Questions marks surround crippling fuel shortage
I’m in the car and creeping through heavy Abuja traffic. Passing a filling station, I see a long queue of cars all the way down the street and around the corner, drivers out and lounging against their vehicles in the baking sun.
Some have been here only a few hours, some longer, having spent the night in the queue. My driver waited 18 hours to fill up in Abuja last week, and tells me most stations he passes in the search for fuel are gated shut, either because there’s nothing to sell or because they won’t sell without higher prices. If a rumour gets around that a certain station is receiving a tanker that night, it’ll go from having hardly any customers to contending with a kilometres-long queue in the blink of an eye.
Meanwhile, black-market vendors have appeared on street corners by petrol stations, charging a near 100% premium for the privilege of filling up fast with their questionable product, usually a watered down and messed about approximation of the real thing.
As you’d expect in a road-reliant city like Abuja, the queues are affecting business. Contacts can’t make meetings because tanks are empty, taxi fares are up and social lives are suffering.
Talk about the fuel situation has dominated conversation in many of Nigeria’s major cities in recent weeks, though the crunch is said to be worst in Abuja. “Why no fuel?” “When is the fuel arriving?” “Why will you not sell me fuel?”
These are all pertinent questions and, as usual, there have been many, many suggestions as to why pumps have run dry. The received wisdom insofar as it exists is that the government had been late paying fuel distributors, a reason that speaks to two painful truths about the state of the economy here. Firstly (I have said it before, I’ll say it until the day it’s fixed), it is risible that Nigeria can export more crude oil than any other country on the continent but remains reliant on imported oil products because its own refining capacity is limited, degraded and some would say beyond salvaging.
Secondly, the fuel crisis shows just how much of a cash squeeze Nigeria’s government is facing after a steep fall in crude oil prices that has severely pressured revenues. There’s an unsettling irony here, I know. On 5 May, outgoing finance minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala said that Nigeria has already borrowed more than half the cash it can this year, and it’s only the start of May. To give an idea of the gravity of the fix that Nigeria’s in, some of the borrowed money went to pay government salaries.
If it ’s t his bad now, God help drivers and fuel distributors when the government has reached its borrowing l imit. More to the point, God help Nigeria’s next f inance minister with books like these to balance.