THE SETTLEMENT announced on Monday, between Unipet and Paria Fuel Trading Company, is to be welcomed as it averts expensive litigation – at taxpayers’ expense – and provides a lifeline for the development of real competitiveness in the marketplace.
Unipet had threatened to close shop, but now it, as well as all the stakeholders, will have to stick to the terms of this agreement. Still needed is a long-term plan that will protect the reliability of supply at the pump, and hence stave off instances of public panic, while also allowing free-market conditions to eventually reshape this sector.
The all-out war that had been declared between Unipet and Paria had threatened to enmesh the State, including the Cabinet, in thorny questions of advanced notice and governance, given the view of some that the deteriorating and serious situation was one that should have been brought to the attention of at least the relevant line ministers.
In its court filings, which were widely publicised, Unipet also made serious allegations. It alleged Paria was engaged in strong-arm tactics, abusing its monopoly, as well as discrepancies in VAT and subsidy payments.
Implicitly, comparison was made to the National Petroleum Marketing Company (NP), which enjoys state support despite millions in losses. Though NP’s schedule of payments to the State may be up to date, the fact that it enjoys state support means it does enjoy an advantage that Unipet does not, raising questions over equal treatment.
Such thorny issues could have well come to a boil and been weaponised in litigation, even if Unipet does already enjoy some degree of support in the form of payments of gas subsidies. The late payments in this regard were the chain’s bone of contention. However, though it’s good both parties have come to a settlement, there needs to be greater transparency when it comes to what exactly has changed going forward.
A statement issued late Monday by Paria said both parties signed a settlement agreement that would allow the supplier to immediately resume the supply of fuel to Unipet. Paria said Unipet agreed to pay all outstanding debts. In the context of fraught disagreement over figures, what exactly does that mean? Have specific schedules been drawn up?
The fine print needs to be revealed because all of it involves taxpayer-funded activity. While quasi-private companies often make claims to confidentiality clauses designed for private business entities, they can’t and shouldn’t do so when it comes to public functions of matters of public interest that affect the quality of life of ordinary citizens. This is an opportunity, therefore, to let us have the facts. Was it true that Unipet was owed some $72 million?
The State is for now protecting consumers by dampening opportunities for inflation. Eventually, though, we need to get to a place where the State’s involvement is minimal.