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If Nigeria Is a Petrostate, Why Is It Always So Short on Fuel?

Nigeria has some of the world's richest oil fields. But recent strikes prove its lack of refinery infrastructure could soon make it a failing petrostate.

People queue with jerrycans to buy fuel at Mobil filling station in Lagos, on May 21, 2015. Long queues formed at petrol stations across oil-rich Nigeria on May 21 following a row over subsidy payment to petrol importers as well as sale of government oil blocks to private investors, union officials said. AFP PHOTO/PIUS UTOMI EKPEI        (Photo credit should read PIUS UTOMI EKPEI/AFP/Getty Images)
People queue with jerrycans to buy fuel at Mobil filling station in Lagos, on May 21, 2015. Long queues formed at petrol stations across oil-rich Nigeria on May 21 following a row over subsidy payment to petrol importers as well as sale of government oil blocks to private investors, union officials said. AFP PHOTO/PIUS UTOMI EKPEI (Photo credit should read PIUS UTOMI EKPEI/AFP/Getty Images)

When Nigerians went to the presidential polls in March, observers joked that if one candidate could promise consistent electricity, they would win 100 percent of the vote. It wasn’t just a light-hearted quip: the electricity infrastructure in Nigeria, Africa’s biggest economy, is so dilapidated that most of the country uses fuel to power their own generators.

Now, three days before outgoing President Goodluck Jonathan is slated to hand over the reins to incoming President-elect Muhammadu Buhari, an oil company strike has put the issue of Nigeria’s fuel dependence back at the forefront of the country’s ongoing economic crisis.

In recent weeks, oil tanker drivers and importers walked off their jobs. Those on strike claimed they were going unpaid because the government owes them $1 billion of fuel subsidy payments.

Nigeria produces more than 2 million barrels of crude oil each day, but despite its potential to develop into an independent petro-state, the country lacks the infrastructure to build enough refineries to produce much usable oil on their own. The numbers are striking: Nigeria has a population of more than 170 million, the largest in Africa, but only 23 power plants. This fuel shortage has worsened the country’s electricity capacity, with all but five of the plants shutting down this week. It has also fueled new questions about whether Nigeria could join the growing club of failing petro-states.

On Twitter, Nigerians used the hashtag #AintNobodyGotFuelForThat to document how the oil shortfall was affecting their daily lives.

They have a lot to write about: the country’s reliance on fuel for power means radio stations, phone networks, banks, and other major companies have been forced to shut down or reduce their hours of operation in order to preserve their dwindling supplies of electricity. Some domestic flights were canceled, and international flights had to reroute and refuel elsewhere. Cell phone companies, including MTN Nigeria, warned there might be spotty connections. But phone networks might have been the least of their concerns, because without power, many Nigerians couldn’t even charge their phones to make a call to begin with.

Although Nigeria came to a temporary agreement Monday over this particular fuel shortage, the fallout from the cuts will take some time to repair. As part of Monday’s agreement, fuel companies agreed to begin mass distribution of the oil they had been refusing to hand out since last week, but it will likely take weeks for operations to resume to normal.

And Olowoshile Bayo, of Nigeria’s petroleum and natural gas association, told reporters in Lagos Monday that the strike was called off only temporarily, but that oil companies plan to raise the issue again when Buhari takes over the presidency on Friday.

“We did not want to create the impression of conflict with the incoming administration and people,” he said. “We will take up issue with the new government when they arrive.”

Many believe some of the money they’re owed has been siphoned off by government corruption.

On Sunday, a spokesman for Buhari’s All Progressives Congress said in a statement that the oil crisis  “is the most vivid manifestation of the old saying that literally translates to a departing office holder defecating on the chair he is vacating.”

But Jonathan’s party responded by saying Buhari is trying “to create an impression that the APC is inheriting… a complete system breakdown.”

PIUS UTOMI EKPEI/AFP/Getty Images

Siobhán O’Grady is a freelance journalist working across sub-Saharan Africa. She previously worked as a staff writer at Foreign Policy. @siobhan_ogrady

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