As Muslims nationwide were preparing to observe their annual Sallah festival, last week, the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja, was thrown into a state of chaos, as the National Union of Petroleum and Natural Gas Workers (NUPENG) downed tools to protest the non-payment of oil subsidy to marketers. Blessing Ukemena, Uche Uduma and Michael Oche, write on the hardship the oil workers' strike caused the FCT and its environs.
Residents of the Federal Capital Territory (FCT), Abuja, were made to experience one of the worst Sallah celebrations, last week, when the National Union of Petroleum and Natural Gas Workers (NUPENG) directed its members to suspend the lifting of petroleum products in protest of alleged Federal Government's refusal to pay oil subsidy to some oil marketers.
The union's decision was a major blow to Abuja celebrants of the Sallah festivities, which witnessed low activities as the lack of petroleum products, particularly premium motor spirit (PMS) also known as petrol, led to hike in commercial fares, in and around the territory. The strike, which began on August 13, also disrupted economic activities that almost resulted in the grounding of the nation's capital territory's bustling life.
Before an agreement was reached on Thursday, August 23, virtually every sector of the Federal Capital was crippled, as long queues were seen everywhere, leading to traffic holdup in the city, while commercial activities were at the lowest ebb. A sigh of relief, however, come the way of the residents when the strike was called off, leading to a new lease of life in Abuja.
The Sallah celebration, which was usually planned with lots of visitations, partying and entertainment, was somewhat dull. Many Muslim families did the celebration in their homes, as parks and other recreational centres were left deserted. Desperate car owners and commercial drivers were made to line up at various filling stations for fuel which had become so scarce due to the strike
The popular commercial buses, known as araba, that charged N100 from different satellite towns into the FCT, jerked up their fares to between N250 and N300, while taxis within Abuja doubled their prices by 150 per cent.
While the Abuja residents were yet to understand the rationale behind singling out the Federal Capital for the pilot protest, a communiqué from the meeting held between the Federal Government, labour and NUPENG stated that the government had been paying all verified claims to the oil marketers, and would continue to pay all verified claims.
The government in the meeting also agreed to meet with labour and stakeholders to discuss on how to provide infrastructure, and how rehabilitate the nation's roads and refineries, to which the marketers agreed that they would continue to supply fuel.
The boisterous Conoil Filling Station at Area 1 was unusually deserted. While speaking to some of its officials, LEADERSHIP SUNDAY discovered that they had not been supplied with fuel since Monday, August 13. This was so with so many other filling stations in the capital city. And while many filling stations were closed for business, black-market sellers were making brisk business not far from the filling stations.
When asked on how they got their supply of fuel, one of the black-marketers, who gave his name simply as Aziz said he had to travel to neighbouring states, like Niger, Kogi, Jos, or Nassarawa to buy the fuel. A litre of petrol cost between N250 to N300 from these black-marketers, while the very few filling stations that were still selling the product sold at N150 per litre, leaving lengthy vehicular queues that stretched like train to as far as almost one kilometre in some areas.
While majority of those working within the FCT live in satellite towns, the cost of going to work daily became quite expensive.
Some motorists at the NNPC Filling Station at Nyanya complained that getting fuel from the station was almost impossible, even as the station sold fuel. Some had to queue for hours to be able to buy fuel. "What we are passing through here is just terrible. I have left home since 5am to be able to buy fuel, and then, go to the office.
But it is past noon now, and I have not got the fuel," said a motorist who identified himself as Daniel at the filling station. A bus driver, Goje, who plies the Abuja-Keffi Road said he used to take passengers to the FCT from Mararaba in Nassarawa State for N150, "but now, it goes for N300 in order for me to make profit on the exorbitant fuel I bought."
By Friday, following the strike call-off on Thursday, people were still queuing up at filling stations, looking for fuel. Most people were biased against NUPENG strike action at every provocation, and not caring about the Nigerian populace who would be at the receiving end of their actions. Mr. Fred Ibana, a civil servant was of the opinion that NUPENG should always go into negotiation first before going on strike.
