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Nigeria's fuel crisis festers without a president in charge

Fuel carriers this week blocked major fuel distribution points with their trucks to protest a new energy sector deregulation bill waiting for President Umaru Yar’Adua to sign upon return from medical treatment in Saudi Arabia.

By Scott BaldaufStaff writer / December 18, 2009

Militants from Nigeria's restive, oil-rich Niger Delta region patrolled creeks near a gas plant last summer. Attacks from militants have damaged refineries, worsening the country's fuel crisis by driving up prices due to overreliance on imported fuel.



Lagos, Nigeria

To see the long lines of cars at gas stations across Nigeria's sprawling commercial capital, Lagos, you wouldn’t think that Nigeria was actually one of the world’s largest producers of oil.

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To have a fuel crisis in Nigeria is like having a shortage of ice cubes in Siberia or of sand in Saudi Arabia. It simply boggles the mind.

But like most news events in Nigeria, the current crisis has many explanations: the political vacuum that has followed the departure of Nigeria’s president for medical treatment, the decade-long Niger Delta militancy, and even the country’s recent flirtation with energy deregulation.

Each argument is just as plausible as the next. The result, however, goes far beyond mere traffic jams to the actual slowing down of the Nigerian economy, precisely when it should be booming.

“This is artificial,” says Femi Falana, a prominent Nigerian attorney from Lagos. “We are starting to see the collapse of the system. It is the government’s responsibility to solve the problem, but there is nobody in government to answer the problem.”

Why gas is so expensive in oil-rich Nigeria

The central mystery of Nigeria – its abundance of crude oil but its chronic shortages of gasoline and even electrical power – is actually quite easy to explain. Over the course of the past decade, almost all of Nigeria’s crude oil has been exported, because its own refineries to produce gasoline and diesel have either fallen into disrepair through neglect or because of militant attacks in the turbulent Niger Delta region.

As a result, every liter of gasoline or diesel that goes into Nigerian automobiles or generators, and even into the power stations that provide electricity, must be imported from other countries. For a country that should – like Saudi Arabia or Venezuela – enjoy some of the lowest fuel prices in the world, Nigeria actually has some of the highest, like Japan.

Compounding this problem is the lack of political leadership in the nation’s capital, Abuja. Since the recent departure of President Umaru Yar’Adua to Saudi Arabia for medical treatment, the government has stalled on making new decisions under the leadership of his vice president Goodluck Jonathan. Under a quirk of the Nigerian Constitution, the president must inform the Senate in writing of his planned departure from the country and delegation of duties to the vice president. Mr. Yar’Adua did not do that, and so there is no one, technically, in charge of the country.