Normalcy in fuel supply may have returned in some parts of the country, but question mark still hovers around the actual cause of the week-long scarcity that nearly shook on the country’s precarious economy

The timely intervention of the Federal Government may have averted what could have passed as another hard-hitting energy crisis for Nigeria but nervous glances and questions are still being asked over the energy debacle.

What actually triggered the fuel scarcity? Who was responsible for it and why? Could it have been prevented ahead of the bedlam? Was it well-handled by the relevant authorities? Why has nobody taken the blame or punishment for such a costly mistake? Plethora of questions begging for answers.

While this issue is likely to dominate discussions at least for the time being, a closer look at the latest damage-control by the Presidency reveals yet another bizarre contrast. Although, the Goodluck Jonathan-led government initially put up straight face in the wake of the energy bedlam, it soon became clear that if the flame was not quickly contained to avoid it spinning out of control, it could ruin his flopping re-election bid.

However, signs of the simmering pressure emerged early in the week when two top government officials presented two contrasting statements on the actual cause(s) of the scarcity while trying to shield the Presidency from culpability in the saga.

Breaking her ominous silence on Tuesday after days of long queues in parts of the country and wild guessing, the Minister of Finance and Coordinating Minister of the Economy, Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, denied the flaming rumour that the fuel crisis was caused by non-payment of oil marketers.

Okonjo-Iweala told newsmen in Abuja that the crisis was not as a result of payment dispute with oil marketers but logistics problems.“The situation is due to a mix of factors including disruption of pipelines and logistical issues and they are being attended to urgently,” she explained.

According to the Minister, the Federal Government has not defaulted in its payment obligations to the oil marketers on the Petroleum Subsidy Reinvestment programme. “As you know, we paid the marketers a total of N320.8 billion from the Excess Crude Account in two installments in December last year. This underscores the fact that we are taking payment of marketers very seriously indeed,” she declared, assuring that the there was no cause for alarm.

“We’ve been in constant touch and talking with the marketers and a week ago we reached an agreement with them on their core concerns which we have addressed. We sympathize with Nigerians whose lives are being disrupted by the queues and assure them that we are working hard to end them as quickly as possible”, the Minister added.

Curiously, Okonjo-Iweala’s explanation contrasted with the official position of the Executive Secretary of the Petroleum Product Pricing and Regulatory Authority (PPPRA), Senator Farouk Ahmed. Ahmed, also in a bid to deflect blame away from the Presidency, attributed the fuel scarcity to the Naira devaluation carried out by the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) instead of the logistics challenge cited by the minister. He equally hinted that marketers suspended fuel importation due to outstanding bills owed them by the government.

“The recent events have to do with delay in the arrival of cargoes. Non-arrival of cargoes made it difficult for petroleum motor spirit to be delivered. What actually complicated it was the devaluation of naira – two times,” the PPPRA chief reportedly told Senate Committee on Petroleum (Downstream) during the agency’s 2015 budget defence.

According to him, the devaluation exercises carried out by the Godwin Emefiele-led apex bank in late 2014 and early this year created panic amongst oil marketers following the naira-dollar exchange rate spike. And due to the sharp fall in the value of the local currency orchestrated by the controversial devaluation exercise, the petroleum agency did not know the exchange rate to be used for payment on fuel importation.

Marketers, he explained further, could not deliver the cargoes of fuel expected from them because they were unsure of the exact delivery cost as a result of the devaluation as the old template used for paying the marketers was no longer useful.

Ahmed, however, told the lawmakers that the crisis had eventually been resolved following the approval of payment for outstanding bills owed the marketers by the government through the Budget Office and truce brokered after a meeting of the Ministry of Finance, PPPRA and other relevant agencies.

“The Minister of Finance, PPPRA and other agencies are working closely to ensure that outstanding bills are paid. And that one had been done,” he declared.

Politics of blame game

Soon after the fuel scarcity spread last week, the country witnessed an intense politicization of the blame game between the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP) and its arch-rival the All Progressives Congress (APC) over the cause of it. Trying to capitalize on the energy crisis momentum to score political point against its opponent, the PDP Presidential Campaign Organization (PDPPCO) issued a statement, alleging that APC was using some ubiquitous oil marketers to create artificial scarcity in its desperate bid to frustrate the government in power.

In a statement endorsed by its Director of Publicity, Femi Fani-Kayode, the President Jonathan campaign organization gave anecdotes of APC’s alleged behind-the-scene efforts to create a major energy crisis in the country ahead of crucial presidential election slated for March 28, 2015.

“These unconscionable opposition elements infiltrated the ranks of the fuel marketers, whom they have contracted; in a calculated attempt to frustrate the good efforts of government.They are even threatening tank farmers not to release any fuel in their depot in order to sustain the shortage.”

Fani-Kayode fired the final shot: “This shows how desperate and wicked the opposition APC can be in their quest for presidential power. Must they make Nigerians suffer simply because they want to rule?  They must desist from this act of sabotage.”

Expectedly, the APC fired back, claiming that the real causes of the debilitating fuel scarcity was the looting of the $12 billion domestic gas fund under President Jonathan’s watch, the administration’s failure to pay fuel subsidy and the cost of interests on bank loans to oil marketers.

In a statement issued through its National Publicity Secretary, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, the APC alleged that the PDP and the Jonathan government decided to divert attention from those problems by accusing the opposition of being responsible for the scarcity.

The statement read in parts: “The truth is that this profligate government has run Nigeria aground, and the oil sector, whether upstream or downstream, has particularly suffered hugely. The quantity of petroleum products that was imported has almost been fully consumed, without fresh products being brought in to augment supplies that have now fallen well below re-order level.

“The implication is that in addition to worsening power supply, crumbling prices of oil at the international market, weakening Naira and unprecedented corruption, Nigerians – who routinely provide their own electricity to power their homes and business, now have to face another round of government-imposed hardship with the ongoing fuel scarcity,” the party said.

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