Akin Osuntokun: The crude oil identity

by Akin Osuntokun


Rather than endeavour to free our minds from the shackles and incapacitation of the bondage of crude oil, it is tragic to note that some Nigerians who stake political leadership claims would work themselves into frenzy seeking to perpetuate our dependency on oil syndrome.

It is difficult to quantify and determine the extent of damage that the politics of crude oil has wreaked on Nigeria. In this consideration I have identified my first task as the expression of sympathy for the toiling masses of the Niger Delta region. My visits to the region had been intermittent and confined to the urban metropolis of Benin, Warri, Port Harcourt and Yenagoa. For the first time, I sighted the interior islands two years ago and it was a disheartening and harrowing spectre to behold. The unique topography made it extremely difficult and exorbitant to extend pipe borne water facility to their habitation. Provision of the infrastructure will require multiples of the cost of laying similar facilities elsewhere in the country.

Yet I was not prepared for the horror of the spectacle I was about to witness. The people were defecating and taking their bath in the same creek water they scooped to drink and cook! Lest I forget, the same water was polluted with oil sleek from the operations of the illegal oil refineries that dotted the banks of the crisscrossing creeks. I did not see anybody casting fishing nets into the river. Maybe it was futile to do so.  These villagers were, so to say, in the first line of battle in the hostilities Nigeria confronts in crude oil.

My friend and escort directed my attention to the skies above; it was eerily quiescent and overcast but more importantly it was bereft of the chirping and flapping of flying birds-proof positive of toxic air pollution. Are these the people my embattled friend, Mallam Sanusi Lamido Sanusi, referred to as living in affluence relative to the masses of the North-east? If only he knew. This was the reality that Ken Saro Wiwa lived and died for in a bizarre and dark episode of double jeopardy for the Ogoni people.

It is not only in the Niger Delta creeks that crude oil stood in the way of income yielding utilisation of the land for agriculture, it also did in the rest of Nigeria. The difference is that while the reality was shoved down the throat of the Niger Deltans, other Nigerians made the choice of opting not to till the ground on account of the disincentive to work fostered by the avalanche of petrol dollars. In tandem, the groundnut pyramids became level ground, oil palm plantations yielded ground to its abundantly endowed cousin, crude oil and the warehouses of farmers’ cooperative societies were emptied, locked up and had their keys cast into the lagoon. Agriculture was then reduced to the mockery of sloganeering with such fanciful epithets as Operation Feed the Nation and Green Revolution.
Meanwhile, Abuja had become alternate seat of government for the 36 state governors who gathered monthly, sometimes weekly, to queue to receive sustenance stipends and allowances from the Abuja Father Christmas. Nigeria is in a peculiar situation where we thrive on the misfortunes of others. It is in our interest that there should be war and sundry disasters in fellow oil-producing countries so that the consequent shortfall in supply will force the price of crude oil skywards.

It has become a bore to say corruption in Nigeria is synonymous with oil and in exasperation I have proposed that the Nigerian National  Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) should be privatised following the privatisation logic of (among things) precluding it as an avenue of massive public theft, leakages and wastage. The surprise is that it is not a popular prescription among critics and state actors alike. Never mind the sanctimonious posturing. Seems every Nigerian is bidding his time to do with the NNPC what others have been doing with it.

When you think of the resource curse syndrome you think of Nigeria- the paradox that countries with an abundance of natural resources like minerals and fuels, tend to have less economic growth and worse development outcomes than countries with fewer natural resources’. In corroboration of this thesis, President Goodluck Jonathan recently lamented that in the 60s, our country was ranked along with some developing countries, including Malaysia, India and South Korea. Today those countries have moved far ahead of us in several areas. These countries are specifically distinguished by the unique fact that none of them is a mineral or oil-rich country. You would have heard, for instance, that the oil palm seed specie from which the oil palm economy of Malaysia sprouted and thrived was picked from Nigeria.

As Nigeria approaches another political denouement in the form of the National Conference and the 2015 general election, a clamorous and rancorous altercation has erupted over the embodiment of our resource curse, crude oil. The altercation is usually conducted in the language of flippancy and excitation. Confounding and mind-boggling postulations on geology, international and maritime laws are espoused to invest a mirage with substance-motivated by a self-willed incapacity to see that there could be life more abundant beyond and after crude oil. And so it is that an unlikely candidate for this dubious distinction, Dr.  Usman Bugaje, rose to the occasion the other day in Kano or is it Kaduna.

