By Rotimi Fasan
IN the last two months, Nigerians have groaned under the pain of fuel scarcity. Since February they have been wondering if and when solution would be found to the persistent scarcity.
Their wondering has turned into fear that this scarcity is another ploy by government to increase the pump price of fuel. This fear was first expressed soon after the scarcity became evident across the country. The reason for this was simply because of the speculation which began towards the end of last year that government planned to increase the price of fuel. The planned strike of oil workers early this year to protest against the privatisation of refineries, many thought, was aimed at thwarting the increment in fuel prices that was seen as the expected outcome of privatisation. There were assurances thereafter that the refineries would not be privatised and for which reason the strike was called off.
But the drum of privatisation is being heard again from no less a person than the Petroleum Minister, Diezani Allison-Madueke, who believes that is the only route towards making fuel available to Nigerians without the pain of scarcity. Since February the price of fuel has ranged between N120 to N250 per litre depending on which part of the country is involved. It would seem like Nigerians have come to accept pump price increment by default in spite of their refusal to accept government explanation for any increment. Yet the scarcity persists.
Petrol is still being sold at N97 per litre at NNPC fuel stations and some others in urban areas like Lagos while officials of the Corporation have had reasons to close down private fuel stations that have failed to comply with the approved price of fuel. But such steps only provide cover for the corruption beneath the surface. Attendants in fuel stations selling at N97 demand and take bribes from buyers not willing to buy unwanted fuel products offered for sale at these stations or are left unattended.
This leaves one with the conclusion that no fuel station, including those run by the NNPC, sell fuel at the approved pump rate of N97 per litre except where they fear they are being watched. Who then is fooling who? How do we explain that two months after officials of the free-spending and corruption-prone NNPC told Nigerians that the scarcity caused by panicked buying should ease up in a matter of days- how come that the scarcity has so far defied solution many weeks after? Where are the panicky Nigerians at deserted fuel stations selling fuel at between N120 and N150 per litre at irregular hours of the day? These fuel stations either do their business in the early hours of the morning or late in the evening where they cannot be monitored. That is if we must take seriously the halfhearted checks at fuel stations by NNPC officials.
The reality today is that Nigerians pay almost twice of what they used to pay to get a litre of fuel. Surely government cannot be blind to this. And if it is not doing anything about it, this can only be because it does not see the need to. This may in fact be its own way of proving to itself that Nigerians can afford to pay more for fuel contrary to their claim. The pain, the loss of business hours on long queues at the few fuel stations selling at approved rate, indeed at stations selling all, is never taken into consideration by the pain artists undergo at the Petroleum Ministry. This is the same ministry that cannot account for billions of dollars, common patrimony of Nigerians, which went missing without a trace. This is the same NNPC and Ministry of Petroleum whose officials live the lifestyle of the rich and famous at the expense of Nigerians.
Is it not about time that Abuja halts the drift in the oil industry and rescue Nigerians from the murderous grip of paid officials? Or must the present administration continue in its slumbering way that suggests that it has lost its control of the levers of governance? There is a lot happening in the country that gives the impression that this country is bleeding from the stab wounds inflicted on it by different groups and individuals operating at different levels, all with the aim of snuffing life out of it. There are the well known villains, the terrorists and criminal hoodlums fighting behind the veneer of religion and sectarian strife to perpetrate evil. They are succeeding in no small measure, having decimated farms, sacked villages, destroyed educational institutions and sent many of our soldiers and other security personnel to their untimely death. They break jails with impunity and set their fellow terrorists free to continue their onslaught against society.
These are the usual and well-known villains whose activities are reported in the international media with lavish coverage. But no less dangerous or, perhaps, even more so are the paid officials, appointed or elected whose activities continue to threaten the survival of the county. The level of corruption and misuse of power that has been revealed in some key ministries in the country in the last six months has been mind-boggling. From the Aviation Ministry to the Finance Ministry and the Petroleum Resources Ministry, not leaving out parastatals and agencies under the supervision of these ministries, it has been tales of infamy all the way. While these ministries have appeared ugly in the sight of Nigerians, the Presidency has itself been complicit in the less than holy activities of the ministries and their heads.
Moreover, the Presidency is haunted by its own ghost of ineptitude and lack of transparency. All of this seems to have depleted its moral capital, making it vulnerable even in terms of how it goes about disciplining erring state officials. Perhaps this is also the reason why it’s been unable to make the Petroleum Resources Ministry provide credible explanation for the fuel scarcity that has grounded the country for about eight weeks non-stop.
A quick solution to the problem of fuel scarcity is what Nigerians need right now. Enough of this trick to introduce fuel price increment through the back door. If Nigerians have been steadfast in their rejection of government attempt to make them pay more for fuel, if many have died in the January 2012 uprising to reject any increment in fuel price, any further attempt to go along the same direction would sooner than later bring about just one outcome: disaster. That surely cannot be the desire of the Goodluck Jonathan Administration just when it is getting set to launch its campaign to remain in office beyond 2015.