TIME, they say, is money. But in Nigeria, where over 70 million of the population live below the poverty line, citizens are devoting more time searching for fuel due to a biting scarcity that has lingered for weeks.
Caught again in the throes of fuel scarcity, queues have returned to filling stations across Nigeria, and its price has surged in many areas.
Motorists are forced to spend hours in the sweltering heat, waiting in line for fuel, thereby losing man-hours ordinarily spent working.
Forty-one-year Chinedu Okeke is a bike man who transports passengers along the streets of Lugbe to eke out a living.
Okeke requires at least five litres of petrol to run his business daily. But in recent weeks, fueling his bike has become an arduous task owing to the current scarcity of fuel in Nigeria. He told The ICIR that he now spends the better part of his work hours at filling stations.
“Sometimes I get to the filling station in the morning, and spend about five hours there. Before I get fuel, people have already left the streets, so there is little time left to work and I am making less money,” he said.
The current scarcity is attributed to about 100 million litres of contaminated fuel imported into the country by the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) and its allied firms.
Volumes of fuel were recalled from the market, which resulted in reduction in the quantity of petrol in circulation.
Before the scarcity, Okeke had been earned an average of N3500 every day. But the loss of valuable time to fuel queues has resulted in decline in his income. He is concerned that if the scarcity persists for much longer, he may find it difficult to pay his house rent, which expires in two months.
In early February, the NNPC had promised that petrol would become available again within a short while, but the situation has only worsened with the scarcity entering its sixth week.
Fuel queues still stretch for miles away from filling stations, resulting in congestion on the roads and frustrating transporters and commuters.
Some transporters have devised other strategies to cope with the declining income caused by the scarcity.
For Baba Abdulwasiu, a taxi driver who plies the Life-Camp-Wuse axis in Abuja, the scarcity has led to extra hours of work to make up for time spent on fuel queues.
“Before, I used to go home with N6,000- N6,500 after buying fuel in a day. Now, we waste so much time at the filing stations. One can stay there a whole day without working. So I have to work till night to make that same amount,” he said.
Despite his poor eyesight affected by age, the 64-year-old, whose work hours usually span between 7.00 AM and 7.00 PM, now has to remain on the streets sometimes till 11.00 PM, while being careful not to lose his car to robbers.
Nigeria is one of the largest oil-producing nations globally, but fuel scarcity has remained a recurring decimal.
The dysfunctional state of government-owned refineries contributes to the persistent scarcity in the country, as they do not function nor do they meet the oil demands of the population, leading to heavy dependence on imported fuel.
This places Nigeria at the mercy of external dynamics, which negatively affect the quantity and quality of fuel imported into the country.
According to a report, fuel being imported into Nigeria has been confirmed to be low grade, dirtier and more toxic than those produced locally on the black market in ‘bush’ refineries hidden deep within the Niger Delta.
Apart from transporters, other business owners are also affected by the scarcity due to the worsening power situation in the Federal Capital Territory (FCT).
The epileptic power supply in Nigeria has made many businesses dependent on generators, a situation now made worse by the scarcity.
In 2021, the World Bank said Nigeria loses $29 billion annually to unreliable power supply.
Many business owners have to squeeze out more money from their meagre earnings to make up for the extra cost of fuel.
Many of them pay as much as N400 for a litre of fuel in Abuja and Lagos.
Hairstylist Esther Egbele, who works in Lugbe, said she was losing customers due to the scarcity, as electricity in her shop was provided mainly by a generator set.
“The light isn’t stable in this area, so we rely a lot on fuel. Since the scarcity, some stations around here sell a litre for N250. How many customers can I attend to with that?
“Customers come in here and leave because there is no light and I can hardly get enough fuel for the generator. It’s making business so slow and if I add the extra costs to the price of hair, they won’t pay,” she said.
While transporters and small business owners seem the worst hit, hotels, restaurants and other large-scale businesses are not spared.
For some of them, long fuel queues translate into low customer turn-out, as clients spend a huge chunk of the day at filling stations.
Anthonia Chigbogu is the manager at Southern Fried Chicken, a restaurant located in Jabi, Abuja. She told The ICIR that sales had dropped by about 40 per cent since the scarcity.
“There is a drop in sales. I will not tell you the exact figure, but it is about 40 per cent. Usually, if you came here in the morning, you would see lots of cars parked here,” she said, pointing at the parking lot.
