In oil-rich Nigeria, just getting a tank of gas is an all-day endeavor

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Aaron Schachter: I’m Aaron Schachter in for Marco Werman and this is The World, a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI, and WGBH in Boston. Getting fuel is usually not a problem in oil-rich Nigeria. The country is, after all, Africa’s biggest oil exporter. But in recent days, there’s been a shortage of fuel in Nigeria because distributors were on strike, and that’s meant long lines and chaos at gas stations, grounded flights, and shuttered banks in many major cities. Hussaini Abdu lives in the capital, Abuja. We reached him earlier out on the street in his neighborhood. He says there’s very little gas, or petrol, as they say there, and huge lines.


Hussaini Abdu: Where you have petrol available from filling stations, people are in queue for 10 to 12 hours. My neighbors yesterday could not send his children to school because he left the house very early in the morning, at 3 AM, and (?) some filling stations, and they didn’t get back home until 12. And so, the children didn’t go to school. Sometimes people travel over 100 miles out of Abuja to go get fuel in some filling stations, and by the time they get back to Abuja, they’ve already used a quarter of the fuel. So, it’s been a very difficult experience for us.


Schachter: And it’s not just cars running on empty in Nigeria. Many homes and businesses rely on gas-powered generators for electricity. So, they’re in the dark if the gas runs out. Nigerian writer, Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani, says lots of offices are shuttered in Abuja.


Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani: I’ve been in this country for a few decades, and I’ve never seen a situation where it’s so bad that the banks are saying, “We can only offer a few hours of service today.” It’s never been that bad. Usually there is fuel somewhere. It may not be accessible to the common everyday people, but the big people know where to get their fuel from. But the way it is now, even the big people don’t have access to the fuel. It’s just nobody seems to know where the fuel is, and when there is fuel, it’s been sold at sometimes four times the price; it’s not available on the black market, and the few stations selling it have quadrupled the price. You have unending queues, so sometimes people spend hours and hours to buy fuel. So, you have people traveling sometimes three hours outside Abuja to buy fuel to use within Abuja. So, it’s just crazy.


Schachter: I know this is not an easy thing to explain, but Nigeria is a country that exports oil. How is it that there’s no fuel there?


Nwaubani: There are all sorts of explanations--the fuel market is on strike”¦ The central theme seems to be the handover of power from President Jonathan’s government to General Buhari’s government in a few days, on May 29th. I understand that all marketers are afraid that they won’t be paid what is owed them when the new government comes in, and so they’re trying to hold the current government at ransom. You have people sitting in their houses in the dark, some people can’t watch TV, can’t listen to anything. It’s just like the dark ages.


Schachter: I’ve seen this issue--the whole thing--referred to as some kind of scam by the oil transporters. I didn’t quite understand what the scam is. Do you get it?


Nwaubani: In 2012, when President Jonathan tried to end the subsidy, that was when the scam was first brought to light. We were told that some people were being paid for imported fuel that they didn’t import--you know, it’s one of those complicated scams that people come up with.


Schachter: So, the government is subsidizing fuel, and somehow they have to pay the difference between the real cost and the subsidized cost, right?


Nwaubani: Yes, and in the process, people who aren’t actually imported fuel are being paid for not actually delivering the product, that kind of thing. It’s in the scamming that we have these problems. So, I think there are just a few people holding the entire country at ransom, and these people are benefitting from the scams. So, they’re scared that they’ll lose so much money if General Buhari comes in, in a few days, and ends the subsidy. So, everything they’re owed, and of course all of the investigations”¦ So, it’s obvious that they’ve just created some sort of tension, and have made life so uncomfortable for everybody so that the pressure is increased and the scrutiny doesn’t go on as planned. That’s the way it looks--that’s what it looks like. But nobody is actually telling us this is exactly what is going on.


Schachter: As you say, Adaobi, the new president, Muhammadu Buhari, comes into office on friday. Is there a chance now for him to change things? Is there anything he can do?


Nwaubani: Everyone suspects that one of the first things he will do is bring an end to the fuel subsidy, and that he’s going to stop subsidizing fuel. Because between when President Jonathan tried to do it and people rioted and went on strike and forced him not to do it, and now, I think there’s been better education and people understand that a subsidy is a scam and that it isn’t helping the country. So, when General Buhari takes over power on May 29th, people are expecting that that’s one of the things he will put an end to--people are calling for him to put an end to it. So, I think it’s those clamors, those calls that are leading to the marketers being (?) and wanting to get as much money as they can before the subsidy comes to an end, before things change after May 29th.


Schachter: Nigerian writer Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani is in Abuja. Thank you for speaking with us.1


Nwaubani: Thank you very much.