Buhari, Kachikwu and the Oil Cabal

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Ken Ugbechie

The Minister of State for Petroleum Resources, Dr. Emmanuel Ibe Kachikwu, has come under a blizzard of attacks from different interests these past weeks. The man who also doubles as the Group Managing Director of the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) has been given various options by his traducers: apologise to Nigerians, resign his appointment or flood the market with petroleum products particularly premium motor spirit(PMS) in a matter of days.

The agitation is understandable. There is anger in the land. There is crisis of expectation. The teeming Nigerians who voted for change are yet to experience the dream change they voted for. The same litany of ills that assailed the people during the years of the Peoples Democracy Party (PDP) has continued to haunt them a clear ten months into the life of this administration. Poor electricity supply, fuel queues, bad roads, high cost of living, growing unemployment and job cuts among others still signpost the daily grind of the people. In the midst of such pent up anguish, one man has been singled out for vilification. Dr. Kachikwu’s offence was that he told Nigerians the stark, unvarnished truth about the fuel situation in the country.

By his allusion to the fuel supply challenge not disappearing overnight, he unwittingly incurred the wrath of a people already incensed at the turn of events since May 29, last year. It was only natural that the people hit back at him in the most unkindest and cavalier manner. But it was not fair he has to take all the flaks for all the ills of the moment.

A critical examination of the criticisms against Dr. Kachikwu throws up two diametrically opposite groups. Those who are genuinely angry at the system that has denied them access to the good life and those who are railing at the minister because he has refused to do their bidding by allowing them to continue to cheat through the system; a practice from the old order. It is this cartel of crooks that has, unfortunately, dominated the media space. Though fewer in number, their collective voice is loud and because they possess the means and the money, they have not abated in their bashing even when it is glaring that the fuel supply situation is improving and tending to normalcy.

Yet, what is lost on most Nigerians is the intent of this few; the real reason why they are attacking a minister that is daily reforming Nigeria’s oil and gas sector which has a history of inefficiency, lack of transparency and corruption. Kachikwu is undertaking major reforms in the sector, he has arrested the shady, opaque processes that hallmarked operations at the NNPC in the past; he has trimmed the powers of some principalities in the sector who colluded with some staff of NNPC and adjunct Directorates to defraud the nation. The minister has dared the cartel of crooks in the industry and one should not be surprised that they are fighting back using the alibi of ‘fuel crisis’ to push through their agenda.

Nigerians should ask at this moment, why do they want Kachikwu to quit or to use the exact words of some of his denigrators, “resign now”? The answers are not far-fetched. Kachikwu since his arrival at the NNPC and as minister of state has never hidden his intent to stamp out corruption in the sector. He has not only stood in the way of these crude merchants but has also blocked the hitherto gaping holes through which this mafia of oil mandarins had siphoned the nation’s money over the years.

But Kachikwu must stay the course. The minister, a first class lawyer with long-standing experience in the global oil and gas sector, should know that it is the nature of man to resist change. It is even more so if these men are profiting from the system you are striving to change. In the instant case, just a few Nigerians had been profiting from the rot in the nation’s oil and gas marketplace. This was the rot that had been exposed by all audits, forensic and otherwise, carried out by KPMG and PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) in separate inquisitions. It was a rot deliberately created, sustained and oiled by a few money bags. This rot has thrown up fly-by-night billionaires who do little but earn so much.

To add to the desperation, a few politicians who felt a sense of entitlement to the national till as compensation for their contribution towards birthing the new government have added more fizz to the sizzle; they want Kachikwu out because he has not allowed them to take control of the sector.

To the ordinary man on the street, petrol crisis is the issue; but this is not true. Without the reforms of today, fuel queues will return tomorrow and the days after. Fuel crisis is historical, it has always surfaced at different times in the past. This happened because previous government failed to address critical issues; they failed to rein in some of the stakeholders who seized the opportunity of absence of good corporate governance in the system to commit monumental fraud that ultimately hurt the system and has kept the problem of petrol scarcity recurring. The fact that over 50 years of oil exploration in the country we are still stuck in the muddle of subsidy, forex shortage, fuel importation (for an OPEC member nation), and fuel scarcity is because in the previous years we failed to do what was necessary and germane. We failed to plan towards a possible future of drought. That future is now and the nation is not prepared for the attendant shocks hence it has been drifting in and out of one crisis or another.

