Africa's oil giant runs on empty

Nigeria, the world's sixth-largest oil producer, does not have enough fuel for its own citizens' cars.

It's like not being able to buy ice cubes in Alaska or not finding lobsters in a Maine market.

In Nigeria - the world's sixth-largest oil producer and the source of 800,000 barrels of oil used by the United States each day - citizens have a hard time filling up their gas tanks.

Drivers here either wait in lines hundreds of cars long or pay as much as five times the official rate on the black market.

It has long been the case that Nigerians - who occupy a land rich in gas and oil deposits - saw little of the proceeds from their nation's vast mineral wealth. Africa's most populous country has earned more than $280 billion from oil sales over the past 30 years. Yet most roads here remain unpaved, towns unelectrified, and people uneducated due to a series of fabulously corrupt governments.

But Nigerians thought their newly elected democratic government, the first nonmilitary regime in 15 years, would stop the sporadic gas shortages that have stalled this country's development. Thus far, the government has launched a major rehabilitation of its four dilapidated refineries - which would more than meet domestic demand for gas, if they worked - and stepped up fuel imports.

Still, corruption, malfunctioning equipment, and general mismanagement keep tanks on empty. Residents of Nigeria's oil-rich delta can find oil residue in their water wells and farm fields, but little at the pumps. Across this nation, the fuel shortage has inflated prices of household goods, doubled the price of a commute to work, and forced some factories to close.

Ordinary Nigerians have developed a habit of driving around town with their gas gauge perpetually on "E" - having long ago calculated exactly how far they could make it on dregs and tank fumes. They buy black-market gas - one gallon here, one gallon there - hoping beyond hope that a fleet of oil tankers will pull into town and rescue them.

Not surprisingly, intersections are often blocked by cars and trucks that let it go just a little too long. Highways are littered with vehicles that either ran out of gas or broke down as a result of using black-market petrol, which often contains cheap fillers like kerosene.

"If you use the [black-market] fuel, in three or four moons the fuel injection of the car is spoiled," says Joseph Daniel, a trucker who has spent many nights sleeping in his truck by the side of the road because of this very problem.

Standing across from a closed Mobil station, Havivu Sayeed sells gas from jerry-cans and old bleach bottles for the equivalent of $2 a gallon. The teen says his older brother buys fuel by the drum from tanker drivers at clandestine nighttime exchanges off a nearby highway.

Asked whether people like him are making a bad situation worse, he shrugs and says, "I don't like this either. But there's no work."

Across the street, waiting to buy gas at less than half Mr. Sayeed's asking price, Hussein Binta sits and stews. His white Toyota Hi-ace van, which he uses to ferry people around town, ran out of gas three days ago. Friends pushed him to the nearest filling station. Here, he and his van have stayed for the past 72 hours.

His vehicle is fourth in a line of more than 100 - most of them, like his, out of gas. "Maybe today we'll get fuel," says Mr. Binta, displaying an amazing optimism and good cheer despite having spent three nights on a worn bench seat in his battered van.

Binta has heard the stories of people parking their cars in gas station queues overnight only to return the next morning to find them stripped of tires, radio, mirror, even windshield. He leaves only for short food and bathroom breaks. Although in his case, there isn't much to steal - the van is bare of door handles, carpet, upholstery, and radio.

Mariam Kenudi, a hotel worker, says as soon as she hears about a fuel truck arriving in town, "I race over." She won't buy from the black marketeers on principle. "If I buy from them, I am encouraging them to steal," Ms. Kenudi says.

"To spoil a country is easy," she adds. "To fix it takes time. We Nigerians, we must be patient."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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