The Cliff-hanger theorem
Why did Bola Ahmed Tinubu, the national leader of the All Progressives Congress (APC) and principal midwife of the Buhari presidency think it was time to bring out the heavy artillery? What did he want to achieve with his aggressive machine gun statement? First the statement: “Kachikwu must be reminded that he was not coerced to take this job. He accepted the job and its responsibilities knowingly. He also must remember that he does not own the NNPC. The company he runs is owned by Nigerians not by him and they are his boss. In talking to us in such a manner, he committed an act of insubordination.”
And what was Ibe Kachikwu act of insubordination? The Minister of State for Petroleum told reporters in response to their question on the fuel scarcity: “One of the trainings I did not receive is that of a magician, but I am working very hard to ensure that some of these issues go away.” He also told the public that by the end of May these problems would have been resolved.
Tinubu is a very experienced and smart activist and politician. He has been in the trenches right from the days of the military dictators. He was also a senator in the 90s and the governor of Lagos State from 1999 to 2007 during which period he took on a tested warrior-President: Olusegun Obasanjo. So, Tinubu is a very knowledgeable man about public affairs. He knows that Kachikwu is only the adjunct Minister and that President Muhammadu Buhari is the substantive minister. Tinubu knows, too, that Kachikwu is a technocrat and not a politician. He repeated this at the meeting with the Senate Committee on Petroleum. But Buhari is the politician who contested for the presidency three times and won in the fourth round. So if there is someone who knows about the inflammability of petrol politics it is Buhari. So does Tinubu.
Curiously, Tinubu’s statement was about style not substance, about manners not matter. He did not deal with the meat of the matter, the acute shortage of petrol in Nigeria. Rather, he left the ball and kicked the leg. I did not feel insulted by Kachikwu’s statement but I was disappointed that the government could not put petrol in my tank. Even though, I know a bit about the politics of petrol in Nigeria I thought that the APC had enough knowledgeable politicians to know how to tackle it because it is an issue that had threatened the lives of past governments in this country. It is a ticklish, explosive issue far beyond the mere technical competence or otherwise of a Minister of State. If not adroitly handled petrol politics can send any government in Nigeria to the grave. That is the unvarnished truth. However, Tinubu chose to hit what he considered to be a soft target: Kachikwu.
Tinubu must have felt embarrassed by the incompetent handling of the petrol crisis by his government and did not want to confront Buhari over it. There is a proverb where I come from that when you want to talk to the deaf it is better to send the message through his brother. There have been stories in the mill about the alleged deterioration in quality of the Buhari-Tinubu relationship. If this is true, was Tinubu trying to mend fences with the BOSS as some people speculate? And was that why Buhari publicly admitted for the first time at Tinubu’s 64th birthday that Tinubu is the man who made the Buhari presidency possible? And by the way, wasn’t it impolitic for Tinubu to take on publicly the servant of his government when he has uninterrupted access to him, an action that elicited adverse reactions from party faithful in the South Eastern States?
If Tinubu believed, truly, that Kachikwu was the problem why didn’t he push for him to be fired. I wasn’t bothered by the Kachikwu magic response because I know three things: (a) Kachikwu is not a magician (b) petrol politics in Nigeria is even beyond magic (c) Magic sometimes fails. There was a man called Moshood Folorunsho Abiola who was born in 1941 in Iseyin, Oyo State. He took on the show name of Professor Peller when he became a famous magician. He would flick his white handkerchief and a white dove would fly out. He would pull at his cuff links and flowers would appear. He was assassinated by some gunmen at his Onipanu residence. Magic did not help him. So, even magic can fail.
However, even though Tinubu’s statement was irrelevant to the issue of petrol scarcity it indirectly fuelled an intense discussion of it. Petrol scarcity became the staple of daily conversation. If we flip our memory file we would know that there has been nothing like this in a decade. Many motorists took their sleeping mats to the fuel stations. They didn’t have a wink because they didn’t want to miss the moment the delivery truck would arrive. They returned home with the throats of their cars parched, no fuel. Others carried the fuel tanks of their generators, motorcycles or three-wheelers to the fuel stations as evidence that they are not buying the fuel for resale at a higher rate. As the problem escalated our nerves were at full stretch, and our anger started to rise like an awakening giant. It was like a scene from hell and we all felt assaulted by a terrible sense of humiliation by a country that is richly oil-rich.
