Nigeria: Special Report - How Nigerians Are Paying Deadly Price for Europe's Dirty Fuel

10 January 2021

Nigeria has made several promises to ensure its fuel contain low sulphur, but its petrol and kerosene have sulphur over 20 times times what they should be.

Strapped to the back of Chioma Munachi on a recent evening along Asolo-Isawo road, Lagos, where she sells bananas and groundnuts, was eight-month-old Ada. As she tucked a bunch of bananas into a plastic bag, a trailer pulled up behind her, puffing pungent blackish fumes. Some commuters ducked, but that was known of her worries.

Surrounding her were vehicles plying the dusty, congested road and hordes of head squirming to evade the late evening rush typical of the area. It is routine for her to roast groundnuts in the day and sell them with bananas in the evening at the middle of the busy road, demarcated by a slab which serves as a brace for her wares.

"It is normal. I don become 'baba'," she said, when asked how she copes, suggesting that she is immune to the inhalation of the fumes.

"We have to sell and make money, and as for my baby, I have no choice," she added, and this was the same sentiment shared by another trader, Precious.

But Chekwube Ojiodu, who lectures at the chemical science department of Yaba College of Technology (YABATECH), said the fumes Mrs Manuchi inhales daily put her at risk, and Baby Ada, due to her frail immunity, at a greater risk.

At risk

For years, Omobolanle Olanrewaju, 57, complained to her children of having chest and throat pains. Although she had not been to the hospital to diagnose what really was the problem, she said each time her neighbours ignited their generators, she developed allergies.

She took her complaints to the Lagos State mediation centre, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Neighborhood Safety Corps, but nothing changed. Crestfallen, she gave up, and kept taking self-made precautions. Her condition, she said, has since improved since the said neighbours moved out.

"I kept telling them (her children) that the smoke was affecting me. I complained to the authorities but they did nothing. Thank God now that they have left. I breathe better now. Those days, in the middle of the night, I am often forced to dip my head inside water because I feel choked."

Mrs Olanrewaju was lucky. In 2008, 17 persons reportedly died from generator fumes in Abia. In 2015, a family of three reportedly died of the same cause in Bayelsa. By 2019, six people died in a similar circumstance in Rivers. Last year, seven died of the same suspected cause in Niger.

The medical director of Peace Hospital, Kogi State, Joel Iheanocho, said the impurities released by generators and vehicles cause "obstructive airway diseases," which could start as allergies then become a permanent attack.

"We've had people complain of this (in our hospital). It is very common for us to admit patients who complain of the allergies caused by fumes, especially during dry seasons and when they travel often," he said.

"Complications can occur due to the allergies coming and going, and it becomes a more disturbing condition."

Mmes Munachi and Olanrewaju are among an estimated 200 million Nigerians at the risk of health threat posed by unregulated emissions from generators and vehicles, which are compounded by aging vehicles, fueled by high-sulfur diesel and petrol that clog Nigeria's roadways and sprawling metropolis.

Behind Serbia and the United Arab Emirates, Nigeria was the third highest destination of used light duty vehicles in the world in 2018, according to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

"(Fumes from) bad fuels, irrespective of the source, are always very toxic to the respiratory tracts," the chairman of the Nigerian Medical Association, Kogi State branch, Simeon Oyiguh, said.

"When there is concentration of the fumes in an area without proper aeration, it is dangerous. In the long run, it gathers in the throat and can cause bad effects and affect respiration," he added.

Dying by installment

For one, due to population explosion and under-utilized waterways, Lagos gridlocked roads ensure that its over 5 million cars and 200,000 commercial vehicles get stuck in the same spot for an average of 30 hours weekly, according to a research by JCDecaux Grace Lake Nigeria, thereby risking commuters to inhale trapped polluted air.

On the average daily, Lagos records an average of 227 vehicles per kilometer of road, more than the national average of about 11. As of Q4 2018, Nigeria had over 11.8 million licensed cars, statistics bureau, NBS, said.

Anderson Champion, a driver in the Elepe area of Lagos, believes the frequency of the inhalation of the fumes is the reason most of his colleagues and other commuters fall sick. He said he gets around this every night by sniffing a mint gifted to him by his in-laws after having a hot bath.

"Every night, I make sure I don't sleep until I have cleared my nose and throat with the mint," Mr Champion who is from Akwa Ibom but has lived in Lagos for decades, said. "I don't joke with it because I know how dangerous what we inhale daily is, in smoke and dust."

Abdulrasak Isiaka, another driver, in Ibadan, does not take such precautions and sometimes during a long day work, it becomes hard for him to breathe well if his windows are down, with his eyes getting peppered and watery.

"Sometimes when we buy those fuels, we notice how they burn and the smoke our cars emit. It peppers our eyes," he said as he fuelled his car in December.

"But we cannot leave the car even though our passengers get angry, and it is because of where we bought the fuels. Sometimes, we don't work because of this," Mr Isiaka, a "senior driver" that controls over 20 vehicles, added.