I fully understand the anxiety of all of us who cannot claim patrimony of Niger Delta origins on the implications of the acceptance and incorporation of fiscal federalism and devolution of powers into the supreme law of Nigeria. And there are ways we can address this concern with adequate sensitivity and maturity-such as freezing the subsisting revenue allocation formula for the next 20 years regardless of any resulting structural review of the country.

Rather than endeavour to free our minds from the shackles and incapacitation of the bondage of crude oil, it is tragic to note that some Nigerians who stake political leadership claims would work themselves into frenzy seeking to perpetuate our dependency on oil syndrome. One of the first lessons we were taught in elementary economics class is to see diversification away from the mono cultural economy of oil as an all-important national virtue. The advanced and adult companion of this lesson is to comment and lecture in a manner that weans Nigerians away from the dependency on oil mentality.

I don’t know whether he has strayed from his original industrial diversification vision of being a vocational wealth creator (and not a portmanteau oil billionaire) but integral to Aliko Dangote’s phenomenally successful industrialisation story is a studied detachment and aloofness from the crude oil business. It is a vision that is on all fours with the cultural origins of capitalism as propounded by the German sociologist, Max Webber, in capitalism and the Protestant ethic.

Following upon the Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) cartel contrived surge in the price of oil in 1973, the Nigerian military head of state, General Yakubu Gowon (otherwise a personable statesman) famously endorsed the fast paced national regression into the culture of conspicuous consumption and casino economy with the declaration that the problem of Nigeria was not money but how to spend it. Subsequently he had no better incentive to renege on his solemn pledge to hand over power to civilians after nine-long years in office. He had to be kicked out.

Four decades later and having been thoroughly worsted by the national productivity retardation potential of cheap oil money, this is what Bugaje had to contribute to the discourse on the growth and development of Nigeria: “There are no oil producing states…. the only oil producing state is the Nigerian state itself…  Whatever mileage you get in the sea, according to the United Nations Law of the sea, is a measure of the land mass that you have; that is what gives you the mileage into the sea…and the land mass of this country, that gives that long 200 nautical miles or more into the ocean, is because of that 72 per cent of the land mass of this country, which is the North. The investment came from the Nigerian state and the territory belongs to the Nigerian state. What they claim is the off shore oil is actually the oil of the North.”

Given the present political wherewithal of Nigeria, this is as tragic as they come. The most charitable attribution that can be made for this postulation is that he meant it as an academic exercise, a polemical debate; after all he is first an academic before all other occupational accretions. It could also mean that he does not mean to be taken seriously. If that is the case, then it is an expensive joke. The notorious characteristic of sophistry is that the logic it canvasses is seldom internally consistent. A cursory glance at Bugaje’s submission reveals as much. First he attributed oil ownership to the Nigerian state…. “The only oil producing state is the Nigerian state itself” and barely a paragraph after, he contended that “what they claim is the offshore oil is actually the oil of the North”. So between the Nigerian state and the North who is now the owner of the oil?

I have a fundamental problem with any Nigerian who revels in the crude oil identity as Bugaje does.  I am not so much concerned with the veracity of his phantom proposition as the damage this kind of mentality has done; it is doing and will continue to do to the viability of Nigeria. It is a mentality that negates the potential of Nigeria for national cohesion and sustained socio-economic development. It bespeaks of obsession and fixation with a cheap source of income to which we add no value. It is a vision of Nigeria that confirms the fears that all posturing to the contrary, protestations of national unity and patriotism is all about grabbing power as a short cut to sitting over Nigeria’s oil wealth.

Here Bugaje is not talking about growing the economy, about stimulating our individual and collective creativity and productivity potential. No, it is about how to quarrel over scavenging on the spoils of a wasting asset. It is a mindset that is totally enthralled with oil and glorifies the attendant easy life over the ethic of hard work, industry and enterprise. For those of a similar mindset I recommend, as panacea, the seminal work of Dr Mahmud Tukur  “Leadership and governance in Nigeria: the relevance of values”.



Op-ed pieces and contributions are the opinions of the writers only and do not represent the opinions of Y!/YNaija.

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