Petrol hunting: Woeful tales by a fuel queue

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By Chike B. Emenike

One of the visible achievements of President Goodluck Ebele Jonathan (GEJ) is the spell of unbroken supply of petroleum products in the last two years. But that was until a month ago.

After the shock of the sudden partial removal of Fuel Subsidy on January 2, 2012, which jacked-up the pump price of petrol (PMS) from N65 to N97 and elicited massive street protests, Nigerians had, thereafter, experienced a blissful period of uninterrupted supply. But the enjoyment was brought to an abrupt end a month ago when the dreaded fuel scarcity crept in on us, first noticed in Abuja where long queues appeared at filings stations, later in Lagos and then it spread to the entire nation.

As always, no one knew the cause of the scarcity. Speculations filled the air as hapless motorists agonized over their plight. “Sabotage!”, was the opinion of one driver I met at a fuel queue. He thought the opposition was behind the scarcity with the sole intent to undermine the administration of President GEJ. But a well-to-do looking lady driving an SUV thought otherwise. In her own view, “ever greedy oil marketers are to be held responsible”. She thought they were seeking to instigate pump price increase from the back door through hoarding of products and  profiteer from the peoples’ suffering. The debate went back and forth, yet only those in authority knew the truth but were not telling it.

Before the above exchanges at a Lagos filling station, I’d arrived Lagos earlier the same afternoon from Abuja and was waiting to be picked up by my family. The car, driven by my wife, ran out of petrol caught in a series of heavy traffic jams caused by long fuel queues. Stranded and frustrated, my daughter who had accompanied her mother decided to go on a petrol hunting expedition.

She grabbed a five-litre plastic can and “chartered” an okada (commercial bike rider), at N500, to take her to an indefinite “anywhere petrol was being sold”. After a fairly long ride they found one; a so-called NNPC Mega Station, along the Abeokuta-Lagos Expressway. The sight was intimidating. She wondered how on earth to plunge into an apparent battle front; a chaotic and dangerous arena where touts and muscular men alone reigned supreme.

A “kind-hearted” man (a tout, of course) approached her and offered to “help”, but at a price of N200. He also explained that fuel was selling at N110 per litre here, as against the official N97. So for the five litres, plus the N200 bribe, my daughter parted with N750. No sooner had she paid than the tout muscled his way right up to the pump head. He grabbed the nozzle and forced the attendant to fill the plastic can. Within minutes he shoved his way out from the huge crowd of petrol hunters – people in vehicles and on motor-cycles, large numbers of men, women, even children on foot clutching all manner and sizes of plastic jerry cans.

Elated and triumphant, my daughter chartered another okada which took her to rejoin her mother. This ride cost N450, bringing the total expenditure for the hunt to N1,700, excluding the stress and time. That was their experience before they finally made it to where I was anxiously waiting for them at Ikeja.

But more fuel was needed in the tank to take us home than the five litres. So we promptly embarked upon another round of petro hunting, with me driving this time. A dilemma quickly presented itself. How far were we to go hunting without exhausting the little in the tank in the process? Where my daughter bought the five litres was a long way off our direction. So we decided it was safer to drive on towards home.

About an hour later, however, we were informed by a KekeNapep (tri-cycle) driver of where petrol was being sold. The scene at the place was shocking and discouraging. Weary motorists, tensed up and irritable, waited behind the wheels. My wife insisted we joined the queue; and because she had ruled, I had no choice. From our position we couldn’t even see the vehicles at the head of the long queue which snaked back to over two hundred meters. I went into a momentary reverie as all kinds of funny thoughts went through my head; flashing by were words like, “magic”, “miracle”, “faith”; did they apply in a place like this? But I soon recovered, becoming aware that we weren’t in a crusade ground but in a fuel queue. No magic, or miracle or blind faith obtained here; only wuru-wuru (wangling).

