By Emma Agu
The fuel queues that brought Nigeria close to complete paralysis have disappeared from the streets of Abuja, the country’s federal capital territory. The same goes for the megacity of Lagos, the nation’s economic jugular. With this development, beleaguered commuters and motorists can now heave a sigh of relief that the nightmare is over, at least for now.
If the people at the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC), the country’s oil behemoth are also clinking glasses for achieving this success, nothing should be taken away from them. Not because they had done anything extra-ordinary. No. But we cannot fail to acknowledge that the NNPC and the minister of state, petroleum, Dr. Emmanuel Ibe Kachikwu, operated under very excruciating circumstances and, indeed, extra-ordinary times.
What, with the politicisation of the scarcity and the rather inexplicable attempt, by those who ought to know, to single the minister out for vilification? Now that fuel has returned to the filling stations and the queues disappeared, the minister and his teams at the directorate of petroleum resources as well as the NNPC deserve our commendation for their adroit handling of the situation.
By his calm demeanour throughout the trying times, Kachikwu demonstrated uncommon confidence, sobriety and forthrightness. One thing stands out clear: the man knows his onions. Forget his capitulation to pressure when he literally recanted on his promise that fuel queues would disappear in May. Has he not been proved right? The point remains that he wore and still wears the shoes. It is for the same reason that he should be given the benefit of the doubt, indeed trusted, to straighten the nation’s crooked oil path and restore seamless fuel supplies and transformation of the sector.
That leads us to what the nation must do to guarantee stability in the fuel supply situation. To be sure, there are as many opinions on the way out of the problem as there are interest groups in the oil industry. And what is commonsensical may not necessarily be effective. However, experience and basic economic logic point in some definite directions. For a start, it is trite economic logic that scarcity of any product, unless it is not in demand, will inevitably lead to price increases. For another, no one can give what the person does not possess, meaning that turnaround maintenance (TAM) of our refineries will remain doggy until the right competences and corporate governance environment are attracted and institutionalised. Besides, no investor is ready to place a bet when the outcome already spells doom for his money.
What this implies is that the Muhammadu Buhari Administration needs to adopt new strategies, untrammeled by political shenanigans, to ensure that a substantial percentage of the country’s domestic fuel requirement is satisfied through local refining capability. The benefits of this have been so often restated that they do not require repeating here.
It is in this regard that the plan to invite oil industry experts and venture capitalists to partner with Nigeria’s refineries should be considered and understood. To the extent that the advertisement inviting investors to partner with Nigeria in raising the performance of our refineries is not a call to outright privatisation, the National Assembly and oil industry unions owe it a patriotic duty to support this major strategic move. Or what do we lose by getting the crude refined in Nigeria when we did nothing to stop refining outside which implied job losses in Nigeria, loss of capacity development and vulnerability to fraud?
The President, who is the substantive minister of petroleum and his team, should be congratulated for this bold initiative. Come to think of it: if our concern is over the transparency of the process, my candid opinion is that we can trust Buhari not to short change Nigeria. If the worry is over whether we are ignoring other more viable options, let the conversation begin. But for sure, the option of attracting foreign multinational partners should never be ignored: not only is it consistent with long held practices, it is even more expedient for Nigeria today given the huge shortfall in government revenue even as there is a great demand for funds for infrastructure growth.
Still on this, time has come when we should never delude ourselves that we hold all the aces in dealing with foreign investors. Nigeria cannot be an island unto itself. It is ironical that, while we harp on our desire for foreign partnerships, our actions belie a mindset that sows deep doubts about the security of foreign investments. That is not to say that direct foreign investment is the only way out of our retarded growth, indeed underdevelopment. Yet, the evidence does not suggest that we are ready for the huge sacrifices that delinking from the global system for a short while would demand. Were we to do so, if our elite will be willing to sacrifice some of their privileges, if political leadership will wholeheartedly support Buhari’s anti-corruption campaign, if the fraudulently rich (and that includes some labour leaders!) can commit class suicide by disgorging itself of ill-gotten wealth, only then can we confidently call the bluff of multinationals while architecting the ethical foundations of a new and sustainable socio-economic order.
But even at that, the trending paradigm is collaboration, not exclusion; it’s all about shared values, shared risks and shared comfort. And for the heck of it, Nigeria lacks the technological wherewithal to go it alone. That being the case, let us give Kachikwu’s, sorry, Buhari’s plan a chance, taking steps to ensure that, in any arrangement, Nigeria is not left holding the short end of the stick. That, to me, is a viable long term panacea to the perennial fuel supply challenge.