Petrol from Niger Republic: Timipire Sylva’s Defence of Infamy.
The shock is not in what he said but his demeanor, matter-of-fact naivety and his unintelligent choice of words. To Minister of State for Petroleum, Timipre Sylva, that Nigeria’s four refineries have been comatose for over 15 years and billions of dollars blown in importing refined products from abroad and now, rather than ship in the products from Europe and wherever across the seas, Nigerians should be grateful that Niger Republic, our country’s northern neighbour, is now the point of importation.
On November 29, 2011, the 20,000 barrel-per-day capacity Soraz refinery near Zinder, some 900 km east of Niger’s capital, Niamey, and 260km away from the border with Nigeria came on stream two years after construction began.
At the time of the commissioning of the refinery, Nigeria’s four existing ones had almost completely shut down save for isolated epileptic production after very expensive Turn Around Maintenance (TAM).
Nine years later, the Muhammadu Buhari administration formerly signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with Niger to import Premium Motor Spirit (PMS) from Soraz where only 25 percent of its 20,000 barrel per day is consumed locally.
Nigerians were incredulous with embarrassment that Niger Republic, an upstart as an oil producing nation, was now the newest destination for Mohamadu Buhari’s government that had promised to build one refinery every year as part its campaign promise.
“Nigerians should be proud that we are doing that to encourage sub-regional trade because we have been talking about sub-regional trade for a long time and this is how it should be between neighbouring countries. Niger should import from us what we have and we should be able to import from Niger what they have. Let us encourage intra-regional trade and this is one good example of trading within West Africa.”
That was Sylva’s defence of the deal to import fuel from it francophone neighbour.
“In the spirit of regional cooperation, regional trade development, we decided to buy (petrol) from them. I don’t see anything wrong with that. If your neighbour is producing something that is required in your country and you buy from him, why is that a big problem?” The Minister of State told shocked television viewers on Channels Television. In his words, “I don’t see that as an embarrassment at all. As a country, Nigeria is a big market, we need products, even if all our refineries were functioning, we will still need extra products. Niger Republic produces oil and they are landlocked as a country. They have a refinery that produces in excess of what they require as a country and they offered to sell to us in Nigeria because this is a bigger market.”
And to cap the tale of infamy, Sylva said subsidy is still been paid by the Federal Government on imported fuel. This is contrary to an earlier official pronouncement that the subsidy regime has been jettisoned, hence the periodic upward review of the retail price of PMS to align with the fall in value of the naira and trends in crude oil prices.
In touting the promotion of regional trade, however, the paradox of a country with four refineries with installed capacity of 440,000 barrels per day having to rely on an upstart producer with just one refinery having 20,000 barrels for refined products seems lost on Sylva. That is the plank of the incredulity from experts on the Niger deal. It took the Sahelian country just about two years to complete the project while the Buhari government has been unable to initiate one in over five years, despite promising to build a new one every year in the first four years.
Industry experts have variously described Sylva’s justification as “dumb” and “laughable”. According to an industry practitioner who pleaded not to be named, “I don’t understand how the Minister could regale in the deal struck with Niger. Here is a country that has failed to make its refineries work, has been paying nearly a trillion naira yearly in subsidies for imported products, has shut its borders in the past 16 months and failed to privatise the unproductive refineries now suddenly discovers that the way to promote intra-regional trade is to keep its own refineries shut and import from its neighbour. It is mind-boggling. And that is putting it mildly.”
An executive with one of the major downstream companies wondered why the Federal Government keeps all deals on importation of refined products wrapped in secrecy while making the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) the sole authority to import fuel.
“Nigerians need to be told the nature of the MoU with Niger, how it benefits Nigeria and its duration. Even if it is for that laughable reason of promoting regional trade, there has to be something in it for Nigeria.
The government couldn’t have gone into this for the sake just trading or to prop up Niger’s economy. Is it cheaper to buy from Niger? We need to know what the policy thrust is in terms of when importation will end. The only thing we keep hearing is the pinning of hope on Dangote refinery. Yes, Dangote holds a lot of prospects, but the country needs a broader plan”, he said.
In his view, if Sylva can gleefully ask Nigerians to applaud the government for galvanising regional trade through the Niger deal, “its safe to assume the government does not have a plan to get the country refining crude oil again or does not intend to do that”, he said.
An official of National Union of Petroleum and Natural Gas Workers (NUPENG) said the “tragedy of Timipre’s scandalous statement is that he had no input in the Niger arrangement. We know he is the junior Minister while President Buhari is the authentic Petroleum Minister through his close circle of friends, family and kinsmen. Sylva could have tried to dignify the MoU without making himself so laughable. Imagine saying the government should be praised for importing petrol from Niger!” the labour leader said.
The junior oil minister’s announcement of the deal was devoid of details on the mode and logistics for the evacuation of the products. Critics have raised concern over what they described as strategic interest between President Buhari and his Nigerien counterpart Mahamadou Issoufou, going by some key infrastructure project being linked from Nigeria to Niger.
That has led to speculation on what is emerging as a bigger picture in the unusual inclination to develop logistics linking the northern part of Nigeria with southern Niger.
Earlier on February 26, 2020, the Federal Executive Council (FEC) in a meeting presided over by President Buhari approved contracts for construction of two roads from Sokoto and Jigawa states up to Nigeria’s borders with Niger Republic at a total cost of about N30 billion. The proposed Kano-Katsina-Daura-Maradi rail line for which a $1.9 billion loan has been procured from China is also now being put in perspective.
The President has showed more than a fleeting interest in setting up multi-modal transport system between the northwestern tip of Nigeria and southern Niger, especially its regional capital, Maradi.
Even while there is no functional railways in the entire South South and Southeast of Nigeria, Buhari has committed huge funds from the Federation Account and borrowing from China to build multiple road links and railway to Niger Republic.
This has raised eyebrows in many sections of the country. Despite the sometimes open opposition to the undue attention to developing Niger republic, Buhari has gone ahead transferring public funds to the francophone neighbour.