You shouldn’t whistle and sneer at the same time. You simply shouldn’t. You will look ridiculous! Okay, whistle or sneer all you want, but just don’t do both together.
One of the more daunting burdens of a commentator/chronicler is that he is often made to sound like a broken record, repeating the same things ad nauseam. We are blessed with many ideas but our country doesn’t seem ready to apply intellectual rigour to solving problems. Instead, we throw money at every challenge, pile on more bureaucracy and announce that the problem will disappear ‘by the grace of God’ or ‘in sha Allah’.
This must be the only oil-producing country in the world which exports crude oil and imports refined petroleum from countries that don’t have oil but have refineries which process our oil and resell at a premium. It is not that we lack common sense. Nor are we deficient in simple mathematics. It is just that our system is oiled by a plethora of scams, patronages and barefaced dribbling of public property into private fiefdoms. (The story of how our refineries stopped working and how they still consume billions of Naira in their comatose state will be told someday.)
State governments are unable to pay salaries, yet we continue to allocate oil blocks to individuals who are now richer than the states but beholden to those in power. I call it corruption because it has no other name. We can never win the war against corruption as long as we continue to allocate public property to satiate private greed.
Two years ago, I wrote as follows: “Nigeria is one of those countries where the president can make an instant billionaire of anyone that catches his fancy. With an oil block, you don’t need to lift a finger; there are oil companies begging for collaboration. You don’t have to ever work in your life again. You become an oasis of plenty in a desert of mass penury.”
I warned that the corrupt system would eventually affect how and by whom we are governed: “In a classic case of the devil finding work for idle hands, the emergency billionaire sometimes catches the flu of political ambition and influence hawking. Being insanely wealthy comes with its own diseases. The craving for the trappings of power are so overpowering that the oil magnate commits a slice of his loot to that cause. The combination of economic and political power in the hands of any human being is more than temptation; it is an alchemy that breeds tyrants, delusional fixers and ‘godlets’.”
The 1969 Petroleum Act gave the minister of petroleum wide powers to use whatever method preferred to award oil blocks. That loose provision allowed the Babangida regime to shun transparent bidding in favour of nudging its preferred local moneybags to apply for oil block licences. That was how the practice of allocating what belongs to all of us to a few privileged “fellow Nigerians” began. There were no specified limits to what percentage of the licenses and leases were reserved for Nigerian companies nor was there any for the multinational companies.
Since 1991 when Nigeria embarked on the opaque road of granting oil licences to individuals under the guise of opening up the sector to local players, influential Nigerians who were greenhorns in the oil industry but well connected to the military government were gifted oil blocks. Traditional rulers, businessmen of various hues, family friends and associates of military bigwigs became overnight billionaires. One particular awardee in 1993 sold off 40 percent of her stake to a foreign company, which in turn sold 8 percent of its stake to Brazil’s Petrobras. Today, the oil block in question produces 200,000 barrels of crude oil-and-gas liquids daily, catapulting the net worth of the Nigerian owner of majority stake to about USD 1.1 billion.
According to the Department of Petroleum Resources (DPR), Nigeria has a total of 159 oil fields and 1481 wells in operation. The coastal Niger Delta Basin in the Niger Delta or “South-south” region which encompasses 78 of the 159 oil fields is the most productive region. But it is the most ecologically devastated area of the country where there are virtually no infrastructure (electricity, schools, roads, potable water etc). Like the rest of Nigeria, some of the people’s wounds are self-inflicted. Their sons and daughters put in charge of the Niger Delta Development Commission to cater for their needs have transmogrified the outfit to a house of sin.
The moral decay afflicting the country at large is particularly evident in the oil producing states where the impoverished people cheer their corrupt leaders instead of holding them to account for their stewardship. In most communities, the pre-oil days of the early 50’s were their most prosperous and happiest.
More than 50 per cent of Nigeria’s oil and gas blocks remain untapped even as crude oil production continues to hover around two million barrels per day while gas shortages continue unabated. Out of 390 oil blocks in the country, 211 are yet to be allocated. With many other countries extending efforts to ramp up their oil and gas production and reserves, industry experts have expressed worry about the lack of oil licensing rounds in Nigerian since 2008. The campaign for resumption of allocation of oil blocks yielded dividends this year when the government opened the bidding process.
We have been through this route before. It only leads to empowering the minority rich and increasing the misery of the poor majority.
One of the fastest ways we can reinvigorate the states to enable them better cope with the challenges of development and remove pressure from the centre is to give them a much larger share of the national earnings and directly allocate oil blocks to them.
A former President of the International Association for Energy Economics, Prof Wumi Iledare, argues that, “The days of discretionary awards should be over because discretionary award is a process of converting common wealth to personal wealth, and the society really doesn’t benefit from this”.
But is anybody listening? With the intricate web of patronages on which our parasitic version of democracy depends, it sounds like a tall order to suggest that gravy trains be shut down. However, that is exactly what we have to do if we must make progress. And I am not alone in suggesting this path.
Human rights lawyer, Femi Falana SAN, recently threatened to take the federal government to court if the practice of gifting our commonwealth to favoured individuals is not discontinued forthwith. in his view, “the allocation of oil blocks to a few individuals and corporate bodies by the Federal Government constitutes a gross violation of the fundamental rights of the Nigerian people to freedom from discrimination, equal right of access to public property and in the equal enjoyment of the common heritage of mankind as well as the right to social, economic and cultural development guaranteed by articles 2, 13, 22 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights (Ratification and Enforcement) Act.”
Falana suggests instead that the Federal Government restrict the allocation of oil blocks including marginal fields to the Federal Government and the governments of the 36 states of the Federation, failing which he will seek judicial pronouncement on “the constitutional validity of allocating oil blocks and other natural resources collectively owned by the Nigerian people but vested in the Federal Government to a few private individuals and corporate bodies”.
Now, if the government opts to continue whistling and sneering concurrently, let no one throw stones at the mirror for reflecting an ugly face.