This is why President Muhammadu Buhari should ignore the calls from a section of stakeholders to shove Kachikwu aside. In fact, the President should be suspicious of such persons. They are the people who do not want change; they want the old corrupt order to subsist just so they would continue to harvest to the very hurt of the nation.
The President wants to change the way things are done; he wants to end the culture of corruption ravaging the nation; he wants to reform the oil and gas sector so that receipts from the sector would no longer find their way into private pockets and accounts but remitted to the federation account; Kachikwu is doing just that. He has said no to those who operate from the axis of evil and corruption. He should stick to his gun no matter the pressure.
This is not the first time that a Nigerian has brought a genuine breath of fresh air into a sector. In July, 2004, Professor Charles Soludo, then Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) Governor rolled out what may go down in history as the most ambitious reform in the nation’s financial sector. It was aptly called consolidation of the banking sector in which banks were given 18 months to raise their capital base from N2 billion to N25 billion. Some powerful persons kicked against it; they sponsored a barrage of media attacks against Soludo. The general public did not get the hang. They did not understand why Soludo would suddenly change the rule of the game; but Soludo, himself a first class economist, knew what he was doing. He was on a mission to strengthen the banks and take them out of the grip of family ownership. To meet up the deadline and the baseline of N25 billion, the banks had to go public to raise funds. Those who could not raise the required capital went into mergers or were acquired by those who could. That masterstroke took the banks away from traditional and unhealthy family ownership, a toxic and strange arrangement that had sent many banks in the past into the cesspit of insolvency and ruining the fortunes and future of depositors. It was painful then though for these banks and their managers.

Today, by benefit of hindsight, Soludo was absolutely right. The banks are bigger, more ubiquitous, more stable and more efficient. The critics of Soludo have buried their heads in the sand. This should encourage Kachikwu. The reforms he is undertaking at the moment are the enduring pillars that would sustain the oil and gas sector tomorrow. He should endure the criticisms and the sponsored media lynching. He must make the sacrifice today for a better tomorrow for Nigerians.

It is the nature of reform; it is a painful process that leads to a terminus of pleasure, stability and confidence. This aspect is not known to ordinary Nigerians. They see only the fuel queues but they don’t see why the same fuel queues of yesteryears still dot the landscape today. They don’t see the war being waged by Kachikwu against the club of powerful potentates who want a continuation of the old, messy, dirty order.
In Nigeria, nobody initiates reforms and expects a free, easy sail. In a recent interview with Le Monde, the former Finance Minister, Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, said that the fight against corruption was at the root of the kidnap of her mother with the abductors demanding her resignation on live television.

When asked what her failures and successes in the fight against corruption were, Okonjo-Iweala said: “Your answer would take a whole day. On my first experience as minister, I wrote a book, Reforming the Unreformable . For the second, it was really difficult. Nigeria subsidizes fuel. About $ 6.7 billion that it costs, we found that $1.5 billion was fraudulent.

“I told the President that we would stop paying. What happened? They kidnapped my mother, 83 years. During the first three days, their only demand was my resignation. I was supposed to go on television and announce my resignation.

“This was one of the worst moments of my life. Can you imagine what happens in your head if you have to be responsible for the death of your mother?

“I will not go into details, but you must understand that in a country like this… in the fight against corruption, we must be prepared to pay a personal price. My father asked me not to resign. The president asked me not to resign. At the end, everyone began looking for her, and the kidnappers released her.”

Dr. Ibe Kachikwu has shown chutzpah at his duty post. He needs the support of well-meaning Nigerians and the President to holistically cleanse the sector. Like Okonjo-Iweala noted, he must be prepared to pay a personal price, this time, in the form of media lynching.

•Ugbechie is the Publisher of Political Economist magazine