This was corroborated by at least three other drivers, two in Abuja, and another in Ibadan. All three said they take roadside herbs and concoction to stay healthy when they notice any allergy.

They all complained about the variation in the colour of the petrol they buy, and claimed the petrol burn at varying rate.

Among other things, the colour of petrol is determined by the additives in it, its storage duration, and the dyes added to differentiate it from water during distillation, two experts told PREMIUM TIMES.

"What matters is the chemical properties of the petrol (or octane rating) which determines the combustion point of the fuel," a Lagos-based project analyst with an energy firm, Stedy Engineering, Sumaila Omaga, said.

Sulphur-high fuels risking lives

Mr Ojiodu said because the fuels imported into the country are sulphur-laden beyond international standard, when they burn, they release poisonous sulphuric gases, unburnt cyclic hydrocarbons and volatile organic compounds into the atmosphere, which may reduce the lifespan of Nigerians, cause respiratory problems and even cancer.

"You hear that people have cancer all of a sudden. At times, it is because they have inhaled these fumes for too long," he said.

There were over 100,000 cancer cases in Nigeria in 2018, according to WHO.

"The sulphur-content affects the functioning of the engine," Mr Ojiodu added. "The bad fuels increase the sulphur dioxide in the atmosphere, and when it rains, it causes acid rain, which is very harmful to agriculture, infrastructure and natural environments.

"When the sulphur burns in the atmosphere, they go into gases and they affect the mechanical operations of the engines that are being used."

Messrs Isiaka and Adepoju said they have experienced this on many occasions.

In an unused state, Mr Ojiodu added that fuel attendants in fuel stations are at risk too as they may be dying by installment.

"They are supposed to be paying them hazard allowance," he opined.

However, Samson and Muiz, two fuel attendants in Ojo, Ibadan, brushed the submission aside, saying other than their N15,000 monthly salary, hazard allowance has never been in the equation.

Wealth above health

Nigeria has made several promises to ensure its fuel's sulphur content peaks at 50 parts per million (ppm). But till date, petrol and kerosene are over 20 times (1000ppm) and diesel 30 times what they should be.

Of Nigeria's 2.5 million low sulphur content and high API gravity daily barrels of crude drilled from the Niger Delta by Shell, Chevron, Exxon and other energy giants, little is refined in state-owned refineries, which for decades have continued to rot despite draining billions of naira.

As an alternative, Nigeria turns to European refineries, from where refined fuels, though unsafe, but cheaper, are exported back to Nigeria, all at the peril of human health, environmental safety and optimality of engine performance.

In 2019 alone, Nigeria imported 20.89 billion litres of petrol, up from 20.14 billion litres in 2018 and 17.3 billion litres in 2017, per the NBS. Petroleum imports cost the country N289.46 billion in Q1 2019, jumping to N837.67 billion by Q2.

Nigerians spent 5 per cent, or some ₦2 trillion, of their income on fuel and light in 2019. But despite these huge outlays, Nigeria barely gets value for its money.


A recent laboratory analysis by the Stakeholder Democracy Network (SDN), an independent watchdog group, found that imported European fuels are more toxic than stolen fuels refined in makeshift refineries hidden in the Niger delta creeks and swamps.

The study found that these imported fuels average 40 times Nigeria safe limits and 204 times European Union standard. At 1,523ppm, the illegally refined fuels contain 152 times higher concentration of sulphur than the EU's legal limit.

At accepted standard, petrol contains about 150 chemicals, including hydrocarbons, which when even small quantities enter the bloodstream can reduce the functioning of the central nervou system (CNS) and cause organ damage.

The SDN report is sequel to a June 2018 report by the Dutch government which found that, while the petrol sold in Europe may contain only 1 per cent of benzene, those sold to West Africa by Europeans contain manganese, a banned substance in Europe; more than 40 per cent of benzene; 300 times more sulphur and twice as many cancer-causing hydrocarbons than is permitted in the EU.

Similar findings were established by a Swiss-based investigative team, Public Eye, which said "Swiss commodity trading companies take advantage of weak fuel standards in Africa to produce, deliver and sell diesel and gasoline, which is damaging to people's health. Their business model relies on an illegitimate strategy of deliberately lowering the quality of fuels in order to increase their profits."

Europe is Nigeria's largest crude oil export partner with countries there importing more than 800,000 barrels per day of crude oil and condensate from Nigeria, accounting for 41 per cent of the country's export - more than Asia's 28 per cent, the Americas' 16 per cent, and Africa's 15 per cent. An European Union's spokesman, Daniel Holtgen, declined comment.

World Bank figures show that of the 46.9 million metric tons of crude oil and natural gas liquids imported into the UK in 2019, over 2.8 million metric tonnes came from Nigeria. Nigeria spent about $260.71 million on importing refined fuel products from the UK in 2018.

A UK government spokesperson told PREMIUM TIMES that the quality of fuels sold to Nigeria are set independently by local authorities and this depends on Nigeria's preference, processing capability, blending infrastructure and economics.

