fifth crude oil exporting nation in the world, but it is the only OPEC member that faces fuel shortage year in, year out.

We were never ignorant of the cause nor of the solution to the problem of fuel shortage. The solutions were never elusive. They stared, and stare, every federal government in the face. The committee will find nothing different from what the president, as the petroleum minister, knows only too well, namely that the shortage of fuel is caused by the difference between demand and supply. We consume more than is available to us. It is basic maths that where there is a huge gap between demand and supply, there is shortage and consumers suffer.

Ordinarily, the solution that easily recommends itself is to close the gap between supply and demand. But we are not dealing with an ordinary problem here. We are dealing with the complex and complicated problems associated with the powerful oil cartel, corruption in the administration of the so-called fuel subsidy that subsidizes the rich at the expense of the poor, the lack of will on the part of successive leaders to rescue the petroleum industry and make its wealth serve the nation as well as the poor management of our wealth from crude oil.

What the will committee say about these problems that have made Nigeria a crude oil resource deprived nation? Buhari knows that the committee is a joke. Its findings and recommendations will not solve the problems of fuel shortage and cure the nation of one of its many nerve-grating ironies. The country does not currently meet its OPEC daily production quota. Insecurity and crude oil theft are to blame. This has given rise to the new problem of the inability of NNPC Limited, according to the Punch newspaper of January 22, to honour its crude swap deal for refined products it “had with oil firms and traders.”

The newspaper also quoted a senior government official as saying that “the fuel scarcity might get worse in the days and weeks ahead” because NNP Limited did not have sufficient funds to import the required quantity of fuel to meet domestic consumption. It would be unfair to suggest that the president was not aware of this problem.

Buhari returned to a familiar turf in 2015 as his own minister of petroleum resources. He was commissioner for petroleum resources in the Murtala/Obasanjo military administration. Nothing in the industry could be strange to him – not the corruption in the system, not the insecurity posed by the militants, not the crude oil theft and, certainly, not the shenanigans in the administration of the fuel subsidy. As soon as he assumed office, he announced that the subsidy regime had come to an end. Except that it had not. He is unable to deal with it and will now pass the problem to his successor in Aso Rock.

Buhari met critical challenges in the industry that should have fired his zeal as his own petroleum resources minister. He met the challenge of an oil producing nation exporting crude oil and importing the refined products. He met the challenge of our four oil refineries run aground. The independent oil marketers sprang up from the ashes of those refineries. I thought he appointed himself minister of petroleum resources in order to tackle these and other challenges bedevilling the industry.

It has been nearly eight years since he took on the job; and it has been nearly eight years in which nothing particularly radical has changed in the industry. The refineries are still dead; NNPC Limited is still unable to fund the quantity of petroleum resources the country needs to meet its domestic consumption; oil thieves have grown more daring and fuel subsidy remains a needless albatross on the Nigerian state. Everything that did not need to go wrong with the industry has gone wrong with it. Its problems and challenges have, alas, also defeated the president as president and as his own petroleum resources minister. As it was in 2015, so it is in 2023. It is all so bleak.

I thought Buhari took a radical step to free NNPC from the chaotic bureaucracy and make it independent when he turned it into a limited liability company with the freedom within acceptable limits, to be run like a limited liability company and render annual accounts to the Nigerian state as its primary share holder. Its new name has apparently not afforded it the freedom it ought to have to take full charge of the oil industry to fix non-arbitrary prices for petroleum products and respond meaningfully to the shortages that give rise to the unsightly and embarrassing queues at petrol stations and the army of young people peddling petrol outside the petrol stations.

In hailing the decision to make the corporation a limited liability company, I forgot that the word ‘limited’ after its name does not really affect its status as a corporation. I forgot that the NNPC, limited or not, is the nation’s cash cow and therefore every president must necessarily keep it on a short lease. Buhari’s committee is, to borrow from my colleague Ray Ekpu, a hollow ritual. The shortage continues; the queues continue. As my good friend, Dr Haroun Adamu, liked to say, “the struggle continues.”

Dan Agbese
Dan Agbese
Dan Agbese was educated at the University of Lagos and Columbia University, New York. He holds a Bachelor of Arts and Master of Science degrees in mass communication and journalism. He began his journalism career at the New Nigerian Newspapers, Kaduna, and has edited two national newspapers, The Nigeria Standard and the New Nigerian. He and his three close friends in the news media, Ray Ekpu, Yakubu Mohammed, and the late Dele Giwa, founded the trail-blazing weekly newsmagazine in Nigeria, Newswatch, in 1984. He held various editorial positions in the magazine and was Editor-in-Chief of the magazine. Agbese is a well-regarded and respected columnist in Nigeria. He wrote popular columns for the Nigeria Standard and Newswatch magazine. He is the author of Fellow Nigerians: Turning Points in the Political History of Nigeria, 1966 - 1999; Nigeria their Nigeria, Ibrahim Babangida: The Military, Politics and Power in Nigeria, Footprints on Marble: Murtala H. Nyako, The Six Military Governors Voices of History, Conversation with History and three journalism textbooks, Style: A Guide to Good Writing, The Reporter's Companion and The Columnist's Companion: The Art and Craft of Column Writing. He has also contributed chapters to several books on Nigerian politics. Agbese's much-admired style of writing has been the subject of a thesis by students in the University of Jos, the University of Ibadan, and Benue State University.
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