Season of Kegs, Drums and Queues

It is no longer news that petroleum products are currently scarce in Nigeria—an OPEC member and eighth largest producer of crude oil in this planet. The word “scarce” does not tell the full story. “Acute scarcity” portrays a better picture of the situation being faced by the giant of Africa.

In the build-up to the 2015 General Elections, Nigerians started noticing the appearance of queues at petrol stations around the country. The queues appeared strange, as the incumbent President, Goodluck Jonathan, had received accolades for the availability of petroleum products during his presidency. Conspiracy theorists immediately propounded a theory that the scarcity was “an attempt by the opposition to rubbish the president’s image”, and that Nigerians would see that the queues would disappear after the elections.

Thereafter, a story started making rounds that the federal government owed marketers over ₦350 billion, and had refused to pay. The oil marketers, as a vibrant force in a country with undermined refining capacity, demanded payment. Next story was that the FG had paid ₦150 billion of the subsidy claims, and so Nigerians could heave a sigh of relief. During this time, as some Nigerians remained sceptical, the behemothian NNPC kept assuring the public that it had “at least 30 days stock in storage plus oil-laden ships at different ports”.

The elections have come and gone, but the queues have become longer. Obviously, the conspiracy theorists drilled for the truth in the wrong well. The official selling price for petrol was reduced from ₦97 per litre to ₦87. The average Nigerian does not buy at anything like the official price. With the scarcity of the product, many petrol stations, with their fraudulent metering systems (another day’s story), sell at prices above ₦120 per litre. To get the “privilege” of paying inflated sums to a petrol station, Nigerians have to undergo the honorary task of queuing for hours. Those who consider their time valuable have the option of buying from black market operators. With petrol going for as much as ₦400 per litre, it is brisk business time for black market operators, while Nigerians wonder how long this nightmare would last.

The Nigerian conundrum has to be put in context. Unlike in developed countries where petrol is essentially for running automobiles, in Nigeria, people buy petrol for their automobiles, and for their generators (not “backup”!) With a generous national power generation portfolio, personal generators put a strain on the available petrol supply.

The explanation being bandied around is that this scarcity is an artificial scarcity caused by oil marketers. Their grouse being the failure of the FG to pay up subsidy claims. This economic explanation is probably correct. However, it fails to explain why diesel is also scarce. In fact, the scarcity of diesel has reached the point where major telecoms networks like MTN and Airtel have released statements bemoaning the scarcity of diesel, and giving advance apologies for future disruptions in network services, since Nigeria’s unfriendly power supply has condemned telecoms base stations to a life of diesel consumption.

If the scarcity is due to unpaid subsidy claims, why is diesel scarce? Diesel was deregulated by the Obasanjo administration, and so no subsidy accrues to the importation of diesel. Is the importation of diesel tied to that of petrol and kerosene? If not, then there is more to this hell than meets the eye.

The scarcity of petrol appears to have also affected Nigeria’s power generation. Reports indicate that generation has dropped below 2000 MW. No person has come forward to explain how power plants that run on gas (supposedly supplied via gas pipelines) would be affected by petrol scarcity. A better story would be to say that in the same period that petrol scarcity worsened, vandals coincidentally chose to vandalize a good number of pipelines. The drop in power generation has exacerbated the demand for petrol and diesel for personal generators, which in the absence of adequate supply, is subjecting Nigerians to a life of snow-coated hell.

As Nigerians continue to reel from the pains of scarcity, many seek for answers. Setting the oil marketers’ economic explanation aside, another set of political theories have been propounded. One theory states that the scarcity is an attempt by the outgoing president to make life difficult for his successor, ensuring that Buhari is welcomed into a hailstorm. The other side proposes the antithesis—the scarcity is an attempt by the incoming government (which surprisingly control the market forces) to rubbish the outgoing president and ensure that he steps out in an atmosphere of ignominy.
Whichever theory is correct, whether economic or political forces have triggered this scarcity, one thing appears certain. This scarcity is artificial. Nigerians are the ones suffering in a game whose players’ identities is still a subject of speculation. Whether it is the NNPC, oil marketers, finance ministry, president, political strategists, or “the people following us from the village”, something would definitely have to give way soon, one way or the other. Yet-to-be-paid Nigerians should not be condemned to a life of kegs and queues. They deserve better.
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PS: The writing of this article was aided by light from a Nokia “torchlight phone”. My area has seen less than 10 hours of electric power in the past 120 hours. Transport fares have just been doubled. I thank all the players responsible for this. Their reward would come soon.

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