Nigeria is a weird and wonderful place, full of the most amazing contradictions. It is one of the reasons we love the place so much. Oil producing nation and yet, as I write, I sit watching the madness that is fuel queues. Nigerians are famously some of the happiest people on the planet, and yet you wouldn’t be able to tell when you hear us speak with each other. And so, if we are such a fascinatingly contradictory people, it stands to reason that our government (and, by extension, its policies) will also exhibit the same contradictory nature.
And indeed it does. Government, of course, is meant to be a reflection of the people. This is why we are one of the most democratic nations on the planet, using that lens. You may rant about crushed freedoms and human rights abuses by the representatives of the people but, in truth, the people themselves do the same in their daily lives. From the hierarchy in your family to the military-like dictatorship of primary schools, we actively practice suppression of minorities in our everyday lives. And then you get to secondary school where anyone senior to you automatically reserves the right to enslave you, and the teachers…let’s not even go there. The corruption-strewn quagmire of university education is also too deep for this piece. And so, when elected or appointed officials act in a similar manner, it is simply a reflection of the nature of the people and the values they hold dear. And I don’t mean the values you preach about, I mean the ones you exhibit. Democracy, I tell you.
Nigeria has, since forever, exported crude oil and imported refined petroleum products back into the country. This alone is a logical contradiction, but it is such an easy one that no Nigerian would be quite satisfied with it. And so we pump vast amounts of public funds into building and maintaining refineries that might as well be phantom, for all the effect they have. At the same time we also push even more money into enabling the security forces to chase down “illegal” refineries who, like any private sector business, have figured out how to do the same job and make a profit out of it.
Not too long ago, President Buhari ordered the Defence Industry Corporation of Nigeria (DICON) to step up and manufacture arms for the security agencies. I had never even heard of DICON until that point. The fascinating paradox here is that we have many illegal arms manufacturers that are being hunted down by the police as well as the Nigeria Security and Civil Defence Corps (NSCDC) etc.
It is amazing that we use archaic methods of thinking in attempting to run a massive country of such great wealth. But then, perhaps the wealth itself is part of the problem. After all, if there was only enough money to choose between maintaining some run-down, barely functioning state refinery and chasing down privately-owned refineries, I think we would quickly realize that the real solution is much simpler.
What amazes me is that the mini refineries and gun manufacturers are people who likely did not go to school to learn this stuff. They are simply a bunch of talented individuals who maybe had some instruction and then took it and ran with it. If anything, I would love to shake their hands and talk with them on how they were able to escape poverty by using their heads. That should prove an inspirational story in itself. It is important to keep in mind that one of the most famous firearms in the world was designed by a man who had neither the formal knowledge nor the training that you would expect. Indeed, the greatest innovations come from those who are ignorant of the rules and cannot therefore be constrained by them.
In truth, I think the government missed a few tricks during this war against Boko Haram. Not to sound callous about it but war, when done right, can provide some benefits to the country. I am certainly not an advocate for war but sometimes, as in our case, it is something that is forced upon you. Such a war is a struggle for survival and it is at those times when your very existence is under threat that you can be able to find within yourself resources and strengths that you never suspected were there. And thus, instead of spending $1 billion on a foreign private military company and foreign weapons, we could have set aside part of that stash to boost up our local weapon manufacturing industry. After all, Boko Haram apparently have theirs already set up.
And we do need to boost up our weapons industry. Recent history shows up the folly of thinking money will buy you everything; at the time when the Nigerian military decided it needed more sophisticated weapons to fight Boko Haram, despite all the money in the government’s coffers, we were not able to purchase said weapons. Whether we actually needed them or not is not the point right now, but the fact that we found no amount of our money was any good is probably part of the reason why Buhari ordered DICON to start producing its own weapons. Maybe I am ignorant, but I must ask; is this government agency going to design and manufacture innovative new arms for the Nigerian military?
And we do need innovation. I do not believe that we can get very far by following what already is; such a method will probably keep us at the bottom rung of the manufacturing ladder. We will need to come up with our own weapons, built to the peculiar needs of our own security forces, in order to succeed because, like it or not, one of the goals of a weapons industry is export. As the President said, “we must evolve viable mechanisms for near self-sufficiency in military equipment and logistics production complemented only by very advanced foreign technologies.” Besides, I can’t wait to hear people talk about “that Nigerian gun.”
