Voice of America (Washington, DC)

11 March 2014

Nigeria: Prices, Tensions Soar As Fuel Scarcity Drags On

Benin City — Tensions are high in Nigeria, Africa's largest oil exporter, as imported fuel for cars has been scarce across the country for weeks. While angry drivers sit in long lines at gas stations to pay skyrocketing prices, the government blames crooked fuel marketers for the shortages.

At a gas station in southern Nigeria, drivers have been waiting for hours to buy fuel at the government-subsidized price. The alternative is to pay 30 percent more at one of the few other open stations in town, or buy low-quality black-market fuel for double or triple the cost.

As they wait for hours, baking in their cars under the sun, drivers say it is not just the high price of gas that makes them angry.

"Can not you see me? I am even sweating now. Before we see the fuel, it is a very long stress. So that is just it. That is just it," said one of the drivers Ojo Odiasi.

Despite the frustration, and the fact that while regular people wait, VIP's are ushered through the back gate, the station is calm. Locals say everyone knows with tensions so high, an argument could quickly become dangerous.

Nigeria is a major oil producing country, but Nigerians say they see no benefits from the country's oil wealth. To add insult to injury, they say, the country has to import fuel because its four dilapidated refineries can not produce nearly enough.

In a press release, Nigeria's petroleum ministry accused fuel marketers and truck drivers of creating a false scarcity to drive up prices. They say there is no actual shortage of fuel, it is just not being delivered.

Outside his home on a quiet dirt road, Raymond Okoro, a political science lecturer at the University of Benin, says corruption at every level is responsible for the scarcity, including, as the ministry says, among the marketers.

But after years of regular fuel shortages and false promises, he says the Nigerian people ultimately blame the government.

"Within the time frame of a decade, I think it is the highest frustration. It is not only the issue of fuel scarcity that has ignited that frustration. Several other socio-economic issues have," said Okoro.

High unemployment, constant power outages, insecurity and under-development are other infuriating issues, says Okoro.

"If you bring all these elements together and now crown it, just like icing on a cake, with fuel scarcity, you can have a clear picture of how frustrated most persons are, particularly the youth," he said.

If the shortage drags on, Okoro says, it could undermine President Goodluck Jonathan's chances for re-election in 2015.

Despite the long gas lines, drivers say people are hesitant to protest on the streets for fear of violence or arrest.

Yet no issue is more vital for many Nigerians than the price of fuel.

Near the back of the line about a kilometer from the station, taxi driver Goddey Akpolo says he now makes zero percent profit.

"It affects our business. So we beg the government to help us buy fuel to save our businesses," he said.

Akpolo says he continues to work simply to have something to do.

In 2012, nationwide protests broke out when the Nigerian government canceled the national fuel subsidy.

The price of transportation and food doubled, then tripled. Public outrage forced President Jonathan to partially re-instate the subsidy.

Analysts say ending the fuel shortages is complex and needs an institutional fix. But as the shortages and long lines continue, Nigerians are growing impatient for a solution.

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