By Adekunle Adekoya
Procrastination gives you something to look forward to— Joan Konner (1931-2018)
One of the raging questions about the Nigerian experience, especially in the social media is: “How did we get here?”
Another is: “Who did this to us?” Answers to both questions, which lie in the five Ws and H (Who, What, Where, When and How) of the construct called fuel subsidy in Nigeria will need a sovereign inquest to generate, and that will just be the beginning.
The subsidy cul-de-sac in which the nation finds itself is self-inflicted and the economic equivalent of self-immolation. It is also the result of not doing what we were supposed to have done.
Our country has four government-owned refineries – one in Warri, two in Port Harcourt and another in Kaduna, with a combined capacity of 445,000 barrels per day (bpd). As the nation’s population increased, the population of car owners also increased.
As electricity generation and distribution failed to keep pace with demand, the population of generator owners and users also increased. In no time, our four refineries could no longer meet domestic demand and refined products had to be imported to meet the shortfall, which had to be sold at a price government thinks the people can afford, while it picks up the bill for the difference. That’s subsidy.
Because of who we are, importing refined products became an octopoidal business of its own because successive governments failed to build more refineries or expand the capacity of existing ones, whichever is practicable. What is worse, unending TAMs (Turn-Around-Maintenance) of the refineries failed to yield desired dividends while we continued to pay their staff for doing nothing.
In no time, it had become more attractive to import refined products than to allow our refineries work, especially since 1999 when we returned to civil rule. Serially, many administrations, including the incumbent have increased the pump price of fuel in reaction to market forces, but what is clear is that the value of our currency and the pump price of petrol will remain, conjoined twins, until we do the needful.
One of the confounding arguments in support of removal of subsidy is the price of fuel in neighbouring countries, pushed by a border agency on the grounds that it will discourage smuggling.
It can only happen in Nigeria that an agency that has more or less abdicated its responsibility can be advancing this kind of argument in support of its failure. I am in support of the argument that subsidy be removed, but not for the reasons being advanced by government and its apologists.
Clearly, we need the subsidy money in other areas of national life, but the ordinary Nigerian should not be made to pay for the ineptitude and incompetence of government and its officials – elected and appointed.
What underpins this subsidy quagmire is, in my view, institutional failure, over a very long period of time. Was anybody thinking of Nigeria with a population of N200 million, or 400 million, or 800 million? Were there plans to take care of the expanding population? If there were, what happened to them? How well were they implemented? How can institutions of government indulge in procrastination?
This matter would not have been a front-burner issue if not for the cash crunch that the federal and state governments face. The subsidy issue is a reflection of every other failure in our national life, be it in the provision of potable water, or well-equipped primary schools, secondary schools and tertiary institutions, alongside well-trained teachers, epileptic power supply, housing, or even, security. How can less than 500,000 policemen secure about 200 million people?
Again, I agree that subsidy must go, especially because of the opacity that ramifies the concept. Before it is removed, let our refineries, all of them, work again, while private investors are encouraged to complete and commission their refineries as quickly as possible.
When that happens, all the cash we dash more serious people by importing refined products will stay in the country and the Naira will breathe easier. Apart from fuel, other products of refineries which we are importing will once again be available in the country.
Now, the Buhari administration, which initially wanted to end subsidy this year has extended it for another 18 months, by which time it would no longer be in office.
What should now be done is to pursue, with feverish urgency, the implementation of those initiatives that will make subsidy removal bearable, chief of which is making our refineries work, and other demands by the Labour movement and Organised Private Sector.
If this does not happen, the incoming administration is already booby-trapped into crisis. That must be avoided.