Fuel scarcity and a culture of scapegoat

NNPC-MEGAReading some of the public commentaries – and other forms of reactions –   on the current fuel crisis and associated issues, I was reminded of why I opposed the controversial call to kill the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) made last year by a prominent Nigerian politician. The politician reportedly summed up his justification for the call with the words: “If you don’t kill the NNPC, it will kill Nigeria.” Clearly, those words should incline all patriotic Nigerians to see the country’s survival and theirs as dependent on their killing

NNPC at a time when, due to various factors, its popularity was arguably at its nadir.
Prominent among those factors were allegations of massive corruption and chronic mismanagement. And since we would naturally like to survive together with our country and be rid of things that pose a fatal threat to our joint existence (as the call implies about NNPC), I believe the politician in question expected us to accept the kill-or-be-killed scenario he created and act like people who understand that self-preservation is the first law of nature. An instance of the instigation or blackmail to kill for supposed self-preservation couldn’t have been more subtle or effective to the discerning mind.

Now, one of such public commentaries is Moses E. Ochonu’s “Dr. Kachikwu’s Blunders” – published recently in Sahara Reporters and Premium Times – which more or less sums up the predicament of the Minister of State for Petroleum Resources in managing the current fuel scarcity in the country thus: “Whatever he is doing is not working… The man thrives on deception and propaganda…. He deserves whatever opprobrium is heaped on him.” Let me say en passant that this sort of criticism is too harsh and demoralising. The function of the responsible social critic is to build hope while identifying problems, and not to demoralise. Ochonu’s criticism demoralises by its unjustified total condemnation of its target and his efforts, and by spreading despair.

And by other forms of reactions, I refer to such call made by the leaders of the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) on the Network News of the Africa Independent Television (AIT) on April 11, 2016, asking for the minister’s resignation.
Well, I argued in my response to the call to kill NNPC that, whatever the problem with NNPC, our interest as a nation is better served by reforming rather than killing it. In fact, I was convinced that killing NNPC would amount to turning the organisation into a corporate scapegoat, sacrificing the life of one institution to “atone” for perennial sins plaguing our entire nation like corruption, short-termism and poor maintenance culture. And I do not see how such scapegoat syndrome can solve any of the problems to which it has become a habitual reaction with some of us. Rather, it has always seemed to me like slaughtering a sacrificial victim to appease some fetish of activist hypocrisy that would rather not take cognisance of the complexity and resilience of such problems because it serves some vested interests while pretending not to do so.

I also see the call for Dr. Ibe Kachikwu’s resignation by Chief Bola Tinubu, which serves as a background for Ochonu’s unsparing criticism of the former – and the similar call by the ASUU leadership – as fresh instigations to lead yet another sacrificial victim, a human scapegoat rather than corporate one like NNPC, to the altar of the same fetish. I wonder if Ochonu and the ASUU executive recognise how long the problems leading to the current fuel scarcity have lasted with our tolerance as a people, like a pustule growing under the skin of a negligent person who only begins to take note and complain after it has grown into a big boil and ruptured, causing them serious discomfort. Thereafter, they blame the physician who may well be doing his best to bring them relief or cure that he is “making things worse” and not acting fast enough.

For instance, in the past 16 years before Dr. Kachikwu assumed office as Minister of State for Petroleum Resources, billions were spent on the “turn around maintenance” of our refineries by successive governments. Specifically, $1.6 billion (about N251 billion) was reportedly voted for the turnaround maintenance of the four refineries across the country by the end of 2014. Yet, nothing seemed to have been achieved by way of truly turning the refineries around to refine enough fuel for our local consumption. Hence, we have remained stuck with the shame of fuel importation – for our shores are practically awash with the natural resource from which fuel is refined. And we have continued to expend huge sums to subsidise the product, while putting up with allegations of corruption by entities involved in fuel importation, some of which border on economic sabotage.

Indeed, if anyone were to succeed in resolving this situation that has defied previous governments for nearly two decades in the roughly seven months Dr. Kachikwu has been in office, I would perhaps consider that person not as a magician – which Kachikwu rightly but tactlessly said he is not, and for which he has apologised – but as a miracle worker or superhuman.

And I am at a loss as to why some of us fail to appreciate that the current difficulties in turning our fuel situation around are worse than before, considering the harsh economic realities due to the drastic fall in oil prices, and the proportionate decline in forex earnings to support fuel importation or finance the maintenance of our refineries even in their current states. The solution, especially if it must be long-term, lies in thinking creatively and taking radical measures which I believe the current government is doing despite serious handicaps.

To adapt that famous quote by Albert Einstein, it would be madness to expect to be doing the same thing about our fuel situation and not remain in the same dissatisfactory position. The current situation requires supportive action, understanding, patience and sacrifice from the generality of Nigerians, as one would expect from good members of a family whose breadwinner suddenly lost their job or had their wages reduced drastically; and who, not of their own making, lacks the savings to cushion the resultant hardship for the family.

Since the NNPC, our entire oil sector and the way business is done in it are undergoing reform, we must understand that the fruits of reform, like every other fruit, can taste sour until it ripens with the possibility of tasting sweet.
The real question should be: What should responsible and patriotic citizens do at a time like this – “a time that tries men’s souls,” to quote Thomas Paine?

I think the least should be to offer suggestions as to how the problems can be solved for the general good. And I do not see how calling for the resignation of Kachikwu without guaranteeing that the problems will suddenly disappear with his resignation and replacement or criticising the government without suggesting better steps than those being taken by it qualify as solutions to the problems.
Curiously, some of these calls are coming even after the minister of state has unveiled a holistic blueprint for reversing the current situation and working towards a lasting solution.
• Oke, a public affairs analyst, lives in Abuja and wrote via: ikeogu.oke@gmail.com.



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