Since November, there has been a severe lack of gasoline, which has once again put President Muhammadu Buhari in the spotlight. He is now Nigeria’s longest-serving minister of petroleum resources. 

Buhari, who presides over Africa’s largest economy, doubles as the minister in charge of the sector that is the lifeblood of the economy: oil and gas.

Three Presidents have done that since the return to democracy in 1999. Olusegun Obasanjo was the first, followed by his successor, Umaru Musa Yar’adua, who held the petroleum minister portfolio for nearly one year and four months. Buhari appointed himself as oil minister in Oct. 2015 five months after he came to power. For him, the oil sector is familiar terrain.

His first stint in the oil sector

Buhari was the federal commissioner (now known as minister) for petroleum resources during the military government of Obasanjo in 1976-1979. He was in office when the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation was created from the merger of the Nigerian National Oil Corporation and the ministry of petroleum. He was also the chairman of the NNPC board. Some of the major projects such as refineries, depots and pipelines were completed and commissioned during that period. 

In his book, ‘From Oloibiri to Bonny’, published last year, Godswill Ihetu, who was a top executive at the NNPC then, recalled that during his tenure as commissioner for petroleum and chairman of NNPC board, “Colonel Buhari left NNPC to its own devices, hardly interfering in its affairs.”

According to him, towards the end of Obasanjo’s military administration, Buhari left his position as he proceeded on military training.

Another book, ‘Nigerian Oil and Gas: A Mixed Blessings – A chronicle of NNPC’s unfulfilled mission’, published in 2014 by MA Olorunfemi, Akin Adetunji and Ade Olaiya, ex-top executives of NNPC, has this to say about Buhari:

“During Muhammadu Buhari’s stint as Federal Commissioner of Petroleum, and due to his disposition of deferring to the views of his professionals on technical issues, the NNPC climbed into a golden age.”

A promise to solve fuel scarcity 

For about a month before Buhari took office on May 29, 2015 and a few days after, there was petrol scarcity in the country. In his inaugural speech that day, he promised to fix “the hitherto unending and seemingly impossible fuel and power shortages”, which he described as immediate concerns. 

“We are going to tackle them head-on. Nigerians will not regret that they have entrusted national responsibility to us,” he said.

Months later, Buhari assumed the petroleum minister role and appointed Ibe Kachikwu, a former executive at ExxonMobil, as a junior minister. At the start of his second term, he brought in Timipre Sylva, his political ally and former governor of oil-rich Bayelsa State, to replace Kachikwu.

Ironically, the Buhari administration has been fraught with fuel scarcity. Early last year, the importation of off-spec petrol into the country led to an acute shortage of the product, with many Nigerians saying heads should roll. 

Today, the country’s fuel market is, yet again, in turmoil. Many are paying through the nose for petrol amid agony. Not a few filling stations are selling the product at prices that are 50% higher than what the government approved. This current situation is seen as a gravy train by some marketers and some other industry stakeholders.

Nigerians are being whipsawed by rising petrol prices amid scarcity and a higher subsidy bill that is depriving the government of badly needed oil export revenues. Subsidy is expected to gobble up N3.36 trillion in the first six months of this year, more than the 2023 budgets of Lagos, Delta, Kaduna and Imo states combined. 

It’s egregious that many Nigerians now have to buy petrol at N270-N300 per litre at filling stations despite the bumper subsidy the Nigerian National Petroleum Company Limited is incurring. In July last year, pump prices were increased from N165 to N169-N179 without any official announcement.

The NNPC, which has been the sole importer of the product since 2017, said last November that the scarcity was caused by roadworks in Apapa and access road challenges in some parts of Lagos depots.

Whether or not Buhari is leaving the NNPC to its own devices, the buck stops with him as the petroleum minister. This current petrol scarcity is worsening the economic woes facing Nigerians; commuters, households and businesses are bleeding money and man-hours.

Fuel import spree as refineries sit idle

Nigeria, Africa’s biggest oil exporter, is wholly dependent on imports for petrol supply as its refineries have remained in limbo for years.

“Those of our refineries which can be serviced and brought back into partial production would be enabled to resume operations so that the whole sordid business of exporting crude and importing finished products in dubious transactions could be stopped.” 

Those words were uttered by Buhari in his Independence Day Speech on Oct. 1, 2015.

The country’s refineries have not processed a barrel of crude oil since June 2019. During Buhari’s first term, efforts to revamp the ailing plants fell flat. 

In September 2020, NNPC boss Mele Kyari said the refineries were shut down because the pipelines transporting crude to them had been “completely compromised” and the plants required rehabilitation.

In 2021, the Federal Executive Council approved $1.5 billion in March for the rehabilitation of the Port Harcourt refinery and $1.48 billion in August for that of the Warri and Kaduna refineries.

Only time will tell whether the so-called rehabilitation will transform the fortunes of the refineries. And it’s uncertain whether any of them will be resurrected before the end of his second and final term on May 29.

Femi Asu is business journalist based in Lagos


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