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Oil-Rich Nigeria Represents Paradox: Little Fuel for Consumers in Land of Plenty


Refinery workers in one of the main cities in Nigeria's Niger Delta have started a protest action over the last-minute sell-off of refineries by the outgoing government. Meanwhile, motorists line up for hours to get gasoline, wondering why there is plenty of oil for export from this region, but so little turned into gas for their own cars. VOA's Nico Colombant reports from Port Harcourt.

For some drivers at gas stations like this one in Port Harcourt, the waiting seems endless.

"More than three hours now in the line here," one driver said. "So, we are suffering for the fuel too much. Look at the line here. It is full everywhere. We just want the government to take care of all these things for us, to buy fuel normally, as we are buying before, because we are suffering too much."

Another driver waiting in line, who asks to be called William, says he is already four hours late for work as a safety engineer for an oil company.

"They do not manage what we have properly," he said. "Therefore, most of the fuel we [have] in Nigeria, they export it to other countries, and other things. All the refineries are down. They are not working. Therefore, that is the problem we are having."

Although Nigeria is one of the world's largest oil producers, the country has long suffered from a lack of refining capacity. The government, which has held a controlling stake in the four main oil refineries, admits they are poorly run, inefficient and plagued by maintenance issues. Officials say that privatization of the refineries offers the best hope for an infusion of foreign investment and improved efficiency.

On the streets, people are more concerned with where to find enough fuel for their cars, and many are forced to buy on the black market, where the price is nearly double. But buying black market fuel can also bring problems.

These men are checking to see if the gasoline here is good. One buyer says, "you have to be very careful."

"Some of those ones on the road, they mix it up," he said. "Instead of the real quality, they add to it, something, on top of it, so it is not exactly the good petrol to buy. If you buy that one on the road, your car may stall."

Refinery workers are also upset by the government's privatization scheme.

Just outside Port Harcourt, refinery workers, wearing red protest outfits, are angry with the outgoing government's decision to sell off plants to private investors.

Last week, the Nigerian Bureau of Public Enterprises sold 51 percent of the federal government's equity in one refinery to a consortium for over $500 million, in an attempt to cut losses and improve performance.

Union leaders complain of a lack of transparency in the deal, and fear thousands of job cuts.

Union branch chairman for the Petroleum and Natural Gas Senior Staff Association Adamu Abubakar Umaru says workers were not consulted properly, as promised in an earlier memorandum of understanding.

"If they want to privatize, we have agreed that the process can commence as from June, when we have a new government," said Umaru. "We believe that the government that is transiting should not be interested in selling national assets like the refineries at this time, when they have barely less than 10 days to go."

The government says the sale will get people back to work and ease suffering.

Union leaders are warning of a total shutdown of the refineries on Thursday morning, if new negotiations with the union do not begin.

Umaru says he understands this could cause even more shortages for motorists.

"In any struggle, people must suffer, but at the end of it, the result that will come out of it would be for the betterment of the Nigerian people," he said.

Other unions have called for a stay at home strike to coincide with the May 29 handover of power to new governors and the next president, the ruling party's Musa Yar'Adua, following elections marred by violence and widespread fraud, in Africa's most populous and biggest oil producing country.