*BY USSIJU MEDANER*

As per the usual recurring national issues, the last week is not any different. It is still the news of corruption including its celebration, heightened insecurity, and inflationary trends; rising prices of not only staples but general goods including transportation. Nigerians’ inhumanity to Nigerians is once again manifested in the insistence of the independent PMS marketers to create artificial scarcity of the product across the country, in the wake of a rescinded government plan to increase the pump price of the product and continuous repetition of the fact that no price increase order has been approved by the government agencies in charge. Summarily, it has been one hell of a week.

The more I prefer to tilt my writing to discuss government achievements and the many giant strides of the President Muhammadu Buhari infrastructural and social developments across the country, the more events that temporarily overshadow them and trigger immediate problems to the country force my topics to the same negatives we could not stop recording overtime. Last week, it was first the drama of the Ibori’s repatriated loots and question of who should be the final recipient; is it the state that, on record, claimed nothing was missing from the state coffer to protect their son years back, or the federal government; and then the unnecessary untold hardship Nigerians have to face to access PMS because the majority of PMS marketers would insist on raising the pump price despite government insistence that there is no increment in the pump price of the product. All these going pari passu with kidnapping and other criminalities of magnitudes across the country have continued to be the defining factors of the nation.

Corruption, unending insecurity, and the habitual unhelpful characters we have chosen to imbibe as Nigerians, have all resulted, for the nation and the citizens, an untold magnitude of hardship. Despite the hardworking disposition of a huge population of the citizens of the country, it only becomes increasingly more difficult for them to survive; why? The consequences of corruption, the localised effect of insecurity, and the overall consequences of the ill-decisions taken against the country, have only but made living in Nigeria more difficult.

At this point, it is not literally possible to discern what it is that most Nigerians actually want from the country. While we complain and attack those in power – though often selectively – and repeatedly paint pictures of decays in the nation for global view, it appears we care and want to see changes that benefit the nation, its present and future generations. But on the other hand, when, we literally plan, or totally support uprisings against the nation and its leaders, in such a manner that are glaring attempts to redirect access to the wealth of the nation to some suspected usurpers and not in the interest of the nation; when we boldly are the forces behind the ENDSARS movement that turned the country upside down, destroy monumental structures and institutions and give the country a very bad reputation in the international community, it then calls to question what our intentions really are for the country.

We shout and rail against corruption on the streets and on social media with so much intensity that it could be assumed we will stone confirmed, convicted corrupt persons in our streets and communities, but that has never been the case; what we do with the corrupt individuals are but to spur them on for more actions, and to supply them with solace, solidarity and support to withstand investigations from the authority. I went over the ex-governor James Ibori corruption case and I cannot but feel absolutely sorry for this nation. I suddenly begin to doubt the possibility of even a respite for Nigeria.

After 2007, it was glaring Delta state was dusted by the then outgoing governor; despite the huge allocations in his 8-years in his governorship and other generated revenues and accumulated borrowings, the state was conspicuously bereft of notable developments. Though there were petitions and investigations warranting EFCC to take up the case of former governor James Ibori for prosecution, and that was just when the drama began. The state in a loud majority voice erupted in defense of the man who took away development from them in the last eight years that he was governor; and his successor, and the government of Delta state led the onslaught against EFCC.

The people of Delta state, in alliance with the government of the state came out to decry the attacks against their well-beloved son and former governor; the state came with evidence to prove that not a penny was missing from the state. James Ibori could not answer to the crime of corruption he committed against his people and the nation Nigeria because the same people who are on the media everyday decrying corruption and meting out online punishment to the corrupt criminals, are clearly shielding him from justice because he is one of their own.

Embarrassingly, he had to be convicted of crimes he committed against Nigeria in another country, but yet we chose not to ever see him as a criminal. To show our solidarity to him, we pompously celebrated all his birthday while he was serving his jail term; we went as far as getting his daughter elected as a state legislator, and rolled out the drums to welcome his repatriation to the country after his release from prison. James Ibori, unfortunately, is one name in thousands who share the fate of Ibori and enjoy the full support and solidarity of millions of Nigerians who would rather kill on these convicts behalf to justify crimes they commit against the country.

When I feel more like giving up on the nation’s likelihood of recovering from its long term dilapidation, I seem justified. How can the same population I view daily across social media ragging against corruption and social ills in the country be the same people behind Ibori, the same people behind Atiku, the same people behind Bode George; the same people behind the likes of Sowore, IPOB, Fayose, Fani-kayode, still be the same people?

