By Steve Nwosu
By midday of Sunday, May 28, most filling stations in my part of Lagos suddenly, and curiously, ran out of petrol, and closed shop. Those that remained open were selling only diesel.
The manager of one of the outlets, which shut its gates much earlier, shamelessly told me that they closed early because of the power outage in the area. Really?
When has the public power supply ever stopped gas stations from dispensing fuel?! In Nigeria? Whatever happened to generators? Or could it be that a gas station did not have fuel to power its generators? Not likely.
But it was another unintelligent lie. And he knew I knew. The morose look on his face said it all. I knew he had simply run out of lies to hide the real motive; which was to hoard petrol, in anticipation of the announcement of the removal of the subsidy on petrol in the inaugural speech of President Bola Tinubu the next day, May 29. And true to type, as soon as Tinubu confirmed it, all the filling stations immediately hiked the pump price of their petrol. Even without receiving any new stock, the stations suddenly became awash with petrol. SABOTEURS!! ALL OF THEM! They will now blame the new government for this rocket-speed increment. Even when we all know that virtually all the major candidates in the last presidential election promised to discontinue subsidising the cost of petrol. We are, indeed, our own problem.
It is for the reason of unpatriotic acts like this that one can hardly wait for the recently commissioned Dangote Refinery to begin production.
Of course, it is not as if one is under any illusion that Dangote would be selling petrol at subsidised prices. He is in business (private business for that matter) to make a profit. He is no Father Christmas. If he wants to do “giveaways”, he has the Dangote Foundation to do that, not Dangote Refinery and Petrochemicals.
However, one expects that, at least, the refinery’s coming into the market would go a long way to addressing some of these shenanigans of some marketers. We could also begin to know what it costs to import petrol into this country. We would also have an idea about which of the previous importers actually brought in products, and which ones diverted the products elsewhere only to turn around and receive subsidy payments for the same products that never came into the country.
In addition, we would also begin to hazard a fairer guess as to how much petrol we honestly consume, and finally begin to put a lie to some of the voodoo figures the NNPC has been throwing at us all these many years.
Of course, I’m one of those who feel this subsidy trap was one of those hurdles deliberately left behind by the President Muhammadu Buhari administration for the incoming administration to stumble over. For PMB could have effected the removal himself if he sincerely desired to, in all these past eight years. But then, Tinubu cannot complain too much, for he is also a beneficiary of that seeming foot drag. How do I mean, considering when Buhari eventually woke up to the idea of removing fuel subsidy (when, it seemed, he was convinced that members of his looting cabal must all have looted to their belliesful), it would have amounted to electoral suicide in 2023 for an APC that was clearly no longer a darling party of the Nigerian voters. The public angst would have been so widespread that a Tinubu/Shettima candidacy would have been dead on arrival at the polls.
And now that Tinubu has decided to bite the bullet at the very first opportunity, I can begin to imagine what the public outcry will be. But I’m willing to cut him some slack on this. And it is not because I’m hedged against the adverse fallout. I still do not have a drop of petrol in my car as I write this piece. I have since resolved I’ll have to ride a public bus to work tomorrow. But I’m not unaware of the fact that millions of Nigerians cannot afford the bus fares to work tomorrow. But that inability is not completely because Tinubu has removed subsidy; it is because some wicked Nigerians want to profit from the sufferings of their fellow countrymen.
However, I am convinced that this removal of the petrol subsidy and the coming onstream of the Dangote Refinery constitute a combination jab (uppercut, to be precise) that could deal a fatal blow to the economic saboteurs who have hidden behind the veil of the subsidy regime to bleed the economy dizzy.
And, talking about the Dangote Refinery, it is not just about the 135,000 direct jobs the CBN governor Godwin Emefiele said it would create. In fact, even 150,000 jobs is a most conservative figure. By the time we figure in the indirect jobs, we’d be looking at almost 400,000 jobs.
It is a fact that Nigeria is finally getting one thing right in its almost 70 years of floundering around crude oil production.
We almost got it right under Obasanjo, but the succubus and incubus that are second nature to that industry bewitched and lured us astray almost immediately.
Yes, at the twilight of his administration, President Olusegun Obasanjo sold two of Nigeria’s premier refineries – in Kaduna and Port Harcourt, to the duo of Femi Otedola and Aliko Dangote.
