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Business News of Sunday, 5 November 2006

Source: Statesman

TOR privatisation: must be capitalism with a conscience

Since the beginning of economic liberalisation in Ghana in the late 1980s, with the extensive privatisation programme launched in 1989, increased capitalism and competition in Ghana has raised billions of dollars for the state coffers, and multiplied many times the number of jobs available.

Foreign contractors and bidders have increased competition and raised standards; Ghanaian owners have improved in order to compete; and the economic outlook for our country today, under our still-liberalising and deregularising economy, is more positive than it has been in decades.

Yet the privatisation of the state-owned Tema Oil Refinery is proving one of the hardest contentious cards to play – with intense opposition from some quarters to the selling-off of our national oil provider. Recently, fluctuations in world oil prices have shown yet again the dangers of privately-owned petroleum companies with their own business agendas: storing up fuel just before an expected price-hike, buying cheap and then refusing to sell until the cost is increased and thus profit margins raised. Long traffic jams, failed and delayed transport services, dented business activity and frustrated Ghanaians has been the result.

This week, President John Agyekum Kufuor leaves China to head for Korea, where we believe part of the discussions will centre on two Korean companies and their interest in the proposed privatisation of TOR.

If our national oil refinery, currently providing for around 70 percent of commercial fuel needs in Ghana, were freed from Government control to act in the same way, the impact could be devastating.

Indeed, critics argue that TOR should be kept in government hands precisely for that reason. Outside business interests should not be allowed to toy with the only refinery in the country.

Additionally, and perhaps less persuasively, some have pointed to the historical and symbolic relevance of the Refinery. TOR is the last remaining legacy of a lost fortune of industrial monuments: the last reminder of the first president, Kwame Nkrumah’s (it was owned by an Italian firm then), goal of making Ghana an industrial giant. A relinquishing of our national fuel supplier into private hands signals a final end to that dream.

It is worth the national expenditure, some critics have said – the trillions of cedis which have been yearly poured into the extortionate subsidisation of TOR – in order to prevent this lack of national control and loss of national history. What’s more: if a privately-owned oil refinery could be made a financial success, why can’t a state-owned one adopt the same management techniques, the same technology – to similarly turn the company around?

These concerns and these criticisms are valid to a point, and are right to be raised. But the fact is that privatisation does not have to mean a foreign owner and a loss of national power; the fact is that capitalism does not have to mean competition without a conscience. And the fact is that no fondness for history, no loyalty to the past, can justify spending such vast and unnecessary amounts of money on subsiding a state-run oil refinery, when privately-owned but patriotic businesses have been proven to work.

Take GOIL, the state-owned oil management company which nonetheless operates on strict business principles. During the recent spate of fuel price increases, GOIL stations have often been the only filling depots where fuel is still available – their public service ethos requiring them to continue selling petrol products, even when hoarding those products for a day or two could bring in more revenue. When privatised, the Tema Oil Refinery must be reformed on these same principles – retaining its strong link with the state. De-nationalisation does not have to mean foreign-isation, and the privatised TOR should remain an integral part of our national industrial toolbox. Internationally-owned oil companies such as Exxon, Mobil and Shell all have their own oil refineries already. And whilst the facilities of TOR have been undeniably overhauled by foreign investment – a consortium of South Korean and Japanese contractors, who have been developing the site, more so since 1998 – it is Ghanaian money and management that is needed, too, if TOR is to stay in the hands of this country.

The privatisation of TOR should thus be seen as an opportunity for indigenous capitalism, for Ghanaian business to prove its clout by successfully managing the company, with Ghanaian interests at heart. But Government must also recognise its responsibility to oversee and ensure this responsible, conscientious capitalism. By keeping majority shares in the privatised company, and by handing over control of this to the tried-and-tested GOIL management team and formula, the conundrum can be solved: the advantages of competition and privatisation, with the conscience of a resource owned and run for the national cause. Let us not treat capitalism with crass naivety.