This can rightly be described as a season of strikes. Already the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) has asked its members to brace up for a prolonged strike. The oil marketers, on their part, are flexing their muscles preparatory to a showdown with the government over an allegedly unpaid debt. The Major Oil Marketers Association of Nigeria (MOMAN), Depot and Petroleum Products Marketers Association (DAPPMA) and the Independent Petroleum Products Importers (IPPIS) have collectively issued a seven-day ultimatum to the government and have threatened to use strike to shut down depots across the country.

The excuse these operators in the downstream sector gave to the public is that the government is owing them a whopping  N800 billion Petroleum Equalisation Fund (PEF). Assuming that this claim of debt is found to be authentic, the timing of this  ultimatum, in our opinion, is questionable. It appears to be a deliberate act designed by the operators to blackmail the government and compel them to negotiate under pressure from the consuming public instigated by the operators. The threat, if carried out, will place  the government in bad light as the Christmas season approaches, with the 2019 general elections just around the corner.

It is gratifying to note that a key stakeholder in the petroleum  products marketing sector, the Independent Petroleum Marketers  Association of Nigeria (IPMAN), is opting out of the planned strike by  MOMAN and others. Even with this, we worry that should they carry  out their threat, the average consumer will be in for a hard time this  Yuletide season.

It will surely expose Nigerians to another round of gruesome struggle  to source petroleum products. During those periods of induced  scarcity, Nigerians are usually subjected to undeserved torture as  a result of the unavailability of Premium Motor Spirit (PMS), otherwise  known as petrol. At such times, motorists spend endless hours on long queues waiting with uncertainty regarding the possibility of getting the product to buy at any price. Some lucky ones eventually get to buy while others go home with empty tanks or patronise the black market dealers. The government and, indeed, the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) are, by this move by the oil unions, primed to look bad in the eyes of Nigerians.

We are pleased that government is aware of the simmering issue in the sector and is responding accordingly by not taking the threat of  strike lightly. It has also initiated moves to open up dialogue with the supposedly aggrieved parties to iron out any rough edges that may be a cog in the wheel of smooth distribution of petroleum products.

Considering the disruptive tendency of such a strike at this period, we believe that the government is in talks with the operators to address all issues, including outstanding cash call arrears and restore confidence back to the sector. This will entail

adopting what has been described as very creative alternate funding  schemes as part of efforts to bring the sector to full production.

During the talks, it is expected that these contending issues, to wit, outstanding cash call arrears, will be resolved in a manner that will  get everyone back on board so that the system will start to operate  seamlessly once more.

However, as the face-off lingers, the NNPC is not leaving anything  to chance as it is taking steps to ensure that, in the event of a  breakdown in talks, the impact of the strike that might ensue will  not affect the distribution chain adversely. To this effect, the  consuming public has been assured that enough supplies have been  stockpiled to cater for any interruptions as a result of the strike, if  eventually it takes place.

We have had cause on this page in the past to complain about the business ethics of these so-called oil majors. It is the opinion of  this newspaper that the first point to address during the talks is the  credibility of this debt for which these marketers are blackmailing  everybody. We are concerned that these so-called oil majors that  operate elsewhere their own refineries prefer to import refined  products into Nigeria. We are persuaded to urge the government to find a permanent way to call the bluff of these sharks in the distribution chain and save all these ostensibly dubious cash calls that they use to stress the industry. While all efforts are on to restore normalcy in the sector, it is our view that Nigerian petroleum products’ consumers must not be made to feel like prawns in the oily game. They deserve better.