Outside of the politics; outside of the economics; outside of the intrigues; outside of everything complicated that you can think of, there is always a naïve, innocent way of making an intervention in any discussion. Everybody in the world can call you naïve for all that you care! And like our sometimes jaundiced, ‘new culture’ way of speaking, some people might shout out loud or shout in loud, depending on what side of the ‘new culture’ divide they belong to: “Don’t mind that fool, wetin him sabi?” When all the dusts clear, it is always that simple, naïve way of intervening in an argument that makes life easy.
I want to attempt some naivety today. I am going to play the Motor-Park Economist (apologies to the late Ashikiwe Adione-Egom, who coined and made that term popular in his column in The Guardian) in this matter of the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation Vs The People. Yes, that is what it is. It doesn’t really help that we have governments, all 38 of them – the Federal Government (which is the big culprit in this matter), the 36 state governments (because they all gather in Abuja to share the loot, a la Federation Accounts Allocation Committee, what I rather call FAAC loot sharing meetings), and the semi-government of the Federal Capital Territory (that is run like a state). As a matter of fact, you might even want to add another government, because from all that we keep hearing coming out of that big capital of malfeasance, Abuja, the NNPC is turning out to be a government with sovereignty that even the United Nations General Assembly or Security Council may not be able to make any resolution against.
The NNPC is just one company in a group of companies owned by the Federal Government. As a matter of fact and in reality, because of the nature of our federation and what crude oil means to this country, the shares of the NNPC ought to be owned by all the states of the federation (given the way oil is viewed and captured in the revenue equation of the country). In other words, as all mineral resources are primarily owned by the federation, the NNPC ought to have on its board every state represented – it should not be controlled solely by the Federal Government. That’s my naïve thinking. If it were so naively configured, NNPC would not be running as if it is a government outside of government.
But that’s not just the only naïve thinking that I have right now. Genuine governments, when they are in power, have one primary responsibility – to run government by managing the resources to the benefit of citizens. Now, in every society there are always those who are considered to be the vulnerable. Good governments look after this group by making special interventions through policies to ensure they are not unjustly treated, cheated out of their ‘inheritance’, for want of a better word to use. In some parts of the world, these interventions can come by way of social safety nets that are created to cushion the effect of vulnerability – like when citizens fall on hard times, the economy is in bad shapes and job losses occur, government takes care of these vulnerable ones through social security payments, amongst other things that are done to get them back to a job.
In Nigeria, there are two curses many, many people believe our ancestors placed on us as a country. The first is bad leadership – remember how it was that in a country of Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe, Umaru Shehu, Ladi Hamalai, JP Clark, etc, we had a goggled Sani Abacha as head of state? The second curse apparently placed by our ancestors is the discovery of crude – otherwise, how can a country with the amount of oil that we have cannot refine it and produce petroleum products, instead imports them? It has more gas than it has crude oil, yet it cannot produce enough smoothly for its power plants to produce electricity! Don’t worry, I am still being naïve in my thinking. I will yet take this naivety further by adding that, over the years, successive governments (military and civilian), perhaps realising that these are sore points that beat reasonable appreciation, they went on to intervene so that Nigerians can enjoy from this oil abundance. They did this, perhaps, thinking that never would citizens pay commercial price for petroleum products. “We shall subsidise these products,” one supposedly benevolent dictator must have thundered in the Federal Executive Council chambers. “Yeah! Yeah!” Cheapish other members must have chorused in reply.
Now, there was a time when it was thought that only rich people use petrol. That was until ‘I pass my neighbour’ became a byword for survival in Nigeria. When that thought existed, and when we all didn’t know that kerosene and Jet A1 (the fuel used for airplanes) were not particularly too far apart, kerosene was what the poor used to power their lanterns, kerosene stoves, amongst others. So what did politicians, no, government officials, do – make a kerosene subsidy policy that would put government in such good light and show it to be catering to the vulnerable Nigerian. That’s why they made the subsidy on kerosene so high that for a shipload of the product imported at $30 million, government pays $20 million as subsidy so that kerosene can be sold to ‘poor’ people at N50 a litre. But guess what? It is not sold for that miserable amount – people pay N100, N120, N150/N160 a litre in some places for this product for which government has paid $20 million on behalf of us all as subsidy for a shipload that cost $30 million!
It is that simple. It is a naïve viewpoint to ask: If this was happening, why has government never been forced to be sufficiently angry to do something? Why is it that the NNPC, the monopolist importer of kerosene, and the ministry of petroleum resources that is supposed to be in charge of this policy implementation not sufficiently angry to do something about it? How can government mean to use policy to touch the lives of citizens and not bother that it is implemented ineffectively? This is serious. It beats naïve people like me who think that this is just too simple to be allowed to smell so foully as it currently does! Our ancestors are still angry!