Coming in the midst of another spell of fuel crisis heating up the polity, the setting up of a 14-man steering committee to enforce petroleum products supply does not portend any cheer for embattled Nigerians who have to contend with the attendant dislocation and galloping inflation. The government’s move is indeed seen as a race against time after seeming helplessness and criminal conspiracy of silence by authorities concerned that signpost an administration that is not only derelict in its remits but also empathy-deficient in its conducts. Though in an awkward manner, Nigerians have been given heads-up on a coming era without the vexatious fuel subsidy policy. Unanticipated is the current scarcity, piecemeal price adjustments, horse-trading and official denials that have combined to make living in Nigeria more hellish for average citizens.
Incidentally, President Muhammadu Buhari, who also doubles as Petroleum Minister and who is being fingered for a lukewarm disposition to the issue, is heading the new committee which is also charged with ensuring compliance with official prices. The Minister of State for Petroleum Resources, Chief Timipre Sylva is the alternate chairman while members include the minister of Finance, Budget and National Planning; permanent secretary, Ministry of Petroleum Resources; national economic adviser to the president; director-general, Department of State Services (DSS); comptroller-general, Nigeria Custom Service (NCS); the chairman, Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) and the commandant-general, Nigerian Security and Civil Defence Corps (NSCDC). Also included are the Chief Executive, NMDPRA; governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN); the group chief executive officer, NNPC Limited; special advisor (special duties) to the minister of state, petroleum; while the minister of state’s technical advisor (midstream) is the secretary.
The Nigerian State has been haggling to do away with the obnoxiously fuel subsidy regime that cost the economy N4.39 trillion in 2022 and massive holes in public financing. In an economy almost paralysed by low earning and large budgetary deficit, it is ludicrous to still sink another N3.36 trillion into fuel subsidy cesspit in 2023, while the current administration could only forewarn that market forces would soon determine the price of petrol.
For no tangible reason, fuel queues started emerging at gas stations. Officials first blamed it on panic-buyers, then road constructions! It soon shifted to the turn of the Department of State Security (DSS) to huff and puff empty threats at imaginary hoarders of petrol. While the State was chasing shadows, pump prices were selling at significantly higher rates nationwide.
As if that was not enough and for the second time in seven months, the oil marketers last week activated a new official pump price of N185/litre, citing approval by the Federal Government to encourage marketers to open up for business. It was considered a better deal than the ongoing phased rationing causing scarcity, long queues and exploitation of Nigerians by independent marketers and black market operators. Reports have it that major marketers were informed of the changes across geographical zones, with PMS to sell for N185/litre in Lagos, N190 within the Southwest, South South and North Central zones, N195/litre in the South East, FCT and North West zones, while the commodity is expected to sell for N200-a-litre in the North East.
While major marketers immediately began implementation of the new rates across the zones, Minister of State for Petroleum Resources, Timipre Sylva, responded that the Federal Government has not approved any increase in the pump price; rather, he blamed the new rate on the handiwork of those that wanted to discredit the administration! Sylva said: “Mr. President is sensitive to the plight of the ordinary Nigerian, and has said repeatedly that he understands the challenges of the ordinary Nigerian and would not want to cause untold hardship for the electorate.” Sylva appealed to Nigerians to “remain calm and law abiding as the government is working hard to bring normalcy to fuel supply and distribution in the country.”
The minister’s words meant nothing to the street. Interestingly, the NNPCL retail outlet, Zone 1, Wuse, and NNPCL Mega Station – a walking distance from Mr. Sylva’s office – on that day sold PMS at N194/litre as against the disputed N185. Other petroleum marketers in the FCT dispensed theirs at N195 to N280 per litre – where available. Amid long queues of desperate buyers that now routinely pass the night at filling stations, the product is dispensed at between N200 to N800/litre. In such dire situations, it is most difficult to keep calm and the more reasons to ask questions: where is President Buhari and what exactly is going on?
It is self-evident that Mr. Buhari is not in charge, including the petroleum ministry he elected to superintend like he did in the 80s. But unlike then, Buhari has rarely left anyone in doubt of his drained fervor in governing Nigeria. He has consistently affirmed to have done his best, whatever it is worth, and has nothing left in the tank four months to go. He is tired of Nigeria and the feeling is mutual. Most uncharitable, however, is his resolve to hunker down governance, seemingly to lounge in it, religiously cater for self and family, meet and greet diplomats, at public expense honour innocuous invitations round the globe, and give tone deafness to harrowing plights of ungoverned Nigerians. It is already that bizarre.
This fuel crisis is typical of a government suffering rigor mortis. It smirks of fraud and daylight robbery to be subsidising fuel that is on the streets sold at deregulated prices, yet there are no regulatory agencies to mete sanctions in two months that the lockdown has lasted. The narrative is the same during the criminal dirty fuel episode in 2022, as in practically every year. Of offenders, no arrests, no prosecution!
In this light, it is not out of place for the National Assembly to prevail on the executive to formally begin implementation of the deregulated regime and save the country a substantial wastage of 2023 budget on ineffective fuel subsidy. In other climes where real leadership solve problems than buck-pass them to successors, it would have been expected of the Buhari-led administration to keep to his promises of ending fuel subsidy “fraud” and power outages within four years in power. With such failure in eight years, the Buhari-led administration has lost rights to excuses that fuel subsidy removal would elicit social tension due to spike in inflation. Truly, social tension alibi would not suffice where the government is forthright and not clueless on remedial measures to put in place.
Contrary to demanding reversal of the pump price, it is more sustainable for the labour unions led by the NLC, to demand accountability from the Federal Government on why electricity supply has not improved in eight years, at least to ease the demand pressure on fuel consumption. Notably, South Africa has lately been in a similar power crisis like Nigeria. It warranted President Cyril Ramaphosa to abruptly cancel his scheduled trip to the 2023 World Economic Forum in Davos – to face pressure from the labour union and the electricity problem head-on. Despite his leadership role in BRICS’s representation at Davos, Ramaphosa sees the power cuts and demands by labour, civil society and business leaders that his government takes verifiable steps to tackle the problem as declaring a state of emergency and most pressing. That is how to hold elected representatives accountable and in turn be responsive to the people.
Unlike Ramaphosa, Mr. Buhari is busy with party campaign rallies, freely flying choppers over long snakes of fuel queues, filling stations and roads that are bedlam by motorists and jerry cans and cities in perpetual power outage. But Nigerians would certainly remember that neither the president nor the ruling party has said a word or took responsibility for the fuel debacle. They will also remember them as a party that promised much change and later recanted on the promise.