Monday, June 8, 2009

Oil industry bleeding us dry

Sunday Nation, 07 June 2009, Page 21

Some time late last year, the ministry of Energy promised to institute controls on the price of petroleum products because the oil industry in this country had failed to heed the cry of the common citizen and continued pursuing profits without a social conscience.

The ministry even went ahead and published some complicated formula in the press using taxpayers’ money and asked for comments within a given timeframe after which the regulations would become law.


It is now over six months since the regulations were published and recently the minister for Energy was heard uncharacteristically whimpering that unless oil companies act responsibly, “the ministry will be forced to regulate the price of petroleum products”.

Either the minister is unaware of the progress made since the proposed regulations were published, or he is just being mischievous and hoodwinking Kenyans with meaningless populist statements.

Indeed, such repetitious behaviour has become characteristic of this grand coalition monster, and we were not disappointed last week at the Madaraka Day celebrations when the principals came together to repeat platitudes that meant nothing to anyone but themselves.

The failure to act on regulation of prices of petroleum products is seriously hurting the economy. Indeed, it would even be surprising if the economy will “grow” at the projected 1.7 per cent this year if the current trend continues. The price of petroleum products affects everything from cost and availability of food and other basic necessities to transport, infrastructure and even healthcare.

Yet even as Kenyans continue to suffer unspeakable hardships today, one of the oil companies was recently quoted in the press indicating that the price of oil was inevitably headed north. None of the multifarious explanations given for this ever show why the price of local petroleum products rises within days of some global convulsion, but it drops very slowly if at all whenever the reverse situation obtains.

The dishonest talk of exhausting old stocks seems only to apply when international oil prices drop, but when the prices rise, the “old stock” story becomes irrelevant as Big Oil scrambles for profit.

The oil industry cannot be blamed for playing this cynical game for the companies are not established for charitable purposes. If they had their way they would indeed inflate the prices of their commodities to the highest price possible to still make a sale.

Powerful lobby

It is, however, the responsibility of government to look out for the interest of the citizens on whose behalf it governs. Part of its responsibility is to ensure that as many of its citizens as possible are comfortable, and this includes regulating the prices of essential commodities.

Big Business has a very powerful lobby in this country and this will continue to be the case as long as we worship wealth for its own sake and not for the good that it is capable of.

Assuming that the proposed regulatory mechanisms have not been secretly shelved, Kenyans need to hear from the responsible ministry what progress has been made in ensuring that the price of petroleum products is bearable and does not unduly disrupt economic growth while lining the pockets of a few magnates.

Kenyans also need to demand accountability from this government if we are to stop top public servants from getting away with blatant dishonesty and doublespeak which only results in more Kenyans descending into the clutches of poverty. Pronouncements of a new agenda for jobs and food security such as those made on Madaraka Day must be seen for what they really are – pure hot air.

Dr Lukoye Atwoli is a consultant psychiatrist and lecturer at Moi University’s School of Medicine.

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