The 1999 Constitution authorises the President to create such offices of Ministers of the Government of the Federation as he deems fit. It further allows him, in his discretion, to assign to the Vice-President or any minister the responsibility for any business of government, including the administration of any department of government. In pursuance of this mandate, President Bola Tinubu split the Ministry of Petroleum Resources with the appointment of Ekperipe Ekpo as Minister of State, Gas Resources; and Heineken Lokpobiri as Minister of State, Petroleum Resources. With two ministers of state in the sector, it appears that the president, following the tradition of his predecessor, has kept the position of the substantive Minister of Petroleum Resources to himself.
This discourse reviews the situation of a president as a substantive minister and recent experiences from the Buhari administration. There are several challenges associated with the president as a minister in any sector of the economy. In the first challenge, here is a president who is also a commander-in-chief of the Armed Forces and who supervises all ministries and sectors of governance in Nigeria. All ministers, special advisers, heads of critical agencies, etc., report to him and final very important decisions most times will need his approval before they are rolled out. So, the Ministry of Petroleum and its activities are just but one out of so many sectors that the president needs to superintend. It is simply a presentation of the president, a human and a mortal in superhuman garbs to tie him down to the running and supervision of just one very important ministry. The Nigerian president is not possessed of such superhuman powers; he neither has the time nor energy to be an effective and efficient minister of any sector.
The second challenge that arises from the president being the petroleum minister is that the sector will suffer from opaque decisions and mismanagement and little or no accountability. It is very easy for the National Assembly to summon a substantive minister and subject him to questioning in an accountability session on developments in a ministry. The media also will feel very free to criticise and review the activities of a ministry. However, media criticisms and reviews of the performance of the sector will be rebuffed by the armada of ministers and special assistants who will see an attempt to call the president to order as an attack on the government. The issues will be muddled up with politics and swept under the carpet. Furthermore, if the president is the substantive minister, how do you drag him before legislative committees to give an account of the policy decisions and management of public expenditure? All a mischievous Minister of State needs to do, upon being summoned, is to appear, refuse to give any meaningful explanations and tell the National Assembly that the decisions were made by the substantive minister who needs to explain things himself. Would the National Assembly not come to the end of the road in such a situation?
Nigerians would recall that when Buhari’s Minister of State for Petroleum, Ibe Kachikwu, wanted to instill sanity in the contract award process in the then Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation, all the leadership of the NNPC did was to throw the substantive minister’s name (President Buhari) into the fray and that was the end of the matter. To show that the NNPC was supported by the president, Kachikwu lost out and Nigerians moved on with the resulting impunity.
The third challenge is tied to the second one and this is arising from the experience of the Buhari presidency. Buhari presided over the Ministry of Petroleum Resources for eight years. Under his stewardship, crude oil production reduced from 2.1 million barrels per day in the Goodluck Jonathan presidency to less than one million bpd. He presided over the largest crude oil theft in human history as well the largest theft of state resources under the guise of premium motor spirit subsidy. The subsidy moved from 35 million litres of PMS a day to over 65 million litres of PMS every day at a time when the economy had gone into two recessions, with massive unemployment, galloping inflation and insecurity all over the country. Yet, no one could call the almighty president and the sector to order. Is this what we want to replicate as a best practice?
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The fourth challenge is that Nigeria needs its best in terms of learning, character, competence and exposure to run the petroleum ministry. This ministry is critical to the economy in terms of its contribution to public revenue, foreign exchange as well as its potential for job creation and community development. Stricto sensu, on no account can Nigerians vouch that Mr President is the most qualified to run the sector to produce optimum results. This is beyond politics. It is about a good understanding of the sector and the ability to come up with innovations and practical answers to the challenges in the sector. The president can produce a broad vision of improved performance in the sector, for instance, increased production in terms of mbpd, increased revenue, etc., but he is not suitably qualified to be the chief implementing officer. We need to separate the vision process from the day-to-day implementation so as not to confuse roles and responsibilities.
The fifth challenge which is linked to the fourth arises from the few months of experience with the president’s handling of the removal of PMS subsidy. Nigerians were expecting the refurbishment of the refineries as part of the key responses to the removal of PMS subsidy so that we can start refining at home and reduce prices, create jobs and stop deploying our little foreign exchange earnings (about 25-30%) to import PMS. But this did not feature in the president’s broadcast to the nation. Nigerians also expected the prosecution of persons who looted our treasury under the guise of fuel subsidy. A few mentions of the refineries by the president’s men were in reaction to the criticism of organised labour and other stakeholders. The president has said nothing about fuel subsidy thieves. This does not portray a good understanding or being “on top” of the sector.
The sixth challenge arises from the prospect of the stagnation and mismanagement of the oil sector for the Nigerian economy. We are already at the lowest point any reasonable human can conjecture vis, not meeting our OPEC quota, inability to refine petroleum at home, inability to harness and exploit our gas for domestic use or fully take advantage of the export opportunities. Considering the opportunities already lost and the cost to the economy in terms of 100 per cent of our retained revenue being used for debt service, any further mismanagement of the sector may lead to irremediable national bankruptcy that may take over a generation to redeem. Nigeria is not in a position for a gamble but must start taking sure-footed steps to revival.
In the final analysis, the Federal Government’s decisions on the management of the oil sector will to a great extent determine Nigeria’s economic fortunes in the next couple of years, whether there will be a revival or a stagnation. President Tinubu, disengage from the day-to-day management of the oil sector and appoint competent person (s) to run the ministry. This is in the best interest of Nigeria. ,
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