"Fuel specifications in the UK are some of the most stringent in the world and include limits on environmental parameters," a Downing Street spokesperson said in an emailed response. "Export fuel qualities are set by purchaser requirements and will vary in accordance with destination country specifications and use."

The spokesperson of the Standard Organisation of Nigeria, Bola Fashina, said it is the job of the Department of Petroleum Resources (DPR) to implement the standard set by SON, but the spokesman of the latter, Paul Osuh, declined comment on fuel standard set for the UK government. So did NNPC spokesman, Kennie Obateru, who requested that a text be sent but did not reply. Minister for state on environment, Sharon Ikpeazu, also declined comment.


While Nigeria's European oil-trade partners have met the target set by the 1985 Protocol on the Reduction of Sulphur Emissions in the 1979 Geneva Convention on Long-range Trans-boundary Air Pollution, Nigeria still lags behind. Also a signatory to the Paris Agreement, Nigeria, in large part, has not fulfilled its side of the pact.

The 2018 World Air Quality Report ranked Nigeria the 10th most polluted country in the world, with an estimated average PM2.5 concentration of 44.8μg/m³ - over four times WHO's annual guideline of 10μg/m³ for outdoor air quality.

PM2.5s are microscopic particles which can clog human lungs and are linked to heart disease, stroke and lung cancer. The higher they are, the more dangerous.

This comes at a huge cost: around 114,000 people die due to air pollution-related causes every year in Nigeria - more than in South Africa, Kenya and Angola combined.

A recent annual "State of the Global Air Report" published by the Health Effects Institute (HEI) showed that in 2016, Nigeria recorded 150 deaths per 100,000 people attributable to air pollution high quality - more deaths per 100,000 people in industrialised countries like China, 117; Russia, 62; Germany, 22; United Kingdom, 21; the United States, 21; Japan 13; and Canada, 12.

Way forward

Switching to low-sulphur fuels would result in yearly savings in health costs of about $6 billion in Sub-Saharan Africa, the UNEP, Economic Communities of West Africa States (ECOWAS) Commission, and the Climate and Clean Air Coalition (CCAC), have said.

This is why nations in the East African sub-region (Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda) and Ghana have completed their transition to low-sulphur diesel fuels 50ppm, same as European standards.

Mr Ojiodu said Nigeria needs to move swiftly in this direction. He added that Nigeria also needs to refine its own crude oil in order to cut costs and save lives.

Nonetheless, there may be reprieve underway as Nigeria's move to become more self-sufficient in fuel could receive a boost when the Dangote-owned 650,000 bpd refinery in Lagos is completed this year. There is also the possibility of another 200,000 bpd refinery owned by BUA to be built in Akwa Ibom.

Meanwhile, last November, the government commissioned the first phase of a 5,000 bpd modular refinery in Ibigwe, Imo State, expected to produce 271 million litres of kerosene, diesel, naphtha and HFO annually.

Also, because it burns cleaner, experts said the Compressed Natural Gas is a superior alternative fuel to petrol and diesel. Ranked ninth in the world, Nigeria has a proven gas reserves of over 203 trillion cubic feet and an additional upside of 600 TCF.

Despite this vast natural gas potential, only about 5,000 vehicles have been converted to use CNG in the country. But Nigeria's public oil company, the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC), hopes to change this.

In December, it launched an initiative to convert 40 per cent of the nation's fleet to gas-powered within 10 years, setting a target of 1 million cars this year.

GMD @MKKyari: "#NNPC is also expanding this initiative to all #NNPC Retail Filling Stations across the Nation, while assuring motorists of steady availability of Autogas at competitive prices."#NGEP #NigeriaGoGas #YearOfGas

- NNPC Group (@NNPCgroup) December 1, 2020

Also, over 20 countries with a combined population of 1.7 billion people have achieved low sulphur fuel standards (50ppm or below) and unleaded fuels for vehicles under the Partnership for Clean Fuels and Vehicles, a global public-private initiative launched in 2002.

The Global Strategy initiative of the CCAC is also expected to prevent a global estimated 100,000 premature deaths per year by 2030, increasing to 500,000 per year by 2050. This is expected to return $18 trillion in health gains by providing $16 in benefits for each dollar invested in cleaner diesel fuels and engines.

"To save lives, that is the way to go," Mr Ojiodu noted.

Support for this report was provided by the Premium Times Centre for Investigative Journalism (PTCIJ), through funding support from Ford Foundation.

More From: Premium Times

Don't Miss

AllAfrica publishes around 900 reports a day from more than 130 news organizations and over 500 other institutions and individuals, representing a diversity of positions on every topic. We publish news and views ranging from vigorous opponents of governments to government publications and spokespersons. Publishers named above each report are responsible for their own content, which AllAfrica does not have the legal right to edit or correct.

Articles and commentaries that identify as the publisher are produced or commissioned by AllAfrica. To address comments or complaints, please Contact us.