All over the country, fuel queues. The lines loop out of fuel stations through roads and streets like broken necklaces. In the morning, the car drips with dew. The sun licks it up later but a furtive city wind drapes it with a film of dust. Hours later, it enjoys the wry reward of a balmy night. But the fuel tank, still empty, tempts you for another 24 hours of longsuffering.
It no longer makes sense to speak of the irony of our nation, that we have scarcity of fuel when the bowels of our earth churn with lots of crude. It is like what the Russian poet Nikolai Nekrasov said of his country, “wretched and abundant.” Or, that we have refineries but we refine crude oil outside the country. To ship home the oil has forced the President to write the National Assembly for permission to pay N413 billion (about two billion dollars) subsidy to marketers.
But what is more wretched is the economics of the story. They say we have to pay subsidies because the cost of shipping the oil is so high we should not allow the market to take its course. Or else the common man’s purse will squeak into debt and destitution. So, we have to show mercy to the poor and downtrodden, and the government has decided to pay the kind and missionary marketers for bringing us oil.
But who are these marketers? They are the men in briefcases. They sign deals with government-owned Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation to bring refined oil. We thank them because they have done so well to travel first-class to the United States, Europe and Asia to broker deals with refiners. Those good old foreigners do good jobs. They refine our crude while our refineries lie limp like impotent monsters. The men in briefcases ship home the fuel.
Innocent enough. Really? But that’s where it gets messy. In the Nigerian way, we have become servile to their mathematical manipulations. Many agree it is all fraud. They hike up the landing costs. That is why we have to pay N413 billion.
The marketers’ due is our doom. The tragedy is that we have to pay them. It is like a rapist with a right. The more murky the story is, the more alluring. We are told that between the refiner abroad and our ports, lots of things happen.
One ship of oil can enter the account books up to three times. This is how it happens. The ship skirts Nigeria’s territorial waters, lands after a queue – not cars alone queue – and it is on the record. But it goes to a neighbouring land, and returns and goes on record but it has no fuel. On record, we are owing the marketer lots of money. Many ships do this and those in the industry call it round-tripping, an elegant phrase.
Recently, a wave of fear overtook the marketers that the Buhari administration planned to remove subsidy. But we were surprised that the President instead wrote to lawmakers for permission to pay them such a whopping sum.
Many thought the President’s gesture would soothe the fuel life of the commuter. But no. The marketers have decided to hoard fuel in their depots and stations. In many parts of the country, the prices have soared.
So why do they tell us that the whole exercise is to benefit the poor? The low-slung Nigerians already are paying what they should if the fuel subsidy is removed. Again, it seems the marketers are eating their cakes and having it. First they give us a big and bogus bill to pay for subsidy. While we are preparing to pay, they don’t believe us. So, they punish everyone by withdrawing the same thing. They own the products and subject us to their faith.
We are left at their beck and call. Obviously, they have committed two crimes. One is murky, the other in the open. The murky one is in figures that have been computed as N413 billion. The other one is hoarding. Yet, no eruption of lawyers and prosecutors. They are saboteurs but the law officers are quiet while we squirm. If we arrest any of them, maybe others will free the fuel from their tanks. One scapegoat, no saboteurs.
But the matter, some say, is a little simple. Why not remove the subsidy by cutting off the marketers and arranging with the refiners abroad, so our government and NNPC can control the cost of subsidy? That seems easy. But I don’t think so. If we allow the briefcase men to get away with lies, what guarantees that our representatives in government will not take a cue from their free market predecessors?
It is not a problem of the marketers alone. It is Nigerian business. We do business for crooked profits. We lie, make profit and swagger.
To succeed, the briefcase men conform, like Babbit in Sinclair Lewis’ Nobel Prize-winning novel. They do business the right way, don the happening suit, flourish their wrists with the latest Breitling, soar in private jets and cruise in private boats and throw weddings in Dubai and birthday parties in New York. They pop up in society pages of the newspapers, do no charity except for the vanity of their image. They put upside down Thorsten Veblen’s Theory of The Leisure Class. They have excess money but splurge it in clubs, but do nothing to expand the frontiers of luxury for society. They are sick of self-love like Shakespeare’s Malvolio.
Fuel queues are not new on our shores, it is like going back to the beginning. If we suffer anything today, we are bound to suffer it again. In a recycle of shame, Nigeria’s crises have no finales. It is because we have not built institutions and nurtured a breed of leaders who can distinguish between public wealth and private rights. The lines are blur.
The more simple solution is to build our refineries. During the Jonathan era, subsidy was partly removed with the promise to build green-field refineries. We were shown the green fields, if they lied about the colours. We did not speak of even a spoke of promise till that era ended.
The fact that our government-owned refineries are not working is not only a testament to corruption, but proves that if government takes over shipping the oil from the brief case men, the story might not change.
Some are pointing to the example of the break-up of the power company, NEPA, to baby NEPAs. But we are still doomed with power outages.
Is it government intervention or free market that will solve it? Is it Hayek or Galbraith? Even Adam Smith from whom all economists come was wary of both tendencies. The advocate of the invisible hand also suspected a market without rules. It is simple matter that other countries may handle without much ado. But ours reminds me of Professor Sam Aluko’s definition of economics as “common sense made difficult.”
To have a free market, we must first market core values. We are not there yet. That is why the briefcase men can keep our cars in long lines, frustrate commerce and still manage to party.