ABUJA — A week after Nigerian oil unions stopped delivering fuel to the capital, Abuja is reeling. Union leaders in the oil industry said the move is intended to strike at the government where it hurts the most - in the capital where they live. Union leaders are upset over the withholding of subsidy payments to importers because of suspected fraud. Average Nigerians said the elite in Abuja have plenty of fuel, while taxis and bus riders are left stranded.
On most days, this is one of Abuja’s busiest thoroughfares and taxi drivers crowd around this mall entrance, ready to take shoppers to their homes.
Today, a week after the unions stopped fuel deliveries to private gas stations in Abuja, the traffic is sparse, and only a few drivers mill around, appearing listless with nothing to do.
Grinding to a halt
Julius Ilochi, a taxi driver and father of three, said life in Abuja is slowly grinding to a halt. “Everybody’s suffering because you can’t go to work. You can’t go to anything," he complained. "We stay in the filling station throughout the night and throughout the day doing nothing. There is no fuel.”
Union leaders said the strike on Abuja is intended to force the government to pay back wages to workers and make fuel subsidy payments that were stopped earlier this year, after a report revealed widespread fraudulent use of the subsidy by fuel importers.
Across town from the mall, is one of the few parts of Abuja that is still crowded.
While almost every other gas station is empty, these two stations have lines that stretch out for roughly a kilometer in every direction.
After 13 hours of waiting in line, Rowland Nwaokeleme, a 28-year-old aspiring engineer, said the “big men” in the capital aren’t hurt by the fuel scarcity.
Fuel rich and poor
"The elite, those who have relevance in this society, you know most of them have friends who own fuel stations," he said. "They actually do have friends and relatives who can easily tell them: ‘You don’t have to queue, just come to my place. I will help you.’"
The rich, he said, have storage of fuel at home or can afford to fill their tanks and generators at black market prices, which are three to five times higher than the pump price.
Inside the gas station, Operations Supervisor Steve Yohanna said he is not sure how long he can serve the people if the government and unions don’t come to an agreement. In the meantime, he is on the front line of maintaining order in the face of growing anger about the scarcity.
“I know what I’m facing in controlling this place. I know what I’m facing in making this place to be like this," he said. "In fact, I don’t sleep. Every time I go into my bed I think of how to operate the next morning.”
The union is threatening to make the strike nationwide if the subsidy payments are not made by the government.
The government, meanwhile, has labeled officials of the various fuel importing companies the “puppeteers” of the crisis, saying their only real concern is obtaining fraudulent subsidy payments.
If this is the case, it puts the government in a bind. It has promised the people it will stop giving public funds to allegedly crooked oil companies, but at the same time, the country needs fuel to function.