Impatient as ever, my daughter got off and walked towards the distant front of the filling station. Minutes later she raced back and urged, “daddy drive to the front, fast!” She had made a deal. The touts (or station staff?) that manned the exit gate here were ready to let us in through the back door at a fee of N200. I obliged without hesitation.

Within minutes I was inside, right up to the pump-head, nose to nose with the vehicle being served at that moment. “Na waa o!” I exclaimed silently to myself in our beloved Naija parlance. Our Naija! Our Nigeria! How complex, how perplexing! Was what happened just now a miracle, magic or a simple act of blind faith? I hadn’t time to reflect fully on this before it was my turn to be served.

I sat back and waited for my tank to be filled but was impatiently informed by the attendant that it was 10 litres per vehicle only. The manager refused all appeals to give me even another 10 litres. Yet as I drove out I saw huge 50-litre jerry-cans being filled.

By the time we finally got home that night, after spending over two hours in heavy traffic within the Lagos metropolis, the tank was almost empty again. Exhausted and flustered I simply dismissed the discouraging thought of having to repeat this harrowing experience the following day.

I have recounted this stressful and expensive experience just to illustrate, first, why otherwise law-abiding Nigerians are often compelled by man-made difficulties to cut corners or give bribes; and second, why they dread and despise fuel scarcity; an avoidable suffering seasonally and willfully inflicted on them by uncaring and irresponsible managers of the downstream sector of the oil industry; often for spurious and untenable reasons, as is the case this time.

Petroleum Resources Minister, Mrs.Diezani Allison-Madueke, in a curious attempt apparently to explain the sudden scarcity, embarked on a meaningless tour of a few filling stations in the Surulere area of Lagos. After the frivolous exercise she revealed to reporters her “great” discovery: the biting scarcity should be blamed on “product diversion” by un-named oil marketers. Of course, such a cooked-up alibi for management failure is an insult on the collective intelligence of long-suffering Nigerian motorists who know better.

We don’t care or want to know who diverts petroleum products or who should stop them. It is their duty as managers and government agencies to deal with all that. We want fuel to be made available for us to buy, even at prices they force upon us. We don’t want lame excuses and hollow alibis as reasons for the familiar failures of the NNPC and the Petroleum Resources Ministry.

It is about time Mr. President turned his attention purposefully to this sector to do the long overdue “needful”, just as he did in the Aviation ministry recently.

Will there ever be an end to importation of petroleum products? Why must we import when we have three refineries, and can build more? Must we continue to live with the idiotic paradox whereby we export crude oil cheaply and import expensive refined products of crude oil? It’s like a man who has raw yams but which he sells cheaply only to end up buying expensive pounded yam for his family.

A closely kept official secret is the mystery surrounding the 400,000 barrels of crude oil allocated to the three refineries daily for domestic consumption. 400,000 barrels (about 68 million litres of petrol) when refined are more than enough for our daily consumption.

I am equally astounded by the misplaced zealousness with which the authorities pursue and destroy the facilities of “illegal refiners” in the creeks of Bayelsa State and the Niger Delta. This is reminiscent of the colonial era arrest and humiliation of our indigenous industry and enterprise. History recorded that the colonialists labeled our locally distilled gin as “illicit” and outlawed its sale and consumption. Meanwhile, the same gin imported from London was officially tagged legal or licit and permitted free sale. That was in the 1914 era.

Today in 2014, a colonial-mentality befogged federal government of Nigeria is shamelessly still doing the same, validating a harmful colonial policy by busying itself with destroying the facilities of local refiners of petroleum products. Where is the wisdom or the economics in this? In whose interest is this done? Is it in Nigeria’s or in that of the foreign refineries and the cabal of fuel importers? The federal government should wake up and shine its eyes, as we say it in Naija parlance.

Rather than ignorantly destroy the budding local initiatives at crude oil refining on the grounds of their crude and rudimentary technologies and expertise, government should in fact assist them to improve on their methods; make them contribute to end importation of fuel and eliminate incidents of petroleum products scarcity. Their activities should now be legalised.

Emenike, an engineer, is also a consultant based in Lagos

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