17 May 2016, Lagos — A former Secretary-General of the Nigeria Union of Petroleum and Natural Gas Workers, Chief Frank Kokori has disclosed that increase in the price of petrol is a pain Nigerians have to endure
What is your view about the Federal Government’s announcement that it has removed fuel subsidy and that the downstream sector of the oil industry is now deregulated with the pump price of petrol going as high as N145?
It is very painful because it is going to be very hard on Nigerians. But we have seen it coming a long time; that is the situation. We have all realised that is the way to go. It is painful; it is like undergoing a cancer surgery. It is very painful but that is the only way to go. I am sure that is what the government is doing. There is so much poverty; there is not much the people can do than to protest the increase; obviously, they will protest against it. They will be unhappy but that is the only way to go.
That means you support the Federal Government’s new fuel price regime?
It is not about me supporting the policy. There is no way I could support the policy; I am not a government person. But I know that for the past one year there have been pretences going on – the government, the oil ministry and the oil cartel all tell us different stories and we, the people, are at the receiving end. There is no doubt that the falling oil price in the world market and the fantastically corrupt system we have been running for over 20 years now have led us to this level. That is why I said that we saw it coming and for now if we have to speak the truth to ourselves, we have to go through this pain for now instead of going through the rigmarole. In those days, one would have said, ‘No, Nigerians should go into the streets and protest.” But now, the way I am looking at it, as long as we have leaders whom we can hold responsible and we know that they are not frivolous and are not stealing; but, it is a very painful situation. Like I said, it is painful, like when one goes for cancer treatment. It is very painful but one is doing it because one wants to survive; and medical experts advised it and if not done, one will not last long. That is what the people in authority have said and that is the situation. Obviously, it is not a bed of roses for Nigerians and obviously, they will protest.
The Federal Government, months ago, said fuel subsidy had been removed and on Wednesday it announced again the removal of fuel subsidy and the deregulation of the downstream sector. Do you see any doublespeak there?
Every government has regulatory powers. That the government has deregulated the downstream sector does not mean it will not have regulatory powers otherwise the main actors in the sector will go wild. Therefore, the government must act as regulators. You see, it’s been painful; for those of us who live outside Lagos and Abuja for some time. I remember when I was coming to Lagos last month when the fuel situation was so bad in Lagos. Normally, we bought fuel here (Delta State) for N200 per litre and even when I was getting to Ijebu I had to drive into a filling station to refuel my car at N195 per litre. This was just last month. Thus, it is only in Lagos and Abuja that people enjoy the regulated pump price of petrol but they will suffer if there is no fuel at all. There will be deadlock; they will just be locked in. But outside Lagos and Abuja, people can always have fuel at any amount; hence, people should not deceive themselves that Nigerians have been enjoying fuel price at the N86 regime. No; we have not been enjoying that. What I think is that most Nigerians have resigned themselves to fate because if it were previously when Nigeria was so rich and everything was going well, nobody, no government, could just come and increase fuel price to almost a hundred per cent or 80 per cent – they could not do it. But the realities are now on the ground for people to see and instead of deceiving ourselves, I think they are now speaking the truth to us and the government should be transparent. I know it is going to be tough but what if the government should say the price is N86 per litre and one does not see the product to buy? Or should the government say it is above N100 and one gets the product? At N86, it was not available except at the black market at any price and one was not sure of the quality of fuel one would buy. It is a tight situation for Nigeria.
People have pointed to the deregulation of the telecommunication industry, where the market is left to control prices. Why can’t same be done for the petroleum sector?
Yes; there is a regulatory body there too. If they go wild, the Nigerian Communication Commission will draw them back. The petroleum issue in Nigeria is so sensitive that if you don’t just say something, everything can go wrong with the pump price of petrol being pushed up to N200. There is no way you won’t regulate them with the kind of people we have in this country. They will say they have decided to struggle for their own forex, they sourced for it in a hard way and that is why they will sell it in a hard way to the people. Let us watch the situation. I only hope that the Nigerian government are carrying the labour people like the Nigeria Labour Congress, Trade Union Congress of Nigeria, Nigeria Union of Petroleum and Natural Gas Workers, and Petroleum and Natural Gas Senior Staff Association of Nigeria, along.
But the Nigeria Labour Congress has distanced itself from the government’s announcement saying it was not consulted on the new price regime.
That is bad but the Federal Government said it had a consultation with all stakeholders including the NLC, the TUC and the oil union. That is what I read in the newspapers. When you talk of reasons, it is educated people that will understand the concept of demand and supply, the scarcity of forex and this and that – a lot of reasons. The masses are not ready to hear this type of reason. But no labour leader is going to talk to the people; obviously, labour will fight and stay on the side of the people. Thus, it is going to be a long-drawn something (battle). But I think at the end of the day, the labour people will decide on something. Actually, there should be some consultations and I was thinking there were consultations. This is a very sensitive case. And you know the way Nigeria was being locked down. Every one month; every other month, every other week Nigeria was locked down for the past nine months.
Rather than quickly resorting to current deregulation of the oil downstream sector, some have argued that the government should have encouraged the establishment of modular refineries or go to neighbouring African countries to refine its oil. What do you think?
What do you mean? Why do we have to refine our oil from neighbouring countries? Is Nigeria not big enough? Don’t we have enough qualified personnel to refine oil? They are just talking rubbish. It is when you are sure you are going to make profits that you talk of modular refineries. Now, anyone who wants to can come and open refineries in Nigeria. It is because we had insincere governments; we have been deceiving ourselves, with the government swindling the people and hiding a lot of things from the people. People stole so much money that we don’t have much money again. Now the whole thing is naked now. We now know that we don’t have much money. People stole almost N16bn in ordinary arms deal alone and we are going to borrow $2bn; it’s bad. I really don’t know how to put these things. I never knew my country would come to this level. I think the best thing we should now is to give support to the President, whom we believe at least is the most promising among the lot of them. We know he is not stealing and if one reports anybody stealing to him, that person is gone. He can take actions on things. That is the way we have to look at it. But for my labour colleagues, it is going to be a tough time for them.
In what sense will it be tough for them?
In the sense that they have to follow what the masses are saying and the government will say no. Therefore, there is going to be a clash. Unlike before, people are just weary at the moment because they are suffering. They are very tired. I am not very sure whether or not the spirit of struggle is still with the masses. Like those of us outside Lagos and Abuja, we have not enjoyed the controlled petrol price. Outside Lagos and Abuja, even in northern states, the price of petrol is put at something like N150 per litre. Actually, on my own part as an egalitarian, the government should do the best thing for the people. The government will have to do the best thing at the capacity they have. All they have exposed to Nigerians is that Nigeria does not have the capacity it used to have. Everything has fallen; we are not at the level we used to be anymore. This is the reality of our time; 36 state governments doing nothing, relying on sharing oil money. How can you be a state governor for eight years or four years and you don’t have any real project, any agenda for your people? The only agenda you have is to rush to Abuja to collect monthly allocation and come and share with your people. We just have to pass through this stage and that is what we are doing.
*Bayo Akinloye – Punch