Nigerians think this way: we are an oil producing country. We deserve to have petroleum products more easily and affordably than citizens of countries that don’t have oil. If you pour the lack of petrol on these assertions what you have is an inflammable cocktail.
Petrol has always been a major issue in our life as a nation. Any time there was a petrol price increase there was certain to be a national upheaval. The government would first announce what it would do in the areas of transportation, electricity, water etc. with the increased revenue; it would placate people by purchasing a few mass transit buses after which it goes to bed. All the other promises are forgotten. That’s the way it has always been. No petrol price increase has ever received a commensurate response in the provision of amenities. Any petrol price increase always comes with a staggering increase in transport fares and the prices of goods and services. So the people are always left holding the short end of the stick.
Let’s get it clear. Petrol is more of a political issue than an economic issue. That is why people sometimes riot when there is a price increase. That is also why it is sold at the same price, if you can find it, in all parts of the country, no matter how far they are from the delivery port. During the presidential campaign last year, the PDP listed uninterrupted supply of petroleum products as one of its achievements.
The APC said it was no achievement. Now, even that minimum achievement of the PDP government is giving the APC government maximum headache. However, to be fair we must admit that the fuel problem predates the Buhari presidency. The problem that has hindered flawless delivery is that this government has been caught in its own anti-corruption web. Buhari wanted the NNPC to do the bulk of the importation in order to cut the fat in the stomachs of the independent and associated marketers. They decided to show him their teeth. Now the government has rolled back that policy and given the marketers more share of the import booty. There is what is called the “cliff-hanger theorem,” which states that each problem solved introduces a new unsolved problem. That is what happened. Buhari, in his quest for a fairer deal for the Nigerian people, stepped on the big toes of the marketers and they kicked like a horse, and left us petrol-starved.
This is not the only problem facing the oil industry. Kachikwu has listed some of them: pipeline vandalism, lack of foreign exchange, poor maintenance of 90 per cent of the depots, non-payment of subsidy to marketers. Using various measures the government was able to save N1 trillion within less than a year. But on balance was the saving worth it if lots of valuable man hours have been wasted by the people as they search in futility for fuel, with all the accompanying stress and distress? If we were a country that is truly statistics-conscious we would have known how much our economy which had been running at low speed at best or limping like an amputee at worst had tanked during this crisis.
The two most significant problems facing us as far as petrol is concerned are low local refining capacity and subsidy. If we do not expand the existing four refineries and or build new ones, we will continue to import refined petroleum products. Importation will be a major challenge in future the way it is even now. Secondly, some people have asked for the removal of subsidy. Their point is that it will check the smuggling of the products into neighbouring countries where the prices are higher. They also think this is a recipe for product availability. I support subsidy removal because it will inevitably make the products easily available but it should be done in phases over, say, a three-year period. Removal of subsidy must also be accompanied by verifiable expenditure on facilities and amenities that can benefit, especially but not exclusively, the people on life’s margin: the poor.
Those who are urging the government to remove subsidy, all of it, now, yesterday, are asking the government to take an uninsured risk. If the government does that there will be a national upheaval the end of which nobody can predict. Yes, the price of diesel was deregulated without problems. Diesel is consumed by companies and persons who have either big generators or big cars. They can easily afford it. Petrol is used directly or indirectly by everyone without exception. That is why the politics of it is deadly. Those who use the deregulation of the price of GSM as an example of what benefit can come from petrol price deregulation are missing the point. Comparing petrol with telephone is odious. It is like comparing a cow with a chicken. One is white meat, the other is red meat. They are not in the same league at all.
It is all of these problems that make the putting of petrol in people’s cars look like rocket science. So the point is that even if Kachikwu has the organisational genius of a field marshal he cannot deliver petrol on an uninterrupted basis except the political decision makers are able to pluck up courage and do the needful.