The reason for the sale was simple: in his eight years as civilian president, Obasanjo had made several efforts to revive the moribund refineries and curb Nigeria’s over-dependence on imported refined petroleum products, consequent exportation of industry jobs and life-sapping drain on the country’s scarce foreign exchange.
It didn’t work. Billions of dollars were sunk into curious Turnaround Maintenance (TAM) contracts, but all of it disappeared into the bottomless cesspit that refineries and their parent company, the NNPC, had come to represent. At the last effort, it was reported that the refineries would, after the latest TAM billions were forked out, be able to do about 30% of their installed capacities. It never happened.
In a clear case of throwing in the towel, Obasanjo finally decided to shut off the drainpipe, by selling off those two of the four refineries.
The sale had taken many Nigerians by surprise. OBJ knew it would be viciously opposed, so he did not give too much room for any debating the decision. He just did it. However, after the initial shock of the sale, opponents of the decision soon found their voices and began covert and overt campaigns for its reversal. Their main argument was that the refineries were a national patrimony that could not just be handed over to an individual – or two. It never occurred to them that the refineries’ and their parent company’s claim to being a patrimony could only be sustained if they were allowed to benefit all citizens. But, on the contrary, over the years, the oil monolith had proven over and over that it had been hijacked by a certain section of the country whose kinsmen, and their cronies, exclusively milk it for their selfish needs. The same section of the country also structured the system so much so that only they can get to the commanding heights of the corporation and its subsidiary companies. Yes, the system had become so faulty and warped that merit, competence, capacity and professionalism soon took a back seat – behind nepotism, cronyism and other not-too-flattering criteria and considerations.
But, in reality, the refineries, nay NNPC, are akin to a property left as an inheritance to siblings by their dead parent. It can only remain in a common pool if the rent is regularly and equitably shared among the siblings. The moment getting that rent, or even managing the property, begins to constitute a problem, the usual practice is to sell off the property and share the profit among all the siblings. The problem with Nigeria’s refineries, however, is that while all the siblings contribute money for the maintenance of the property, the proceeds are enjoyed only by a select few of the children, who keep living large, while telling the other children that the no proceeds or rents are coming in.
Now, rather than continuously throwing money into a property that is said to be generating no rent, the smart thing for the family to do would have been to cut their losses, sell it and share whatever is realised among the siblings. But, curiously, the same set of siblings who have mismanaged the edifice over the years now turn around to mount an extensive and expensive lobby to frustrate the sale. Now, that should be a pointer to the fact that they may not have been telling their other siblings the whole truth about this controversial family inheritance all along. That is a clear indication that this often-parroted inability of the property to make money may have been deliberately contrived.
But, despite the obvious loopholes in their ‘national patrimony’ tale, the pressure from all manner of hawks against the sale of the refineries was so much that no sooner had President Umaru Yar’Adua taken office in 2007 than he reversed the sale, giving the refineries back to the same principalities and powers that had held them down all these many years.
Interestingly, between the reversal of that sale and this very moment (16 years after), the refineries are yet to commercially refine even one gallon of crude oil.
Nigeria has continued to rely solely on imported refined petroleum products, even as we commission all manner of task forces to go burn down individual modular refineries who are doing the same thing NNPC and its refineries have refused to do all these past 24 years: locally refine our crude oil.
But that’s not the only sacrilege: the ancient regime continues to prey on us and our ailing economy to this day! For doing absolutely nothing, the big men at the refineries go home every month with fat salaries, benchmarked against the best among the international oil companies (IOCs). And as revealed by the report of one controversial audit carried out under Diezani Allison-Madueke as petroleum minister, they also get production bonuses, Christmas bonuses, salary increments, promotions and other perks of office. For doing absolutely nothing!
Clearly, Nigeria needed Dangote’s intervention since 30 years ago, when the Abacha junta first imported the infamous “poisonous fuel”.
Although the first batch of refined petroleum products may not role out from the lines of the Dangote Refinery and Petrochemical company until sometime in July/August, last week’s commission, and the prospects thereof, clearly put a lie to all that the NNPC and its refineries have been telling us these past two and a half decades. Building a refinery, maintaining a refinery and refining crude oil is not rocket science. Dangote has given us a lesson in the “art of the possible” And by his stand on subsidy, Tinubu, who coincidentally, also takes some credit in the birthing of the Dangote Refinery, has also shown us what “political will” really means. It is morning yet, though.