THOUGH separated from Nigeria by some 1,640 kilometres, I never really felt away from home for as long as my tour of duty of Ghana lasted. Apart from coming for briefing whenever occasion demanded, I was allowed to visit my family at least once a month. And there is no big deal about the distance between Accra and Lagos; hefty thanks to the Whiteman’s distance ‘shortener’ (ka’na ko), the airplane. The trip between the two cities takes only 45 minutes.
My trip back home, last Friday, was five minutes longer. Descending into Lagos that morning, the city spread below us in a superficial serenity that cloaked the usual chaos that typifies the nation’s commercial capital. The landing was so smooth I hardly noticed the time the big bird hit the tarmac. Stepping out of the terminal building, I figured I should be in the office in about an hour to begin my re-acclimatization process after two years of absence. That is, all things being equal.
But everything was far from being equal on this day of my resumption in Lagos. Surely, passage of time had not erased all the reports I had read, and seen on cable TV about our country’s lingering energy crisis; and the excruciating pains Nigerians had been enduring just to be on the move these past months. What I never imagined was the level of deterioration in the situation as I saw everywhere I went or passed through that day.
Less than 200 metres away from the terminal building, and about two minutes into the blistering mid-day sun, reality came staring me in the face like a sore thumb. Shortly, after the Nigerian Aviation Handling Company Plc, NAHCO, we encountered what appeared, first, as slow-moving traffic. That lured us into a gridlock that would see us meandering through the labyrinth of streets and passages within Ajao Estate for the next one-and-a-half hours before finally linking the Apapa-Oshodi Expressway through Osolo Way.
I breathed deep and shouted Hurray when we eventually wriggled out of the chaos and hit the highway. The road was free up to Ijesha Bus Stop. Then, traffic froze again. In nutshell, I got to the office almost three hours after I left the Murtala Mohammed International Airport.
One week after my return to Lagos, there’s still no respite. Fuel scarcity still bites with vengeance. Most fillings stations are still not dispensing products even though you see fuel-laden tankers moving virtually everywhere. Petrol still sells for as high as N200per litre in the black market. It is still much easier for the proverbial camel to scale through the needle’s eye than for people to get petrol in the few stations that are dispensing. Everywhere seems to be in a state of chaos and confusion.
From what I read, there are multifarious reasons for the persistent fuel scarcity threatening to grind the country to a halt. Some industry buffs have put the blame on possible removal of subsidy or sustenance of same on imported products. Some have blamed the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation, NNPC, for monopolising importation leaving marketers in a quandary. The NNPC, which has been in the eye of the storm over billions of unremitted funds to the national treasury, has debunked any underhand dealings, claiming to have enough products for Nigerians. The corporation, instead, blamed the current chaos on panic buying, hoarding by many marketers who have products but have brazenly refused to dispense, etc. Some marketers fought back, and dared the corporation to name names. They didn’t stop there. They accused the NNPC of giving petrol to marketers at N86.50 per litre, leaving no allowance for the cost of transportation; yet expecting them to sell at the official price of N87. The Pipelines and Products Marketing Company Limited, PPMC, a subsidiary and business arm of the NNPC, has also been allotted its fair share of the blame. Its traducers say that rather than execute its statutory mandate by facilitating constant supply of petroleum products to Nigerians, it has imposed serious hurdles instead, making them keep vigil at filling stations.
In an article, an online portal, Sahara Reporters, accused the PPMC of favouritism, among others. They said the body is fond of giving preferential treatment to major marketers at the expense of independent marketers. Indeed, the portal reported that its investigation at the Ejigbo, Lagos Depot, as well as the PPMC office in Apapa, “shows that for over a month now, only major marketers are loaded with products because they are licenced to import, and they bribe big…”
To show the seriousness of the situation, the New York-based blog quoted an independent marketer who claimed that his company had not done any business for a year, lamenting: “My staff shuttle between our office and Apapa (PPMC Office) every day, yet we have not got one litre of product for a single day.”
The portal also exposed how civil servants have shunned President Muhammadu Buhari’s anti-corruption crusade, and are milking the system to stupor. “There is hardly any table or office you go to at Apapa that you are not made to pay one bribe or another,” Sahara Reporters further revealed. “First, you obtain your ticket, which is the passport to load products. But the programme people will not process your ticket unless you pay a bribe of N1.50 on every litre of product allocated to you.
“After that, they will ask you to pay another N5 per litre of petrol and N8 per litre of kerosene allocated to you. While the N1.50 is for PPMC officials in Lagos, they say the N8 (for kerosene) and N5 (for petrol) are for the ogas at PPMC Headquarters in Abuja. And the evil cycle goes on like that. You can calculate the amount of bribe you would pay if you are allocated say 10 or 15 million litres of products.”
Although, I have not done any independent verification of this very serious allegation, and neither has the PPMC issued any rebuttal, there must be some elements of truth in it, knowing how corrupt Nigeria’s civil service is. And as in the case of all official malfeasance, it is the people that bear the brunt. And the people can’t afford to add the product of some civil servants’ illegal activities to their current travail. This is why the Federal Government, through its appropriate agencies, should investigate this serious crime and bring culprits to account.
Nigerians, citizens of this nation that rank among the five top producers of oil in the world, have suffered too much in the midst of plenty. Many top players in the industry have advocated complete removal of subsidy as the panacea to break this vicious cycle. I’m in total agreement. Government should not delay a day more on this. And like Dr. Ibe Kachukwu said at a recent town hall meeting with workers of the Petroleum Products Pricing and Regulatory Agency, PPRA, in Abuja, the permanent solution to all these crises is the privatization of the downstream sector of the oil and gas industry.
Nigerians have heard this time and again. Since this is the way to go, let’s take the plunge. Nigerians are ready. Government seize the bull by its horns. It should remove all the bottlenecks and throw the sector open. Let marketers import and sell at prices profitable for them, but with government putting a ceiling, above which they cannot go.
Would these make prices of products to skyrocket? Not necessarily. Ghana’s experience best illustrates this. Pump prices of petroleum products actually plunged during the third deregulated pricing regime for the period of July 16 to July 31, 2015. At first, the deregulation triggered a hike in price across Ghana. It started with a four percent increase on June 16 and a further 15 percent leap on July 2.
But when the Cedi made a 26 percent gain over the dollar for two consecutive weeks, Ghana’s Oil Marketing Companies, OMCs, slashed the prices. The pump price for petrol plunged from GHȼ 3.97 per litre to GHȼ 3.53 per litre; and GHȼ 3.73 to GHȼ 3.14 per litre for diesel. When the Cedi depreciates against the dollar, there is marginal increase in prices. Nobody complains. Nobody sleeps in filling stations. Products are available everywhere. Everybody is happy. And people have not been pouring to the streets in protest.
To finally bury the perennial fuel scarcity that has held the nation at its jugular, Nigeria should emulate Ghana, turn the page and do the needful. Period.