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New approaches to old demons

By Bolaji Akinyem
26 June 2015   |   2:26 am
IN The Nation (Thursday, June 18, 2015, p9), two stories caught my attention. One story was titled “Navy destroys 21,000 litres of refined PMS in Akwa Ibom” and the other was titled “JTF smashes 32 illegal refineries in Warri”.
Illegal refinery

Illegal refinery

IN The Nation (Thursday, June 18, 2015, p9), two stories caught my attention. One story was titled “Navy destroys 21,000 litres of refined PMS in Akwa Ibom” and the other was titled “JTF smashes 32 illegal refineries in Warri”.

These two stories are not in isolation. This approach has been the standard solution to the problem of illegal refineries. The problem is that it is not a solution. The supposed solution has become the problem in itself. What an anomaly! In the present state of scarcity of refined PMS, we destroy refined PMS, not because it is fake, because if it is fake, nobody will buy, and if nobody buys, nobody will produce it. Let me broaden the issue. The department of Customs regularly burns smuggled articles of clothing and food which have not expired. The action by Customs comes out of the same policy box of destroy, destroy and destroy as practised by other government agencies.

Before proceeding further, let me make one thing clear. I am all for destruction of goods which are inimical to human health. But my position derives from my own days of youth. People growing up in this country in the fifties will recall fake goods from Japan and India flooding the Nigerian market. At that time, the best pen in the market was made by the British and called Parker. The Japanese copied it and called their own P.arker (pronounced the same as the British one). Indian goods were also inferior copies of the original British ones. Their countries did not crack down on these inferior factories. Today, nobody will laugh at the Japanese or Indian technology.

Abroad, when the FBI, CIA, banks, multinational companies etc were and are confronted with the evil of hackers, they just went ahead to employ them to help them build up their own hacking capability and anti-hacking defences. Here, we would put them in jail, and on completion of their sentences, they would be let loose on society. Hardly an informed solution.

At the end of the second world war, both the United States and the Soviet Union raced to capture German Scientists, not to imprison them but to use their talents and expertise in developing their armament capabilities. The United States was lucky to get its hands on DR von Braun and his scientific collaborators who had helped Adolf Hitler to develop the V-rockets that rained chaos and destruction on Great Britain. The huge rockets that launched the United States space programme and that eventually landed men on the moon were developed by von Braun and his team.

We as Nigerians lost one opportunity after the civil war. Truth be told, the Biafran military establishment developed some rudimentary indigenous military technology that we could have built upon. Pettiness and lack of vision, and some might say vindictiveness, robbed us of that chance to build on the Biafran achievements. It was not by oversight. It was deliberate. I remember vividly my conversation in 1975 with a high- ranking federal military official when I brought the American experience to his attention and came up with suggestions as to what Nigeria should do with the Biafran achievements. He threw me out of his office not with an indifferent disposition but with venom that shocked me.

Now, what do we have? We have a Defence Industrial Complex established by an Act of Parliament in 1964 that is a national disgrace. Set up around the same time as the Brazilian one, our progress is laughable. While Brazil produces planes and sophisticated military equipment which it even exports to both developing and developed countries, our Chiefs of Naval Staff turn up with pomp and pageantry to accept hand me down used coastal vessels from the United States. India has just launched INS VIKRANT, its own home built aircraft carrier. We achieve so little and celebrate so much.

Still on the naval front, let me briefly return to an old hobby horse of mine. From 1975 when I assumed duty as Director-General of the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs, and whenever I have had the chance, I have advocated the setting up of a Coastal Guard separate from the Nigerian Navy. Each time this issue had come up, the Nigerian Navy had weighed up anchor and gone into battle formation against it. Finally and fortunately, the 2014 National Conference adopted the idea. My intervention for now is not on that issue but on the need to set up an Exclusive Economic Zone Naval Command to police our exclusive economic zone that is being ravaged by fishing trawlers from the Asian continent. In fact, what the Asian trawlers are doing, the manner of finishing and the quantity being finished amount to economic warfare against Nigeria and other West African coastal states.

We should learn the right lesson from our history. The first time we were stung militarily was during the Nigerian civil war when our usual military suppliers refused to sell us the weapons we needed. The second time was/is during the war against the Boko Haram, when again they refused to sell us needed military equipment.

Our forefathers had a saying: “if you trip over a stone the first time, that is bad luck. If you trip over the same stone the second time, that is carelessness. The third time, over the same stone, then it either stupidity or a curse”.

So, what is the way forward? We should stop burning and destroying as a policy. Licences have been given over the years for people to build refineries and apart from Dangote who is in the process of building one, others have not utilised their licences. And yet, here are Nigerians who obviously understand the rudimentary process of producing refined PMS and instead of encouraging them, we punish them. Even if on the short run, the government continues its policy of seizure of this PMS, instead of burning the PMS, it could be distributed free of charge to Okadas and private public vehicles in exchange for lowering of fares by beneficiaries.

So, let us regard building up our own domestic technology as a priority and start pursuing policies towards that end. That will involve encouraging, not persecuting the enterprising but rudimentary scientists and entrepreneurs.

As for Customs, burning of smuggled goods including clothes, and unexpired foodstuffs in a country of starving widows, starving orphans, motherless babies homes and homes for the elderly, not to talk about the starving and deserving poor, it not only does not make sense but on a liberal interpretation of the law, it may amount to a violation of international humanitarian law. I am suggesting that the clothes and the food should be donated to orphanages, homes for the old and the motherless. I am also suggesting that NGOs which are prepared to run free food centres for the poor should also be beneficiary of the food release from Customs.

What guarantee is there that free food and clothes will not end up in the market? If the Customs will involve the proprietors of orphanages, motherless babies and old people homes, there will be very little leakage. These proprietors are among the most honest, selfless and devoted people I have come across.

• Professor Akinyemi, CFR is former Minister of External affairs