How can a state so devastated because of James Ibori abject corruption still prefers to stand by him till date? Is it that they were not aware of his corruption, that they thought it was a calculated intimidation of the man? No! They know. There was no pretence to that; they just formed the opinion to protect and defend him because he is one of their own and they probably have personal benefits and entitlements from him. That is the reason why they were not surprised when his loot was repatriated and are now shamelessly accepting that monies were looted from the coffer of the same state they officially declared was never missing years back.

Coming from this premise, it would be an understatement to say Nigeria is not getting rid of corruption any time soon; it has come to stay, no agency would fight to change a path the citizens have unanimously chosen to tread. Nigerians have chosen corruption. Within families, small businesses, committee associations, offices, and in government, it has become our way of life and there is no changing that, except by some divine interventions.

Moving away from the Ibori loots, is the question: do some Nigeria really want a return to the inglorious fuel scarcity and black market days that defined the PDP administration between 1999 and 2014? There is no gainsaying that a section of Nigerians, a minute percentage of the population, who by chance of placement have the likelihood of benefiting from pump price rise of petroleum product, have chosen their personal benefits over the agony the bulk of the populace will be exposed to in the event of any protracted price hike in the sector. At this moment, the discussion is not about the unavoidable increments, but the cruelty of Nigerians to Nigerians. Unavoidably, at some point, except by some unexplainable speed, the country stopped the importation of petroleum finished products; every rise in the international crude price will spell doom for the final consumers of the product, not only in Nigeria but in all non-refining countries. For as long as we maintain the exportation of crude, without domestic refining capacity, we will have to pay the cost decided by overseas refineries, landing cost of the product, and allowable profits of local marketers. That is basic economics of business; and it is our choice as a nation to go that way when we willfully began the collapse of our refineries some twenty-eight years ago.

But right now, the federal government has decided there would be no immediate increase until the completion of its ongoing negotiation with labour, trade unions and other stakeholders. While that may be a respite, it is not expected that marketers will unilaterally choose to implement price regime rise when they still make their purchases at the pre-existing prices. Just at the mere rumour of the pump price rise, all the independent marketers petrol stations went on lock; their meters reset to dispense PMS at as much as two hundred and thirty naira in some places. They created artificial scarcity to force panic buying and encouraged the return of black market sales of the product. Spontaneously, this has already caused a ripple effect on the major macroeconomic indicators such as income, production, employment, and price levels with untold hardship. Transportation cost has been on the rise, cost of food items is skyrocketing, the citizens, already struggling under the weight of induced poverty now have more to bear. For the marketers, it took only the rumour of pump price increase for them to shut down their dispensing stations or a common case of limiting it to one-dispenser station. But these are the same people who will insist on selling off their stocks before they could implement a pump price reduction order!

In all these, the regulatory agencies have not been seen doing their work. The Department of Petroleum Resources (DPR) till now has not found any station flouting government directive, because, as it seems, they are in cahoot with the marketers. Of course that has always been the case; getting settled for allowing the regime of hardship the marketers has always met down on the citizens whenever the opportunity presents itself. While they could do more to stop these acts of the marketers, they literally do nothing. I had witnessed the Niger state government sometimes ago forcing products to be dispensed out free to motorists from petroleum filling stations that pretended to be out of the product while scarcity was biting hard on the state. I heard the current Borno state governor gave the same order to prevent the marketers from inflicting more hardship on the citizens of their state.

It is so obvious then that citizens are suffering now because the government is not doing enough to enforce its own order. The presidency must call to order the entire pump price control agency to step up their actions to return normalcy to the pump prices of the products and restore calmness to the users of the products.

However, that being said, the need for increment of the pump price of the product, in the light of the nation’s reality cannot be abandoned. It is a reality we should have faced decades ago; since the days of Abacha, all through to Jonathan, as the president of the country, economic planners and advisers have continued to tell the government the only solution to the inefficiency of the nation’s petroleum industry is the total deregulation of the sector. It has been established long ago that continuous operation of the government in the sector would only continue to breed and escalate corruption and political decadence in the country, and it is for that reason that government after government since then has made attempts at taking off subsidy payment on petroleum products without any success. We must all agree that in a corrupt-infested society as ours, revamping the nation’s petroleum industry is not a feat that can be done by the state; that sector has already been earmarked as the ‘national cake’ that all must accessed and pilfered.

