The oil sector as scapegoat
BETWEEN the summer and autumn of 1940 when Britain stood in grave danger of being overwhelmed by the all-conquering German air machine, the small Royal Air Force (RAF) of Britain braved the odds to defend the Island in World War II’s first major campaign fought entirely by air forces. Known as the Battle of Britain, it was also the largest and most sustained aerial bombing activity to that date.
Germany’s air power, according to military experts, dwarfed the British such that, it was thought that in a matter of days German victory in the skies would make it easy for her land troops to make a way into English territory. But the so-called Lilliput of an RAF staved off the deadly Luftwaffe attacks from Berlin to save Britain and indeed Europe from complete control of Adolf Hitler.
As he looked back at the invaluable contribution of the puny RAF, British Prime Minister at the time, Winston Churchill declared: “Never, in the field of human conflict, was so much owed by so many to so few.” This famous remark hasn’t been disputed; for truly the survival, together with their subsequent victory of millions of Britons and Europeans was made possible by RAF men and women.
Now in Nigeria, as we look at the fate of the oil industry, we can say without sounding immodest that never in the history of our country has so much been owed to a single sector by so many other sectors crowding around it for social, political and economic existence. True, cocoa in the west, groundnut in the north and coal in the Southeast may have performed their own wonders in their era. These resources in the 50s and 60s did give us the high-rise Cocoa House, schools, hospitals, industries, groundnut pyramids and estates.
But it was the era of petrodollars and petronaira in the 70s, 80s and 90s that saw the erection of super highways and mega skyscrapers in our cities. The oil industry has been the single largest donor to service our humongous national, state, and local government budgets running into several billions of dollars. Although its manpower has what appears to be an insignificant percentage of the work force of the nation, it is nevertheless known to be responsible for some 70% of the income and wealth of Nigeria.
So, when the oil sector, the nation catches cold.
But alas, in the face of current global oil price crash, the authorities have failed to sympathise with the industry and its players and accord them the recognition they deserve. They have refused to learn from the attitude of the great Sir Winston Churchill. Instead, we have visited the oil workers with such ingratitude and gross indignities as a witch hunt, unjustifiable layoffs, malicious accusations, absurd charges of corruption and the discrediting of local oil merchants who have contributed greatly to bringing down unemployment with their job-creating measures. There is also a vicious attack on major stakeholders in the downstream sector, especially the use of the media to bring down indigenous oil companies under the guise of probes.
Why must the oil industry, so “little” a sector owed so much by so many, be the only casualty when a concatenation of global events and locally mismanaged politics come on board to rock the economy. Venezuela, Saudi Arabia, Angola, the Gulf nations among others are experiencing hiccups following the slump in oil prices. Yet we do not hear of disruptive job losses or ill-advised government charges of sleaze against the industry players.
Waging war on the industry and on its patriotic and enterprising denizens via mass sack and biased investigation of their activities are, to be sure, not the proactive answer to the current challenges in the sector.
Consider this: if you resort to outright castigation of the indigenous operators in the oil industry as the administration of President Muhammadu Buhari is being stampeded to do, it would backfire with its outcome of ballooning the labour market with a spiral effect of worsening the poverty levels, a condition the governing party vowed to put in order during the campaign for votes. Next, we inject notions of instability in the polity when we don’t attach creative long-term solutions to our economic problems. Now this sends wrong signals to the international investors we intend to woo for the reform in the industry.
The strategic solution to arresting our vulnerability in global oil politics is to play out of the box, move imaginatively to find a way of diversifying our sources of revenue, industrialise agriculture, and pump enormous capital and human resources into it as well as build more refineries as we rehabilitate the existing ones to a functional mode. Thankfully, the much-maligned Department of Petroleum Resources (DPR) has unveiled a plan for the establishment of modular refineries.
These are mini refineries that, by the reckoning of DPR, would allow private investors including big names like Shell, Chevron, Total and Texaco as well as indigenous companies like Oando, Aiteo, MRS and others to contribute in restoring life to our downstream sector. They are said to be cheap to build, with such far less endowed countries as Chad, Niger Republic and Congo operating them to cushion them and their citizens against the vicissitudes of the world market.
Let Nigeria align with the realities and dynamics of the petroleum industry by giving it and stakeholders the honour they deserve as the hen laying the golden eggs. You don’t kill or destroy the hen by initiating policies that suggest that you don’t recognize the role they played in the past, a role they’d still play better if well handled for more productive work in the years ahead.
• Sheyi Money is an energy development economist in Lagos.
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