Ibe, ka chi kwu…
There is a sense in which it can be said that an individual couldn’t be more fittingly christened than Nigeria’s incumbent Minister of State for Petroleum Resources, Ibe Kachikwu. His name could loosely be translated in the Enu-ani dialect as, “Mate, not my wish, but the will of the gods.” This may surprise some people because broadcast journalists have blasphemously corrupted “Kachikwu” to “Ka-Chukwu” – Greater-than-God??? Slight though the phonetic difference between the two words, but their respective meanings are universes removed. Methinks the media-friendly minister ought to have taken the pains to emphasize this fine point. At least, he gives the impression of someone who has an oversupply of executive energy, particularly on communications details as exemplified in his viral internal memorandum to the president. Is this some kind of straining at a gnat? Not by the standard meaning of the expression as the proceeding paragraphs would unravel. But first, a highlight on Kachikwu’s approximately 36 months in office respecting petroleum products sufficiency is apposite.
Recall that soon after Kachikwu assumed office in November 2015, he made a declaration that Federal Government’s four moribund petroleum refineries would be fully operational before the end of 2015 – in 30 short days(!) Nigerians, instinctively thinking of the traditional serpentine queues at petroleum products refill stations, were incredulous but nonetheless all expectant. Of course, that maiden declaration wasn’t realised. But trust Nigerians, the fast-talking lawyer wasn’t to be let off the hook lightly; they kept reminding him of his declaration. And at each turn the ex-Chevron executive came up with experimental antidotes to soothe the increasingly frayed nerves of Nigerians. With the passage of time the inefficacy of those palliatives became evident, in-country refining capacity didn’t shift on the dial. Nigeria’s import receipts on petroleum products consequently headed north. Kachikwu in his turn was compelled to come up with a cocktail of elegantly couched and persuasively delivered measures to stabilise the supply of petroleum products to the national distribution outlets. Yet the hydra-headed monster of products shortages still couldn’t be tamed.
As the Ministry of Petroleum Resources and NNPC yet tinkered with those challenges in 2016, the prices of petroleum crude oil also headed north. And with the national currency, the naira, concurrently trending steeply south, relative to convertible currencies, it didn’t require much time for petroleum products marketing companies to strongly protest Federal Government’s regime of prohibitive policies on the petroleum industry. Petroleum products subsidies demand was dreadfully re-introduced into the conversation, much to the acute embarrassment of both Kachikwu and his principal. Both men had earlier vowed not to touch petroleum subsidies even with a broomstick, but were forced to eat humble pies. The prices of petroleum products were increased by approximately 60%. But the queues at refill stations didn’t evaporate, instead they literally froze as they say in the industry parlance.
Then in early 2017 Kachikwu’s resourcefulness and the endurance of petroleum products consumers were simultaneously stretched to their elastic limits. “Why are we still spending nights at the filling stations, even with petrol selling at N145 per liter?” the latter enquired of the former. “Because I am not a magician!” the former shot back in apparent frustration. It was no doubt an impolitic retort, but typical human reflex nonetheless. The outburst had cost the minister the ire of Nigerians, nothing less than his head was deemed adequate to placate the gods. Kachikwu skipped being tagged a latter day John-the-Baptist by the a hair’s breadth; lucky guy! He apologised for his faux pas; true to the manner known, he found the eloquence but the requisite body language visibly eluded him. Few months following his apology and perhaps still feeling the need to remind Nigerians that a minister of state for petroleum resources still existed in the federal cabinet, Kachikwu entirely of his own volition, declared that Nigeria would be self-sufficient in petroleum products in 2019; failing which he would resign as a cabinet minister. The declaration was as stupefying as it was foolhardy. When my opinion was sought on the declaration, I simply said it was no more than a mere “expression of an unattainable wish; unless the minister is indeed a magician, which of course he has already told Nigerians he is not…”
There had been no doubt in my mind then that the minister would sooner than later realise that he had again spoken out of tune. Hints of that realisation manifested at the end of the second quarter of 2018, when Kachikwu while commissioning a mini refinery in Delta State, told Nigerians that modular refineries would not end petroleum products shortages in the country. Many industry observers, inclusive of this writer, thought the minister’s statement teemed with suggestions. We didn’t need to wait long to be vindicated. In the third quarter of 2018 Kachikwu finally admitted that 2019 was no longer realistic for Nigeria’s self-sufficiency in petroleum products. 2020 was then given as the new target date – 12 short months hence. Another wishful thinking or sheer display of passion? Kachikwu’s demonstrated passion for his official mandate cannot be gainsaid. His passion for office ranks favourably with the late Dora Akunyili’s of the NAFDAC fame. The man just yearns to deliver; his wishes are all too palpable, infectious even. All of which is to the good, but… And here’s the thing, but how about the will of the gods? Now the penny drops! Kachikwu has the while been living his name in every material particular but utterly blinded by his overreach of passion. Ibe, it is not your wish, but ka chionye kwu. Bother less with tasking your spine with unrealistic targets, just focus on discharging your extant office to the best of your abilities and leave the rest for humanity to judge.
There is no doubt that a righteous judge would always pronounce strongly against appointing a lawyer, no matter how gifted, to head a highly technical ministry like the petroleum resources. Ditto, the power; works; water resources; transport; solid minerals, science and technology; etc ministries. All such appointments are inherently leprous, to borrow the telling phrase of another talented lawyer, late Uncle Bola Ige. He incidentally had also endured Kachikwu’s awkward fate. With an eye on the Cicero’s acclaimed exploits in the legal profession, then-President Olusegun Obasanjo had sent him to the power ministry to finally fix Nigeria’s epileptic electricity. The toothy senior advocate confidently accepted the challenge, promising Nigerians he would deliver in six months! The wise lawyer didn’t need all of 12 months to humbly request to return whence he had come; the rest, as they say, is history. Incumbent power minister Babatunde Fashola, another lawyer, needed 36 months to realize what Uncle Bola discovered in less than 12. Ever the wily lawyer, Fashola has lately resorted to inundating Nigerians with “reasons” for his own glaring incompetence in discharging the power portfolio. (A marine creature cannot function out of water, try as it would, simplicita!)
It needs restating that for long the engineering and allied professions have been treated with open contempt in Nigeria. Whilst it is totally unacceptable for non-professionals to head the health and the justice ministries respectively, just about any person can be appointed to head ministries with engineering bias. And as is well known, technical reports on the axiomatic consequences of these square-peg-in-round-hole appointments have continued to pile up on government’s shelves. Instead of taking an objective view of those reports, the gods of Nigeria have, in inverse logic, made the abiding national anomalies something of a post-1970 culture. Technical arguments have since the end of the Civil War surrendered to political expediency. This is one of the valid reasons the West African giant continues to come far short of her potential. Under this scenario, therefore, a single or, in fact, multiple ministerial resignations would be as inconsequential to Nigeria’s misfortunes as water off a duck’s back. The imperative conversation we should be having is on how to persuade the gods of Nigeria to have a change of heart respecting the body of glaring anomalies in the country: stand logic on its feet by implementing the enlightened recommendations in those technical reports. Such a development, among other improvements, would save some of Nigeria’s brightest citizens the odium of coming across as morons.
While we wistfully look to the gods, empathy is due to all our awkwardly saddled compatriots; so, “Ibem, ka chionye kwu o”. And to all people of goodwill, “Annus mirabilis, ahead!”
Nkemdiche, a consulting engineer, wrote from Abuja.
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