Mutharika’s strategic fuel reserves: Another white elephant in the offing?

The endless unscripted drama continues in Malawi. And as it approaches its highpoint, both audience and players are coming to the same realization. It is a tragedy.

Motorists, agitating for a few drops of fuel to keep them moving also have to endure insults from their President and his sidekicks as they attempt to explain the origin of the crisis.  Their explanations are getting more half-witted and puzzling by the day.

At the beginning of the crisis in 2009 it was the Mozambican government that was being blamed for logistical hiccups at either their ports, which were said to be congested, or at their bridges, which were said to be under maintenance. Recently it has been the black market. And of late it is the opposition MCP and UDF, former ruling parties which President Bingu wa Mutharika accuses of not building fuel reserves during their eras.

Chronic fuel shortages keep Malawians talking. Photo credit: Travis Lupick

“Every time he tries to explain something I lose respect for him,” I overheard an angry motorist at a fuel queue in Lilongwe. He was referring to Mutharika’s latest enlightenment. According to the president, our vehicle fuel tanks, those underground reservoirs at every filling station, and those stranded fuel tankers that are supposed to be transporting fuel are all empty because the regimes preceding his did not build fuel reserves for him.

Well, this explanation has eroded the last iota of respect I had left for the professor’s faculties. If something is in abundance in Malawi at the moment, it is unused fuel storage facilities.

The tank of my car is a fuel storage facility. And for over a month I can’t consistently keep it above the empty line since I am relying on black market fuel, which is very expensive. There are tens of thousands of vehicles in Malawi whose owners would have lent their tanks at no cost to the Mutharika administration to store the nation’s fuel – if the fuel was available. These alone would have translated to Millions of litres stored in motorists’ tanks even as that fuel is being used. And furthermore, these motorists are willing to pay for the fuel and store it in their tanks.

What about the huge fuel tanks buried under every filling station? Is this not storage that is not being utilized?

What about those fuel tankers which are supposed to be ferrying fuel from Mozambique and Tanzania? These too are idle most of the time, representing millions of litres of fuel that could have been stored in transit.

Unless the distribution system is saturated the problem of storage “does not arise” if you will allow me to borrow a phrase from Dr. Hetherwick Ntaba. In other words the situation requiring the building of additional storage would sensibly be the opposite of our current situation, i.e. when the fuel tankers are queuing because motorists are not utilizing the fuel at the pumps fast enough. Currently motorists are the ones queuing because Mutharika is unable to supply fuel fast enough.

But since we are now well-versed in creating commissions of inquiry (remember the one charged with the task of defining academic freedom) perhaps we will soon have one to define “storage.” Mutharika has wasted public resources with numerous commissions of enquiry with dubious terms of reference, and no timelines or deadlines.

The definition of storage, or when strategic reserves would be applicable is a case of elementary economics that does not call for debate. Yet Mutharika has been selling this “chicken economics” to the nation.

Malawians are becoming suspicious of the reason behind this burning ambition of our president’s to build us strategic fuel reserves at this point in time. This may be an attempt to build another white elephant for the nation. You may remember how he spent 6 billion dollars of money which we did not have on an inland port that will never function due to his own arrogance.

“Strategic fuel reserves my foot,” scoffs another motorist on a fuel queue as the topic comes up.

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