columnBy Aniebo Nwamu
When I saw queues of vehicles at fuel stations in Abuja Saturday morning, I knew that the end of partial regulation of the downstream sector was near. I quickly entered the next station where I waited for 25 minutes and then filled my tank. I called friends and family members and told them to head for the nearest filling station.
The number of hawkers I saw (with their jerry cans) also reminded me of the brisk business that always comes with fuel scarcity.
The relief I sought by filling my tank is temporary, of course. By this Thursday, the tank will be empty again. But my expectation is that, finally, we are putting the era of "subsidised" fuel behind us. The scarcity creeping in nationwide has been caused by the threat (followed by action) of oil marketers to suspend fuel lifting at depots until they receive their subsidy payments.
Promptly, the minister of finance and coordinating minister for the economy, Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, instructed the Debt Management Office to pay all verified subsidy claims.
The directive, it appears, has not been carried out. It was not meant to be carried out before the marketers' deadline expired last Thursday. By the time the strike lingers for one week, everybody and every business would be brought to their knees. The black market would take over, and it would no longer be a question of buying petrol at N250 per litre but seeing petrol to buy.
The warning signs have been here since last December when the government indicated that it was unwilling to continue "subsiding" fuel. But for the monumental thievery witnessed last year in the name of "fuel subsidy", we would have gladly accepted total deregulation by now.
The January protests would have been unnecessarily if we had not been insulted with lies about paying over N2.5trillion subsidy on petrol. All enquiries into the subsidy scam have vindicated all of us protesters: The government's own panel headed by Mr Aig-Imoukhuede has found that N382billion was stolen, just as the House of Reps' panel had found that over N1trillion grew wings and flew away.
I have always suspected that a part of the missing funds was used to finance the 2011 elections: it's no accident that people related to chieftains of a notorious political party are among "oil marketers" now on trial for allegedly stealing N382billion by trick.
So, it's not if, but when, deregulation (a euphemism for higher fuel prices) will take effect. All along we've been told that N884billion voted for "subsidy" after the January protests has been exhausted, even as jingles on radio and TV keep reminding us that deregulation would bring heaven to Nigeria.
It's all lies! Likely, the FG has been waiting for this opportunity of oil marketers' strike and fuel scarcity. I know, however, that before the end of September the pump price of petrol will climb far above the current N97 per litre with all the economic and socio-political dislocations. It's better to let government have its way now. No more street protests. I wish my compatriots good luck.