Extracting our fat at gunpoint

Casmir Igbokwe

First published in Sunday Punch, Nov.29, 2009

 Penultimate week in Peru, the Police arrested four people for allegedly killing dozens of people in order to sell their fat and tissue. The commodity is said to be essential for cosmetic uses in Europe. The finished product, which comes in liquid form, costs $15,000 a litre. The strategy is to target people on remote roads, kill them and then extract their fat.

 As bad as our situation is in Nigeria, we have not heard cases of this nature. But that does not mean that we are totally free. There are other forms of fat extraction going on. They come in different guises.

One of them is called deregulation of the downstream sector of the petroleum industry. They say it is good for us; that it will not hurt the common man who does not have a car not to talk of buying petrol; and that it is now or never. They cite the telecoms industry as a good example of deregulation working wonders.

I’m tempted to join in singing this deregulation song. In a free market economy, there should really be little or no governmental control of the market forces. Prices of things should take their natural course. And since a student in Covenant University does not pay the same fee as a student in the University of Lagos, why should we expect that the price of petrol should be the same everywhere?

 The deregulation debate is still ongoing; but the Venezuelan ambassador to Nigeria, Mr. Enrique Arrundell, appeared to have put sand in the Federal Government’s food. According to him, since 1999, Venezuela has never raised the price of fuel. He said filling his tank in Nigeria would take N12, 000 whereas that would cost him N400 in his country.

The trick, he said, was that Venezuela took its destiny into its own hand. “All we are doing is in the hands of Venezuelans,” he asserted. “How come Nigeria that has more technical manpower than Venezuela, with 150 million people, and very intellectual all around has not been able to get it right?”

The answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind – the wind of corruption. A former Prime Minister of Malaysia, Dr. Mahathir Mohammad, did not waste time in telling us this to our faces last week. At a lecture he delivered in Lagos on statecraft, corruption and national development, Mohammad said corruption was a function of the culture of the people. A people with no sense of shame; a people whose greed overcomes their better judgement, he added, would never put a stop to corruption.

Mohammad did not tell us anything new. Or do we have any sense of shame? Hold your answer first and let’s look at some current trends together. For instance, we are now talking about the 2010 budget. But that of 2009 has not been implemented to the letter. Deputy Speaker of the House of Representatives, Usman Nafada, said he discovered that N30bn was allocated to projects that had been completed in the previous budgets.

 What this means is that whoever is making such allocations does not know his job, or there is an intention to defraud. Ultimately, some of the money will enter some private pockets as allocations from unspent funds from the budget.

Greed and corruption are not the exclusive preserve of people in leadership positions. The man who sits down to craft 419 letters is greedy and corrupt. The woman who sells expired frozen fish as though they are fresh is greedy. The nurse who expects some tips before passing a patient’s file to the doctor is corrupt. A mechanic who buys oil filter for N500 but presents a bill of N1, 500 is a cheat.

 Everywhere you go and in every profession you turn to, there are people making it look as if corruption is truly a major part of our culture. This is why people will embezzle money meant for rehabilitation of roads and nothing will happen. This is why rather than improve on the corruption perception index, we are retrogressing.

And that is why Nigerians will continue to be sceptical about deregulation. It is so bad that some people have even insinuated that the ruling Peoples Democratic Party intends to use the accruals from the exercise to fund the 2011 electioneering campaigns.

The Venezuelan Ambassador has told us that his country has no illiterate people; that there is no payment of school fees in his country’s universities; and not just that he graduated without paying a cent, he took three meals everyday while in school. Elsewhere in the advanced world, there are social security systems put in place to take care of the less privileged.

 What has our own government done for us to ginger us into supporting deregulation? Not much I’m afraid. Nigerians depend on boreholes and underground wells for their source of water. Generator fumes have killed many while the Power Holding Company of Nigeria is on standby. Even the roads that were built by previous administrations have become death traps as contracts for their rehabilitation end up in breach.

 To further confirm government’s insensitivity to the plight of the ordinary Nigerian, the proposed 2010 budget has little benefit for the masses. Allocation of N162bn to health, for instance, is lower than the allocation to the military which is N232bn.

 I’m almost certain that many Nigerians will support deregulation if the government shows sincerity of purpose. Governor Babatunde Fashola of Lagos State has the support of many of his subjects and garners praises here and there because people have seen what he is doing with taxpayers’ money.

 There is every need for the Nigerian government to show more commitment to the welfare of the citizens before implementing any belt-tightening measure. To start with, all those who have been mobilised to repair our roads must be compelled to do their work. Secondly, the National Assembly and some others have levelled sundry allegations against the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation. The corporation is yet to respond to these allegations. It must cleanse its house first.

I don’t see why we cannot put our four refineries in order and stop wholesale importation of petroleum products. Let nobody tell us again that the Catalytic Cracking Unit of Warri Refinery or any refinery for that matter is not working when people won contracts to repair these units.

Unless and until we put our house in order, talking about deregulation will amount to skinning the poor alive.

Or put in another way, extracting our fat mercilessly.

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