Tinubu, Kachikwu Fuel Fury, By Ken Ugbechie
The Minister of State for Petroleum Resources, Dr. Ibe Emmanuel Kachikwu, came under fire recently. He was first hit by Asiwaju Bola Tinubu, chief promoter of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC). Then as if on cue, the APC fired another broadside at the man who also doubles as the Group Managing Director of Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC). So much heat was generated by the comment made by Kachikwu even from those who knew next to nothing about the dynamics and contentions inherent in the nation’s oil and gas sector.
So, what was Kachikwu’s sin? The first-class brain and ruthlessly brilliant lawyer was being plain honest. He talked like a technocrat instead of deploying all the lying techniques of a politician. He was quoted to have said that the fuel queues, going by his calculation, will linger for weeks. His exact words: “One of the trainings I did not receive is that of a magician but I am working very hard to ensure some of these issues go away.
“And let’s be honest, for the five, six months we have been here, NNPC has moved from a 50 per cent importer of products to basically a 100 per cent importer. And the 445 barrels that were allocated was to cover between 50 and 55 percent importation. So it’s quite frankly sheer magic that we even have the amount of products at the stations.
“So we are going to put a new model to enable us increase the pace and actually get majors as part of the crew of those to bring in more products so that the NNPC will sort of go back on the capacity of what it used to do and the majors will take over the balance of importation.
“Our strategy is that whatever is produced in the refineries will not go for sale, we are going to keep them in strategic reserve. Because the key problem here is that there is no reserve anytime there is gap in supply it goes off. So we are going to dedicate the next couple of months to moving all the products that we produce to strategic reserve so that we can pile up reserves in the nation.
“Believe me this is giving me and my time sleepless nights and we are working on it and we are committed to making this go away, Nigerians should please bear with us”.
This was the sin of Kachikwu. He spoke like a private sector manager and not like a politician. He was being realistic rather than engaging in sophism and using flattering language of politicians. And for this, some persons called for his head. The APC even issued a statement asking him to resign. Tinubu accused him of talking like the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP). Yet, both Tinubu and the APC and those calling for the scalp of Kachikwu failed to make a distinction between reality and false hope. The minister was appointed to fix the rot in the sector. And he has told Nigerians that he is confronting the establishment, the vested interests in the oil and gas sector that have help the national economy crawling on all fours while they smile to the bank with easy money.
Fuel queues have been part of the Nigerian narrative since the military era and up to the return to democracy; even at the time the nation had a healthy foreign reserve to augment import and share in the name of subsidy. In those days, it was just nice and easy for the government to draw down from the foreign reserve, share the cash among friends of government and fronts of those in power and in a matter of days they flood the market with fuel; and the masses rejoice without knowing the government had just traded their tomorrow for the pleasure of that moment.
Now, there is no tomorrow to trade away; there is no easy dollar to share. It is down to hard, out-of-the-box street economics. The minister was simply being realistic. His latter day promise of ending the queues by April 7 is just dancing to popular tune. He would be forced to do either of this: unleash any reserve available on the market or rush to CBN and draw from the crashing external reserve to import fuel and flood the market thereby creating an artificial surplus. Either way, the people win, but it is an artificial victory.
Tinubu’s outburst was needless, unnecessary; it is not even altruistic, either. He simply played politics with such a critical issue. When Tinubu was Governor of Lagos, in spite of his efforts, he could not fix all the roads, traffic was a mess, it still is; crime festered, housing deficit was writ large, Lagos was then derided as a mega slum; there was anguish, there was pain but nobody called for his scalp. In much the same way I do not support those who are asking Buhari to quit because in 10 months he has failed to fix the economy, make life easier for Nigerians, create more jobs and firm up the naira all of which the APC promised Nigerians in its Change message. Change may come but it has to be worked out; no magic about it. Or should Nigerians also ask Babatunde Raji Fashola to quit because gross darkness has suddenly enveloped the nation? That would be infantile.
We must go beyond the surface. A few Nigerian elite, the oil merchants who profited from the bazaar in that sector and aspiring profiteers who feel denied a foothold in the sector in the new dispensation are raving mad at Kachikwu whose reforms have dismantled the stranglehold of the cartel and halted their evil feastings from the national till in the guise of subsidy.
Yes, there is fuel crisis and what Nigerians deserve at this moment is solution not explanatory notes. But the fuel crisis only mirrors the larger crisis of ineptitude in the Buhari administration. There is crisis everywhere and everything is suddenly in short supply. Forex crisis, electricity crisis, healthcare crisis, budget crisis; even nature seems to have lent a little support to the props of crises to unleash the most hellish heat wave ever experienced in the country. Lagos, for instance, is unbearably hot at day and at night.
The prevailing fuel crisis cannot be justifiably reduced to tirade against a Minister of State when there is a substantive Minister of Petroleum Resources, to wit, President Buhari. If Tinubu really wants to empathise with suffering Nigerians, he should rage and rail at the President, the chief superintendent of the ministry. Apology or no apology, Kachikwu should not be tagged the villain in this enterprise. He is on the other hand the hero who dared the oil mafia and stopped them from bleeding the nation. He is also the man who has boldly rebuffed the overtures of politicians who had wanted to cash in on the victory of the APC to take over the oil and gas sector as compensation for their efforts at effecting Change.
The silver lining in this whole dark cloud is the inevitability of deregulation of the sector. In the long run, government must hands off completely from the sale and production of petroleum products. The reason Nigeria does not have private refineries today is because government is still controlling the price. No sane business person would invest where he cannot influence pricing.
Again, I wonder. Why the fear? Take off the lid, deregulate the sector and watch competition drive availability and determine what should be the appropriate price for petroleum products.