When things go wrong, look for the ‘C’ word
Sometime in his first few months in office in 1999, a Newswatch team interviewed President Olusegun Obasanjo. In the course of what we fondly hoped would be a scoop, a news media term for one news medium being smart enough to leave other news media at the starting block, the president kept talking of corruption and the extent to which it held our country’s progress and development hostage.
I thought there were some other pressing national problems too that he needed to tackle as president to move the country forward. I raised these but he remained firm in his view that our number one problem was corruption because, according to him, if we fail to rid the country of corruption, nothing would go right.
Obasanjo was right. He took on the monster. He fought it hard through the EFCC that he set up as our first institutionalised anti-graft instrument. Corruption proved more resilient and more comprehensively deep-seated than the president perhaps imagined. He left office without defeating it. Nigeria still occupies its unenviable near top spot on the annual global corruption index issued by Transparency International after all these years, after all these efforts and after all the occasional parade of venal ex-public men and women. It did not help matters that President Jonathan took a casual view of all the talk about corruption. He said that corruption was exaggerated and that what people were doing was stealing, not corruption – as if that was permissible under our laws.
I am using Obasanjo’s view to test my new theory of corruption, to wit, wherever public institutions fail the people, there you find the ubiquitous ‘C’ word. I have given some thoughts to what corruption has done and is doing to our country. I cannot but agree with Obasanjo that this monster was and is and is likely to remain our number one national problem until perhaps hell turns into a tundra region. Sure, the EFCC under President Buhari is waging the anti-graft war seriously because winning it would be the crowning legacy of the president who, as a military ruler, locked up the politicians in 1984 and demanded that each should prove before the military tribunals that he had clean hands. Heck, the camels are still sauntering rather leisurely through the eye of the needle.
Item. This week, the Central Bank of Nigeria told the House of Representatives ad hoc committee on refineries and turn around maintenance that in five years, our country spent $36.371 billion on the importation of petroleum products. An official of the apex bank, Ganiyu Amao, told the honourable members: “Data from the CBN show that from 2013 to 2017, a total of foreign exchange committed to imports in the country stood at $119.409 billion; while the total foreign exchange committed to imports in the oil sector stood at $36.371 billion, representing 13.5 per cent of all imports made by the country. It greatly exerts serious pressure on our external reserves and depreciates the value of our local currency.”
In non-civil service speak, the information comes down to this: we have been spending some $7.27.42 billion a year to get petrol into our vehicles and diesel into our generators in our homes and in our offices. That is not bad, really. We need the stuff to power our vehicles and generators because the DISCO companies are enjoying their disco at our expense.
So what has the importation of fuel got to do with corruption? Here is what I found that may or may not prove my new theory. Nigeria, the largest crude oil exporter in Africa, has four oil refineries: two are located in Port Harcourt and one each in Warri and Kaduna. The first Port Harcourt refinery, or to give it its elegant official name, Port Harcourt Refining Company Limited, was commissioned in 1965 with an installed refining capacity of 60,000 barrels per day. Not a whole lot at the time but it was close to meeting our domestic consumption.
Next to come on stream was the Warri Refining and Petrochemical Company in 1978 with an installed capacity for refining 100,000 barrels of crude oil a day. Nine years later in 1987, its capacity was increased to 125,000 barrels a day. A second Port Harcourt refinery with a more impressive installed refining capacity of 150,000 barrels per day was commissioned in 1989. Thus from the two refineries in Port Harcourt alone, we were sure of 210,000 barrels of petroleum products daily.
The Kaduna Refining and Petrochemical Company joined the other two refineries in 1980 with an initial capacity of 60,000 barrels per day. Altogether, the four refineries had a refining capacity of 445,000 barrels per day. With that, we should be close to being self-sufficient in our fuel supplies. The refineries, representing massive national investments in the oil industry, have become metaphors for a nation that plans to fail and fails quite pathetically. They are refining nothing. Zilch. In technical language, they are moribund, as in slumber. You must have heard of a series of turn-around maintenances of the four refineries. The truth is that nothing was turned around. We continue to spend more than seven billion dollars a year importing the refined petroleum products from the same crude oil we export to other countries. Can you catch a whiff of the ‘C’ word? I thought so.
Why are the refineries moribund? It could not be for want of raw materials. Their main raw material is crude oil which the country produces and exports in abundance. It could not be for want of technical expertise. Many well-trained Nigerians are now in the top echelons of the oil industry. In any other country but ours, this would be a national scandal. Not in a country whose middle name is scandal. No shaking, brother.
Maybe my theory ignores the fact that no industry is immune to failure from a variety of sources. In business as in much of life, the best plans by anyone can still go wrong. But try and dig a few inches below the surface and you come upon the bony hands of corruption in the comprehensive failure of these refineries.
Their failure gave rise to the lucrative business that spins dollars. Fuel importation has become the quickest route to fame and fortune in the country. It ensures the refineries are neither turned around nor maintained. You do not need to have some expertise to be a fuel importer. Your birth certificate is all you need to become one. Recall that in 2011 when the country spent more money on fuel importation than at any other time in its history, the sons and daughters of who was who in the ruling party suddenly became fuel importers. They imported nothing but were fully paid for the quantity of fuel allocated to them on paper. When EFCC attempted to bring them in on charges of corruption, the trail suddenly went cold. The action of the commission was but a pitiful response to public anger. It was not intended to punish those privileged sons and daughters of the shakers and movers of our nation.
I can see no quick fix here. Unless and until we are invited to see the caged corruption in the University of Ibadan zoo. The current decision by the Federal Government and the NNPC to rehabilitate and concession, first the Port Harcourt Refinery, smacks of a desperate palliative. It would be a long process with no guarantee that we would spend less on imported petroleum products. Perhaps better than let them be as they are. Even then the National Assembly has objected to the process that seems to favour Agip in partnership with Oando. Let the two elephants slug it out and let the nation bleed from the wounds inflicted on it by the ‘C’ word.
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