"I know that they must have been talking to government, but they should always consider that many Nigerians will suffer for their actions. When they go on a prolonged strike, labour may also join, because workers cannot be suffering to pay high transport fares, in addition to paying for increased fuel prices." It was, however, later in the day at the fuel queues disappeared and transportation prices were returned to normal.
Fortunately, food prices remained stable, because it was assumed by a lot of people that the fuel scarcity would not last long.
Most foodstuff prices remained stable as before the fuel crisis. "The strike is in only Abuja. If it were in the whole country, prices of goods would have gone up. But if it continues, well God will help us," said Madam Ikejihie, a foodstuff trader in Wuse Market, Abuja.
A banker with the Zenith Bank in the FCT, Mr. Hamza Ibrahim, said he had to go to Lafia with a 25-litre gallon to buy fuel, as the situation in Abuja got worse due to the long queues. "I went to Kogi, and I did not waste time at the filling station.
They had fuel everywhere, but here we are still trying to cope with all the high prices. I wonder why the government allowed this strike to take place. I think the NUPENG people are not being fair to Nigerians. They like to go on strike whenever they feeling like it. Something should be done, or we are all in trouble," he said.
In Suleja, almost all the petrol stations were shut as at Friday. The single excuse was that there was no supply from the fuel depot. Some station managers were unwilling to speak to the press, except a few who told our reporter that the strike in Abuja had also affected them.
Earlier in the week, most motorists from Abuja, came to Suleja, about 35 kilometres away, to get fuel. This situation subsequently resulted in shortage of the commodity in the community. And once the owners of the filling stations realised the unusual rush, and that there were threats by NUPENG to embark on a nationwide strike, they shut their gates and refused to sell, leading to scarcity in the community as well.
Meanwhile, the commodity continued to find its way to the black marketers, whose business in and around Suleja, peaked as some of them were selling the product for as high as N250 per litre.
A motorist, Samuel Ayuba, told LEADERSHIP SUNDAY that he had to drive to Lambata, about 30 kilometres from Suleja, to get the product. "The first day I went, there was no queue. But once people began to realise that there was fuel in Lambata, they started driving there to get fuel, and the queue started getting longer," he said
Re-echoing Samuel's observation, Musa Jibril, a resident of Suleja, blamed the current scarcity being experienced in the community to the proximity of Suleja to the Federal Capital, Abuja.
He said: "I think the proximity of Suleja to Abuja has not helped this matter, because if you drive down on your way to Minna, filling stations there have fuel. But all the filling stations in Suleja have not been selling."
Also this reporter learnt that there had been less traffic on the Suleja-Abuja route, a situation caused by car owners opting to leave their cars at home and using public transportation to get to their various destinations.
Transport fares also increased in the area, jumping to about 50 per cent. Bus drivers were charging N250 for a distance they usually made for between N150 and N200.
A Suleja resident, who simply gave her name as Salamatu, said: "On Monday, I paid N300 to Wuse, and realised I could not cope with the increase. And since activities are yet to fully resume after the Sallah break, I decided to stay at home."
However, in the meeting with government officials and NNPC staffs in Abuja, NUPENG President, Comrade Igwe Achese, confirmed the soft pedalling by the labour body.
He said: "You have heard from the Minister of Labour. The strike action has been called off, and we will be lifting products in the North. We talked about the reopening of depots for loading of products and distribution."
The Labour Minister, Emeka Wogu, who read the communiqué of the meeting, said it was agreed that all "those accused of fuel subsidy scam should endeavour to submit to the ongoing verification exercise."
Normalcy has however returned to the Federal Capital by Saturday, August 25, as most filling stations in the capital city and its environs have started selling the product. Queues, which were quite frightening during the strike, have disappeared, making the city livelier again.