“They usually drop by to pick up breakfast. In the afternoon too, because people troop in for lunch. Now, we don’t see them during those hours, they are all queued up at the filling stations and this has affected sales,” she said.
She also said the price of foodstuff had increased significantly due to a hike in transport fare.
“People that go to buy our foodstuff have complained that prices are increasing. And the sellers are saying it is because of the cost of transportation. So when the transporters increase their fare, the sellers hike their prices too,” she said.
To avoid wasting time at filling stations, residents in Abuja have turned to the black market to meet their petrol needs.
Despite being unsure of the content being sold to them, they patronise fuel hawkers, paying as much as N400/litre.
While the scarcity frustrates many Nigerians, some filling stations capitalise on the situation to sell above pump price and make extra profits off motorists.
Others hoard the product, selling mainly to black-market vendors, who also seize the opportunity to make quick cash.
These vendors are found along highways and close to filling stations, displaying gallons full of fuel and accompanying hoses.
Due to frequent scarcity in the country, some hawkers operate the business as permanent enterprise, and many of them make huge profits from the venture.
One of them said he once made N24,000 in Asokoro, Abuja, in one day.
Lives are lost
Despite the financial gains, many have lost lives and property to fire outbreaks, a risk associated with fuel business.
Fifteen-year-old Comfort Thomas had begun to gain a mastery of the fuel business by assisting her mother, who sold the product from their residence in Jahi, Abuja.
She had just concluded her Senior School Certificate Examinations (SSCE) and became more responsible for petrol sales, giving her mother enough time to find other means of sustenance for the family.
One hot afternoon in March 2020, she began to transfer fuel from a 20-litre gallon to smaller 1-litre bottles for sale. But the unimaginable happened and the whole place went up in flames.
Confused, Thomas attempted to escape but she ran further into the flames, unwittingly trapping herself in the fire.
Her screams for help attracted neighbours, but she had sustained severe burns all over her body when they came.
Recalling the incident, her brother Emmanuel Thomas told The ICIR that she had been taken to the National Hospital at Central Business District, from where she was transferred to the University of Abuja Teaching Hospital, Gwagwalada.
Thomas spent over eight months at the hospital, during which the family’s resources were stretched beyond the breaking point.
“She received treatment at the hospital for almost nine months. At some point, she was getting better, the doctor even discharged her and we were all relieved,” he said.
But Comfort Thomas did not make it out of the hospital alive. She succumbed to the injuries sustained during the outbreak on the morning she was discharged.
“It was a Monday morning, the doctor said we could leave. But he advised us to wait so we don’t get stuck in traffic. By the time we were ready to leave, Comfort had not woken up,” he said.
Comfort Thomas is one of many fuel vendors who have died from a similar fire outbreak in Nigeria.
Last week, the News Agency of Nigeria (NAN) reported that a black market petrol hawker and his wife died in a fire explosion in Jos, Plateau State.
The fuel hawker, Gideon Pam, had stored up petrol in the kitchen at their residence, which led to the fire incident that claimed both lives.
Federal and state governments have issued several warnings against hoarding of fuel, but hawkers, transporters and many other Nigerians still take huge risks with the product, especially during scarcity.
In a viral video seen by The ICIR, guests were handed litres of petrol as souvenirs at a social event last week in Lagos.
Speaking with The ICIR, Chief Executive Officer of the Centre for the Promotion of Private Enterprise (CPPE) Muda Yusuf said the country’s dependence on fuel importation exposes Nigerians to scarcity caused by global factors.
He also said the NNPC could not meet the country’s petroleum needs as the sole importers of fuel.
“The NNPC is the sole importer of petrol. If we had a better regulatory environment that allows the private sector to be part of this, the situation would not be this bad because the private sector normally responds faster.
“It is becoming increasingly clear that the NNPC alone cannot shoulder the responsibility of providing these petroleum products. It is consuming a lot of their resources,” he said.
Yusuf stressed that the fuel crises frequently faced by Nigeria would persist if the sector was not liberalised to accommodate private players. He also noted that fuel prices should no longer be fixed, as this would discourage investors.
“The solution is to reform the oil and gas sector, which the Petroleum Industry Act was to do. Now we have the Act, but the political will to implement the Act is now becoming another problem.
“The removal of subsidy that we have been avoiding, we have to revisit it and face the reality that we need the private sector and we need the market to operate freely. We can now cushion the effect on the vulnerable segment of the society,” he said.