People & Money

Understanding a culture in which petrol containers pass as souvenirs

Few images ― and their associated implications ― could have screamed “irresponsible!” more.

How much of these adaptations explains the premium that we place on affluence, and its showy deployment? I would wager that a lot of it does. So, at the top of the social ladder, party souvenirs come in the shape of the latest iPads. Further down, it is heifers tethered to individual chairs. All the way down to personalised buckets and note pads. The fuel containers come somewhere in between. Far from the buckets and note pads doubtless, but nowhere close to the digital devices that party patrons leave the “Big boys” shindigs with.

Over the weekend, many Nigerians were understandably irritated by footage on social media of a party in Lagos last week, where partly-filled containers of petrol were glad-handed as souvenirs to patrons. Few images ― and their associated implications ― could have screamed “irresponsible!” more than that of petrol stored in close proximity to electric cabling and with so many people (some with recent access to alcoholic beverages) in an enclosed space.

And how were recipients of these brand of gifts expected to tote those containers home? Private car owners would hopefully decant some of it into their tanks before setting out. But stored in their vehicles’ trunks for the return journey ― because the vehicle’s fuel tank was full to begin with, the infrastructure for decanting was not available, or filling the generator back home (the weather has been incredibly hot and humid of late) gets first dibs ― the potential vulnerability was no less or more than from those who would have had to convey the souvenirs by public transport.

Which, again, is not as scary as it comes across at first blush. In Lagos, at least, those yellow buses ― with their fuel gauges permanently out of commission ― always travel with containers for fuel. Alarming though just thinking through the implications of such practices are, the kerfuffle engendered by this one incident happily ignored the fact that the onset of the current nationwide fuel scarcity has had Nigerians respond in suboptimal fashions, as most humans would.

In adverting attention to its not mea culpa, the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) is ever ready to point to what it calls “speculative purchases”, as one explanation for the vehicle queues at filling stations that both herald and identify fuel scarcity. True, alive to the dangers of being caught out without fuel, vehicle owners queue at the slightest suggestion that a filling station might be selling fuel, at levels of petrol in their tanks that they would have continued to drive on in normal times. However, this is only because man is primarily a precautionary being ― anticipating scarcity, he hoards. In this sense, he is no different from the ants who keep their stores full in anticipation of the effects of seasonal changes on their harvest; and way better than the grasshoppers, living hand-to-mouth through these seasonal variations.

That we only started to worry about the implication for lives and property of keeping small quantities of fuel close to our persons only after that video, is to understand why the country is where it is. The Lagos State government’s decision to address the issues raised by the party as forthrightly as it did may have been popular. But a more efficient government would have worried about why the scarcity happened in the first place.

And so across the country, as the fuel scarcity bites, folks continue to turn the corners of their residences into mini-fuel depots. That we only started to worry about the implication for lives and property of keeping small quantities of fuel close to our persons only after that video, is to understand why the country is where it is. The Lagos State government’s decision to address the issues raised by the party as forthrightly as it did may have been popular. But a more efficient government would have worried about why the scarcity happened in the first place.

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This is not just because as commercial capital of the country, Lagos needs full fuel tanks to run. It is also in recognition of the fact that India, a country of more people and cars than Nigeria, which also imports all of its fuel, has not had these queues that plague us ever so readily. Accordingly, how we permanently address this problem ought to be a more pressing concern for the government of Lagos State than the poor responses of the people to the problem itself.

Yet, there is a stronger case ― underlined again by this petrol scarcity, as by the foreign exchange scarcity and electricity supply challenges (to take but the two most important such examples that have been on for a while now) ― for interrogating the transmission mechanism from the consequences of poor government policies to how people respond to these policies. Marxists draw a straight line from the physical and social circumstances of a people to their historically-determined forms of expression. You could argue against the solution proffered on the basis of this analysis. But you cannot deny that what passes, in the end, for a people’s culture is intricately intertwined with the daily challenges that they are required to solve.

By sealing off the event centre where petrol was shared, the Lagos State government may have checked a popular box ahead of the forthcoming elections. But it has unfortunately left unattended the question of why the Nigerian’s default setting is to share everything that comes his way. It has in this sense ignored ravaging leprosy in a spirited but ill-advised move to cure a favus outbreak.

In other words, at some level, our culture is the summation of our collective solutions to problems that we have confronted us as a people. Our babysitter state has proven more proficient than most in immiserating our people ― high unemployment rates, orphan interest rates, high inflation rates, and abysmal security conditions, etc. are but a few of the most recent tools with which it has gotten this job done. And over the years, we have evolved suboptimal responses to these perennial challenges.

How much of these adaptations explains the premium that we place on affluence, and its showy deployment? I would wager that a lot of it does. So, at the top of the social ladder, party souvenirs come in the shape of the latest iPads. Further down, it is heifers tethered to individual chairs. All the way down to personalised buckets and note pads. The fuel containers come somewhere in between. Far from the buckets and note pads doubtless, but nowhere close to the digital devices that party patrons leave the “Big boys” shindigs with.

By sealing off the event centre where petrol was shared, the Lagos State government may have checked a popular box ahead of the forthcoming elections. But it has unfortunately left unattended the question of why the Nigerian’s default setting is to share everything that comes his way. It has in this sense ignored ravaging leprosy in a spirited but ill-advised move to cure a favus outbreak.

Uddin Ifeanyi, journalist manqué and retired civil servant, can be reached @IfeanyiUddin.

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