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Friday, May 21, 2010

Fuel Shortage in the North

Northerners Must Go To War
Dr. Aliyu Tilde

After an eight-day national strike, the pump price of petrol is officially settled at N34.00/litre. Nationwide, people are accusing labour of collaborating with government and stage-managing the strike. They feel that N34/litre does not equate with the hardship that Nigerians underwent during those gruesome eight days, nor does it compensate the support they gave the Nigerian Labour Congress. Professor Mobolaji Aluko, an expert in the field, using figures obtained from NNPC, feels that labour “should be negotiating for a decrease to N24 or even to N21.”
Pathetic as the situation is for the country, it is worst in the North. In this article, I have argued that the North has nobody to blame on this issue other than itself. Even if distribution of fuel has stabilised and the present nationwide is over and unless serious measures are taken by their elite and governments, people in the region will continue to live under the vagaries and exploitation of the black marketers.
The black market has existed in the North for a long time as a rural outlet using surface tanks and attending to energy demands of rural homes, roads and farms. But with the fuel scarcity of early 1990s, surface tanks flourished even in the outskirts of state capitals in the North. Since about five years ago, hiding under the cover of independent marketers, black marketers came out of their hiding and started building permanent filling stations that are curiously licensed by state governments. Within a short time, virtually all independent marketers in the region became black marketers. With this development, fuel disappeared from filling stations of major marketers. It is simple logic understanding also that almost all dealers of major oil companies, by now, have an independent market – or say black market – outlet in the region. An intricate web is formed that is difficult to unwind.
A new industry is thus born whose investors are ruthless illiterates or half educated people with no understanding of, or sympathy for modern society and civilization. These black marketers have become our nouveau riche in the North. They connive with deport managers, soldiers, police and state officials to ensure an endless el dorado. They even sponsor malams for the lesser hajj to pray in Mecca for the longevity of their business. From their ruthlessness, depot managers, Divisional Police Commissioners, and chairmen of taskforce on petroleum products are making millions monthly.
Without any sanction from the increasingly weak and corrupt leadership nationwide, northerners have lost hope that there would come a day when this syndicate of shylocks that feed on their flesh will be disbanded government. I am glad that up till now, the theory of marginalization has not caught up with the scarcity of petroleum products in the North. Nobody is accusing Obasanjo as conspiring to impoverish the region by allowing black marketing to flourish. It is obvious that northerners in this case understand that the evil of fuel scarcity is encouraged by their complicity and, more importantly, it originated from the three incompetent regimes – all headed by their kinsmen – that preceded Obasanjo.
The fault squarely lies with northerners themselves. Let us start by asking why is black marketing of petroleum products institutionalised here, not in the South? Fuel black marketing has been taking place right at the gate of northern depots. I can understand black marketing in the South when there is a brief scarcity, but I have never heard their states licensing and patronizing black market in the name of independent marketers.
To justify black marketing of fuel in the North, excuses have been given, including refusal of depot managers to allocate fuel to dealers, the long distance haulage from Port Harcourt or Warri and the menace of Police and Soldiers on the way. True as these excuses are, they do not, in my view, justify institutionalising black marketing of petroleum products in the North. These are aberrations that must be fought and corrected. As Nigerians, Northerners are correct to demand for adequate supply of fuel at controlled price. But at the same time, they must know that no right was ever granted without its owner fighting for it. After getting it, he must relentlessly fight further to protect it; otherwise, someone will snatch it away.
Snatching away the rights of northerners to fuel at controlled price is an art that black marketers in the region have perfected. Against these enemies living in their midst, northerners must wage a decisive war. I can understand their pressure on the federal government to allocate enough fuel to their states which must be delivered without gratification to depot managers or the menace of police highway robbery. Beyond this, whatever happens to the fuel is the home affair of the region, its governors and its people.
To win the war against black marketers in the North, northerners must abandon their docility. I remember that at the peak of the fuel scarcity of 1995 when some dealers in the East started erecting stations that were selling fuel above unofficial rates, their stations were promptly burnt down by members of their communities. It is this non-complacent step that saved the South generally. They have understood that evil always starts from within, and it must be arrested promptly before it grows strong enough to threaten the existence of the society or causes it untold hardship.
Contrarily, in the North protest is still seen as iskanci (rascality) and criticism against injustice is still regarded as rashin kunya (lack of respect for authorities and elders) even where these authorities are incompetent and those elders are criminals. Otherwise, I cannot understand how some traditional rulers, governors and their commissioners would be living fat on our flesh through owning or supporting black market stations. I was taken aback to know how some governors and their commissioners were daily harvesting millions from black marketers during the Abdulsalami era. They shared their booty every night while in the morning they will be warning the black marketers on radio to desist from their trade. And there was never any protest against it. The labour unions in these states have never deemed it fit to go on strike in order to protect their rights and those of their people.
People must be made also to appreciate the manner modern society works. Everything is interconnected. How long a penny remains in your pocket depends on the activity of another person. The alheri – or benefit even from criminal acts – that someone harvests from black marketing is not adding value to the community. If anything, it drains it by preventing the circulation of wealth while concentrating it in the hands of few individuals who will remove it out of the community when they squander it in pursuit of their consumerist ambition of buying a car, building a house, or chasing a woman. There is little wonder, therefore, that northern states are the most indigent in the country. It is not because their people are not industrious. Clearly, they invest heavily in agriculture. But their productivity is usurped by some middlemen who do not add any value to the communities.
The responsibility rests more on governors of northern states than on their labour unions and masses. In some northern states, wiping out black markets is almost impossible because the governors of those states are the chief smugglers and black marketers of the commodity in Nigeria and Niger Republic. But to those governors who are ready to give our suggestion a trial, their subjects need to offer support by exercising patience in times of scarcity. They will strike a deadly blow to black marketers whenever they boycott them and patiently queue at the filling stations that sell at official rate, waiting for their turn. Without this sacrifice, northerners may never be able to buy fuel at official rate again.
In every state, this will require the composition of a taskforce on fuel distribution whose officials are appointed on merit, not on basis of “come and chop”, something similar to the commendable efforts of Col. Ja’afaru Isa in Kaduna in the mid-nineties. Officials, who included military personnel, followed every allocation from the refinery to its destination. Though it many times demanded spending hours at the filling station, throughout the period of the crisis, a patient consumer was able to buy fuel at controlled price anywhere in the state.
Allusions are made that once “the downstream sector is deregulated,” water would find its level because of the usual “interplay of market forces.” But our experience with privatisation in Nigeria is that it ends in the official recognition of cartels that will always collude to fix prices, using all sorts of lies, thereby immobilizing the market forces. The GSM is a good example. Fertilizer is another. Today, in spite of deregulation, a 50-kg bag of 46% Urea fertilizer sells at N3,600.00, while a sack of maize sells only at N1,500.00.
With or without privatisation, northerners will remain victims of the black market until they rise against the saboteurs living among them. It is true that among such saboteurs are many powerful emirs and governors, but nobody is above the collective interest of the society and none could resist its will. To avoid buying fuel at double the official rate as they have been doing for a decade now, northerners must go to war against these enemies of the nation. This may not be difficult among the descendant of celebrated figures like Kasko, the 17th Century ‘suicide bomber’ in Katsina and Shehu Danfodio, the 19th Century revolutionary in former Gobir. Unless the beneficiaries of their ancestry lead this and many other wars against today’s injustice, we – their foot soldiers – have cause to doubt their pedigree.

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