The only feasible solution to the sector’s perils is the total removal of government direct participation, the opening up of the sector for private businesses, and leading to building of private refineries and local distribution systems. A process akin to the opening up of the nation’s telecommunication industry some years back. And we have begin to see some credits along that direction; the Dangote refinery is coming onboard, BUA Refinery construction is taking off in Bayelsa state, about 23 modular refineries are to commence full operation soon, and more Nigerians and firms are jostling for licenses to operate in the awaiting-liberated sector. We are getting to the point in the near future, when local demand for the products will be produced locally and still have excess for export. Then, it will not only be the benefit of lower pump price that the country and the citizens will have to enjoy, but also and more importantly, the erasure of the burden the national currency has been suffering because of the immense foreign exchange requirement for sundry products importation on a daily basis – given the fact that awaiting local refineries have already agreed to transact businesses with the government in Naira. We will get there someday very soon, but for now, we cannot but be ready for the last lap of sacrifices we have to make for the revamping of the nation’s petroleum industry; and it would be a sacrifice worth making for the future of Nigeria.

Right now, this is the reality; even producers and well established refining nations of the world are not exempted from the nearly uncontrollable rise in the pump price of these products. The United State of America, for instance, the unit price of gas has since February increased from $1.90 to $2.70 and is now currently at $3.12, yet the country is the highest oil producing country globally with 19.40 million barrel per day regular production capacity. The only way we could buy the products at reduced price as has been the case over the past years is through government subsidy, an arrangement that is unbeneficial to the national economy. When we export our crude and import finished products, the first thing we lose out of are the tons of by-products of the refinery of the crude; products that are in themselves raw materials of petrochemicals and other related industries. Secondly, we would be forced to bear the consequences of the high pump price on the consumer by subsidising the price, but what the implication of spending hundreds of billions of naira on subsidy is, is a worst scenario for the country. When we spend so much national income cushioning the price of an imported commodity at the expense of infrastructural development, we lose on all sides and we cannot afford to perpetuate that unprofitable regime, regardless of the immediate respite and solaces we get from it.

There have been arguments of the interrelation of the marginal costs and the marginal benefit of fuel subsidy removal. Definitely there is; yet, argument for prolong subsidy regime cannot be considered on its temporal merit. There would be hardship, that is a reality, but our failure to do the needful because of the fear of the temporal discomfit would tantamount to prolonging the problems in the sector for all Nigerians. If we had had the nerves to do what must be done some two decades ago, we would not be perambulating around the same issue in 2021. We suffered a similar fate when we had to buy phone sim cards for as much as forty thousand naira some 20 years ago, but today, we get the same for almost free. We paid the price. The same thing is happening in the country’s drive to become self-sufficient in rice production; we will continue yet for a while to purchase rice at higher price, but a time will come, when economic parameters and forces will regulate the price to become more affordable for us locally.

The only reason Dangote refinery, BUA refinery and others are coming onboard is because they have gotten government assurance that the sector is permanently deregulated. In the next five years, with all these refineries, including the modular refineries becoming operational, we will naturally do away with a lot of costs that forced the high prices on final consumers of the products in the country. We will finally domesticate the huge by-products of crude refinery in the country; create thousands of jobs across the value chain of refinery, processing, petrochemicals and services industry related to the sector, all in the interest of Nigeria and Nigerians

We now have a clear choice to make. Over the years, we politicise our responses to government desire to move the sector in the state direction, we scramble public sentiments to oppose the desired changes in the sector; set the organised labour against the government and forced the hands of the government from proceeding with needed policies. The choice now: do we want to continue with the subsidy regime that imposes more strain on the nation’s capacity to grow in other sectors as much as it has become obviously exposed to uncontrollable corruption, or we will bear the hardship of change to create a better future for the next generation of Nigerians.

There was a time in the past when China was a dumping ground economically speaking and totally lacking the capacity to exercise its developmental capabilities; but the change came for the country when the decision to go through the fire of changes was irreversibly made. Today, China is a sought after nation, in their own right. It is the same story for Dubai – before 1960, Dubai was just a desert but today, it is one of the best cities in the world. The transformation is not all rosy; some prices were paid to make Dubai what it is today.

If we get the management of the nation’s petroleum industry right, the fight against corruption will naturally become easier because over 90 percent of money that the politicians are scrabbling for are in that sector, and with government divestment in the sector, corrupt state access is also automatically non-existing.

*GOD BLESS THE FEDERAL REPUBLIC OF NIGERIA!*

BY Prof. USSIJU MEDANER