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Fuel Subsidy: Enough Of The Blackmail

BALA DAN ABU e-mail: bala.danabu@theunion.com.ng

The on-going fuel scarcity should provoke all those who have always argued in favour of subsidy for imported fuel into renouncing their membership of that club. And yours sincerely was, until very recently, one of them. I had always swallowed all the rubbish that was dished out in support of payment of fuel subsidy and added a voice in support for it. Now I do not need any further education to quit that club.

The experience of the present scarcity of petroleum products has opened my eyes to the blackmail of the petroleum products importers. In Lagos where I have personally experienced the pain of the scarcity, cars have virtually disappeared from the roads.

Long queues of cars that are usually a common feature at the petrol filling stations in times of scarcity in the past are not even there this time around because there is no fuel to queue for. What is rather a common scenario are groups of people, all carrying at least one empty jerry can each in their hands, trekking long distances from one petrol station to the other in search of the commodity that has now become as precious and as costly as the blood in our veins.

And all of this is a product of the disputation over money that is outstanding in favour of petroleum products importers from subsidy, a substantial part of which arose from dubious, even fraudulent, claims. It is no longer news that even people who are not   in any line of business remotely related to petroleum imports are on the list of persons who receive subsidy payments from the federal coffers. As at two weeks ago, N156 Billion was paid from what is outstanding in favour of the importers of petroleum products. There is an argument over what is left after that payment.

The importers say it is more than N200 Billion but the government says it is N131Billion. The dispute over these figures, the fear that the in-coming administration will repudiate the debts and even end this very contentious subsidy regime, are some of the reasons for the fuel scarcity that has crippled the country’s economy for more than one month now. Fuel subsidy and its twin sister – fuel thefts – are indeed a huge threat to the nation’s economy. Together they have constituted a tap of waste that is the tragedy of the nation’s oil industry today, the fly in the ointment that has denied the country the benefits of this great gift of God.

These twin sisters must not be allowed to live. For as long as they do, the oil industry cannot really be said to be ours as a nation. It belongs to the fraudsters and the thieves. No government in the past has really taken the war against the criminals that rule the oil industry to their domain. The next government should do just that. It should not bow to the usual blackmail of fuel importers to retain the subsidy regime. It should end this regime of sadism. The war against fuel thieves should come after the fuel importers have been defeated. Both wars are not difficult to win. All that is necessary is honesty and determination on the part of government.

The importers will certainly fight back as they did against the administration of President Goodluck Jonathan when he wanted to remove fuel subsidy in 2012. Buhari must not bow to their blackmail. But for him to succeed, Nigerians must do for him what they, unfortunately, failed to do for Jonathan, that is, to give him their support. If majority of Nigerians had backed President Jonathan at the time he took on the importers in 2012, fuel subsidy would have long gone. Unfortunately, we did not.

All the arguments that the country would collapse, that Nigerians would begin to eat from the rubbish bins and that the transport system would collapse are all part of the blackmail of those profiting from the inefficiencies that currently rule the oil industry. It must not continue. We, as a people, must show understanding for whatever pains that the new measures may bring. We must rationalise our options so that we do not become tragic victims of the reforms.

We must become more disciplined in our attitude to life generally and in our dependence on petroleum products. That is what it will take for us to survive post subsidy era. Those who own fuel-guzzling cars should use them sparingly while everybody, including those who use public transport system, should limit the trips they make. Government’s effort towards ameliorating the pains of the people should focus on two areas – increased local refining of petroleum products and improvement in the public transportation system. Government should ensure that all refineries in the country are revived and to be able to work at full capacity before the end of this year. It is possible.

The existing policy which seeks to encourage private sector involvement in local refining of petroleum products should be sustained. The impediments against the take-off of that policy, especially those that have frustrated the moves by private individuals and corporate agencies to establish refineries in the country, should be examined and removed so that it can work. Governments assisted mass transit system should be further boosted to reduce transport costs and make travelling by road less costly and hazardous.

The new government should inherit and continue with the noble work that the Jonathan administration has started in the rail transport sector as a means of reducing public dependence on road transportation which costs a lot more. Fuel importers must be told in clear language that they can no longer hold this nation to ransom. Enough of their blackmail!

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