The presidential candidate of Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), Alhaji Atiku Abubakar, has said he would do a rather scary thing to the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC). I watched a clip from a television programmes where Atiku said thus: “I am committed to privatising the NNPC. Even if they kill me, I swear, I will do it.”
We must admit that this is probably the most daring move any candidate would make in this race. He knows he is treading in the lion’s den, which may be why he said the move could cost him his life. In a meeting with the business community in Lagos recently, Atiku reportedly said: “Let me go back to my experience. When we got into office, I walked up to my boss and said, Sir, there are two mafia organisations in government, one is NNPC, while the other is National Electric Power Authority (NEPA) … I said, unless we dismantle these mafia organisations, we cannot make progress. Let’s privatise them. The long and short of this is that I am committed to privatisation as I have said. I swear, even if they kill me, I will do it.”
Atiku said he had asked a Nigerian professor who lived in America if they had government involvement in the production of their oil. The professor told him that the state was not involved, the state got taxes from the companies involved in oil production. Atiku said he would rather collect taxes from the privatised company than grapple with the mafia in the cooperation.
The director-general of his campaign organiSation, Senator Bukola Saraki, also insists that there is something fraudulent about oil subsidies as currently practised, the consumption figures may have been faulty, especially given the gap between consumption that jumped by 20 million barrels in 20 months or so. The implication is that government funds go down some mafia pipes. The Senate President also thinks there are underhand practices in the organisation.
Perhaps both men have come to the conclusion that no one can put a finger on the matter. An elephant would easily pass through the eye of a needle than for anyone to find the leak, as long as it remains a government entity where long reporting lines make such findings almost impossible. The case of NNPC is like the mirage presenting like water, but being nothing near water as you get nearer. There have been allegations, which have elements of fact, to the effect that the foreign firms dictate the pace in the joint venture with the corporation. That would be anomalous in other climes. Some oil corporations in other climes have done well, which is why it is intriguing that Nigeria’s own has performed abysmally. Petrobras of Brazil is said to be top-notch in its performance. It has a subsidiary that produces Gasohol, a by-product of oil, which has made remarkable impact in boosting Brazil’s foreign earnings. President Muhammadu Buhari’s appointment of himself as substantive minister of petroleum hardly seems to make things better. The plethora of things now happening under his nose without his knowledge makes it obvious that the oil sector would be no exception. There must be something amiss in the corporation for which Atiku insist that he would privatise it. He knows he is venturing into dangerous grounds. He knows that the mafia in the corporation would fight with the last pint of blood in them. He knows that they could even want to put him out of the picture. There are strong indications that the mafia in the mix would rather Nigeria continues importing petroleum products than produce them in our shores.
Experts have said that NNPC ought to be a regulatory body, and not jump into the arena as a producer, by way of joint ventures with foreign firms who dictate the pace and ultimately fleece the nation. It would be better if the business were left for business people who would pay taxes to the state. That option would permanently break the back of the lingering oil subsidy, and the inherent fraud.
Some proponents of subsidy say the sing-song of fraud is a display of lack of internal control mechanism, insisting that, if there was closer monitoring and strict compliance, such misdemeanour would cease to exist. Many people believe that privatisation is, indeed, the way to go. Some have also said Atiku may not have the full compliment of integrity to undertake the process. He proposed it even when he was not yet in charge, an indication that his mind was clear about that move as a permanent solution to the problem. The late President Umaru Yar’Adua made a move to that effect in the early days of his government. The cabal in the sector stopped him in his tracks with a court action. The matter was in court before he passed away or he abandoned the move. His intent was an indication that the solution lies in that direction. It was Yar’Adua who stopped the subsidy on kerosene when he found that it was not really getting to the people that had the need. The regimes after him also removed diesel from the subsidy list. Those products no longer drain the government and swell the accounts of dubious people.
Perhaps Atiku gave him the idea, given that Atiku says he gave that late President the documents that gave rise to the amnesty programme, which restored peace to the beleaguered Niger Delta region. Yar’Adua’s amnesty programme was a master stroke that restored peace in that region. Government spent far less on the agitators than they would have damaged had they still embraced the AK-47 in place of peace. If the revolution that became of the telecommunications industry in the wake of privatisation is anything to by, then the light may well be at the end of the tunnel for the intractable problem that has become Nigeria’s oil industry.
If we continue in the same trajectory, it would be foolhardy to expect a different result. It might require rigorous planning and meticulous implementation, which would be worked out by experts on the matter.