Another paradox is how the Nigerian Firearms Act makes most gun possession illegal, gun manufacturing super illegal, and yet soldiers work with local hunters who use local guns to fight Boko Haram and nobody bats an eyelid. The Firearms Act, by the way, seems to be unchanged from the time it was first penned in February 1959, to its renewal in 1990, and another confirmation in 1999. You will note that at none of the times mentioned did we have a democratic government in place. It is entirely possible that no elected representatives of the people have seriously considered the Firearms Act and whether it needs to be rewritten.
Unfortunately, the Federal Government doesn’t really think about why it’s doing what it’s doing. It just knows that it has been doing it since forever, and so it must continue to do it. Like Wile E. Coyote doggedly chasing after the roadrunner, reason has got nothing to do with it.
The refineries being classed as illegal and mercilessly hunted down do provide for a very interesting case. First, as I have already mentioned, is the contradictory nature of a policy which pays incredible amounts for barely-functional state refineries while simultaneously paying for state forces to destroy local refineries which seem to be functioning rather well.
There are reports of up to 78 of these mini refineries being destroyed in a 4-month period, which is pretty amazing. Does it mean that the owners keep starting up again after their refineries are destroyed or is it that there are so many people who are into the business? The Joint (Military) Task Force (JTF), according to reports, “destroyed” 1,951 of these mini refineries in 2013. I haven’t seen a report for 2014 but I’m willing to bet that the number is not significantly lower. If that is the case, then the authorities would appear to be spending huge amounts of public money to play whack-a-mole with innovative and elusive businessmen.
This is compounded by the fact that we are having to send in the military to locate and destroy, destroy, destroy mini refineries. Personally, I would think that the soldiers given this responsibility might be more useful elsewhere, especially when you consider the Boko Haram fight which requires the attentions of both the Army and Air Force. The Navy are also being stretched in this because, while they seem to have a greater share of the responsibility of navigating the creeks to locate these refineries, our shores have recorded the highest incidences of piracy in the world. Nigerian piracy exceeded that of Somalia around 2012 and been climbing ever since, with our pirates being arguably the most adventurous on the planet right now, sailing as far as Ivory Coast, Gabon and Togo. And yet a good chunk of our Navy is being forced to focus inland.
Another interesting fact is that, according to Navy officials, the mini refineries are made entirely of “locally designed refining tools”, meaning that they do not even have to import ready-made machines costing thousands of dollars. Instead they are running mini refineries with all materials sourced locally and providing employment as well as cheap fuel to the community. I may be naive but it seems to me that they deserve some respect for their efforts and ingenuity.
This never-ending Tom and Jerry-like chase between government forces and struggling businessmen is tiring on both sides, and robbing those of us in the middle of our tax money (hahaha). At some point it is beholden on Tom to sit back and ask himself why exactly he is expending all his energy and resources to chase the super elusive cheese-hunter. Who exactly benefits from this unprofitable hunt? Certainly not the people, nor the business owners, nor the government that has to expend its time and resources. And why are these things illegal anyway?
A consequence of the operations of mini refineries which I cannot defend, however, is the reports that they are polluting the environment, kind of like little mega corporations. It would seem to me, though, that this is something they themselves would be keen to avoid, because there’s no sense in wasting any bit of crude. That would be like setting money on fire.
Some Crimes Should be Punished with School, not Jail
And that is where the school part comes in. With some training and instruction, the people operating both the mini refineries as well as local gun factories could be encouraged to build sustainable factories from locally designed materials while making sure to preserve the environment in which they live and work. It is so obvious, it is bound to never be put into practice.
Most of us are familiar with the idea that doing the same thing over and again yet expecting a different result is the definition of madness. I think the Nigerian government has over the years proven itself incapable of handling large projects. Maybe it is time we allowed for a different tactical approach; spread the responsibility round to a number of small private businesses and reward those who excel. It could have the added benefits of providing skills acquisition, employment, and spreading wealth and technical knowledge across the country.
I see no reason why the government shouldn’t find/invite these people, send them to school for a year or two, and then license them to set up their own businesses or, worst case scenario, absorb them into the government-sanctioned refineries/weapons factories. After all, if we learned one lesson from the Niger Delta amnesty program it is this – if you can’t beat them, bribe them.