By Sunny Ahwefeada,
The ongoing energy crisis manifesting as scarcity of petroleum products has for the umpteenth time portrayed Nigeria for what it truly is, a failed nation. Our failure is monumental and tragically so.
A friend drew the analogy between Nigeria and a household that grows cassava, but lacks garri and the children from that home go plate in hand starving and begging whereas their parents’ farms hold thousands of cassava stems with robust tubers ensconced in the womb of the earth.
Nigeria prides herself as a leading oil producing nation in the world, but like the man that lives by the riverside and washes his hands with spittle, Nigeria suffers perennial crisis in the petroleum sector. More than anything else, petroleum has been the most intransigent source of our problem as a nation. What has been described as the Dutch disease seems to find a nurturing domain in Nigeria. The discovery of petroleum in commercial quantity in Oloibiri in 1956 was celebrated as an unprecedented economic breakthrough for an emergent nation. Nearly seventy years after that celebration, what oil bequeathed to Nigeria is a tragedy of unimaginable proportion to the extent that we have all become victims of oil induced curse.
The ongoing scarcity of petroleum products is one in a long and vicious cycle of the war waged against the mass of the citizens who are poor or just struggling to survive. The war has been perennial and it is not only economically exploitative, but politically primed to further disempower the already frazzled and helpless downtrodden. When the present round of fuel scarcity began about four months ago, government and its many mouthpieces made some noise by assuring and reassuring the people that there was no scarcity and ascribed the phenomenon to what they called panic buying and the ember month rush and anxiety to get things done. Then the same mouthpieces ever so predictable, uncreative and unquestioning came to admit that yes there was fuel scarcity, but government was doing everything possible to end it. The long queue of motorists and motorcyclists grew longer and longer and longer. Everyday saw the situation getting worse than the previous the day. At a time, the government unleashed the men in black and hood of the Department of State Services (DSS) on petrol stations, but many people laughed at the mechanical gesture that was meant to save face, but achieved next to nothing.
The reasons ascribed to fuel scarcity over the years range from inadequate foreign exchange, low or zero refining capacity of our refineries, unavailability of petroleum products, high cost imposed by depot owners, bad roads, poor logistics, diversion of petroleum products to neighbouring countries, crude oil theft and fluctuating government policies. But the truth is that there is only one item which is the singular problem of the oil sector and by extension fuel scarcity. The item is corruption. Oil fuels corruption in Nigeria and with this comes socio-economic and political disorder. This sordid experience contradicts the ideal that should have been the order of the day if only our leaders had acted with honour and integrity in the best interest of the nation and not for their own pocket. The reasons itemized above have always been what industry players, government and analysts identify as the trouble with the petroleum sector. But the truth is that the trouble with the sector is actually Nigeria. Our propensity to stealing, our propensity to lawlessness and utter disregard for due process which are the hallmarks of Nigeria are the reasons why we are perennially afflicted with fuel scarcity.
Nigerians are in agony. And the present agony is unprecedented. As I write a litre of petrol is selling for N700 not in the famed, notorious, but sometimes redemptive “black market”, but in licensed petrol stations all over town.
Others even claim that it sells higher in some other places. The people’s agony is real and piercing because we run a system, both private and public, that relies solely on petrol. Our engagement with petrol is daily and it has become like the air we breathe. The engagement is triangular as we need petrol to run electric generators that power our homes, be on the road and power our work or business places. So, whether one likes it or not, the use of petrol is an imperative. The other derivatives such as kerosene and diesel have also attained something more than monstrous in their affliction of Nigerians. A litre of kerosene now sells above N1000. Yet, we are an oil producing nation with four refineries, albeit non-functioning. Many of us in the Niger Delta live in neighbourhoods where crude oil is found, but we no longer find petrol to buy or when it is available we buy at unbelievably high price.
Successive governments have been insincere in tackling the monstrosity of the energy crisis in Nigeria. The knee jerk response has always been to increase the pump price to curb smuggling. At other times government would throw up debates about deregulation and withdrawal of subsidy.
At the end of the day nothing comes out of the talks. What government spends on subsidy annually is enough to build new refineries or at least upgrade the existing, but non-functioning four. The subsidy regime is an open market for brazen corruption that has left Nigeria haemorrhaging. The figures are frightening.
Nigeria wasted 1.4 trillion naira for subsidy in 2021. She wasted 1.3 trillion between January and June 2022 and by August of 2022, the subsidy regime had gulped more than the combined budgets of all the thirty-six states in Nigeria. Emphasis is placed on wasted because the effects of the subsidy are not salutary for the masses as the money gets stolen by the elite even before it is allocated. The massive heist that the subsidy regime has become was evident in 2012 when the then finance minister claimed that Nigeria was consuming 35 million barrels of petrol daily contrary to the 25 million barrels that an investigation by the Nigeria Labour Congress uncovered.
The recurring fuel scarcity must be seen as an elite war against the poor people. The rich and powerful have come to see fuel scarcity as another tool for the economic subjugation of the common people. Each time the ruling elite want an arbitrary increase in the price of petroleum products, it orchestrates this kind of scarcity, chaos and frustration.
What follows is the demonic sermon that it was better to increase the pump price for the product to be available than to maintain the present price and for it to be unavailable. The beaten and wearied populace will then acquiesce in frustration. The price gets jerked up and life goes on with the people “suffering and smiling” and hoping that “e go better”. The time has come for the people to reject this yoke. It has gone on for too long.
Government remains the biggest culprit in this national perfidy and sabotage. That government is unable to redress this intractable problem makes her culpable. Again and again, government has made claims to the establishment of modular refineries. But the same government goes on to impose conditions that make the existence of modular refineries impossible. As in every other sector of our national life government has repeatedly failed in fixing the fuel crisis because those in government remain the prime beneficiaries of the crisis. It has become an organized crime with massive profiteering. In this the people remain the weeping victims.
This is why the people, no matter how nebulous the idea of the people has become, must resolve to question this order of exploitation that has become a national calamity. Income has been stagnant and the economy gives no reprieve. The bogey of depression is starring us all in the face and poverty level is deepening. As the fuel crisis persists a new regime of oppression has emerged in the hitherto docile petrol station attendant who has transformed into His or Her Worshipful Majesty. The petrol attendant is the new king or queen in town. They hoard the product and sell when they feel like selling. We were on a queue as early as 5.30am a few days ago. The petrol attendants strolled in when it was nearly 7am and we rejoiced that reprieve was at hand. But our waiting was only about to begin.
We waited till 8am, then 9am and we heard the attendant saying “make dem still wait small” and they giggled as they said so. This only shows our level of masochism. People are asking and wondering for how long things can remain like this. It is inexplicable that an oil producing nation has no fuel. Crude oil abound here, but we export it to other countries where it is refined then we import it as finished product. Only in Nigeria can this happen.