Fuel, cash shortages cause fury among Nigerians ahead of election

Nigerians are facing petrol shortages and chaos at banks over a new currency swap ahead of presidential elections later this month.

Drivers wait in line to buy fuel at and next to a filling station, causing traffic gridlock on Lagos' Ibadan expressway
Drivers wait in line to buy fuel at and next to a filling station, causing traffic gridlock on Lagos' Ibadan expressway, in Lagos on January 30, 2023. Nigerian drivers spend hours in traffic gridlocks less than a month prior to the presidential election [Pius Utomi Ekpei/AFP]

Muhammed Bazza has been queueing for petrol in the blazing sun for four hours, while Alexander Okwori has spent the last two waiting at an ATM.

Bazza said he had woken up at 4:30 am to try to beat the petrol queues, but it didn’t work – shortly after 10 am, when he was just 10 metres (30 feet) from the petrol pump, he was told to leave.

“It’s over! No more fuel,” the station attendant said.

“My day is wasted,” Bazza told AFP. “Every day is the same problem, it’s ridiculous.”

These days, Awolowo Road, a main commercial artery in Lagos, Nigeria’s megacity of 20 million people, is constantly blocked by traffic jams worsened by the waits for fuel.

From north to south, the country of about 215 million people is facing a complex combination of problems: petrol shortages and chaos at banks over a new currency swap, in addition to the chronic lack of water and electricity.

It’s a volatile mix as Nigeria gears up for presidential and general elections next month, with President Muhammadu Buhari stepping down after the two terms allowed by the constitution.

While Nigeria is one of Africa’s largest crude oil producers, its obsolete refineries have little refining capacity so it must import fuel from Europe and elsewhere so fuel queues are common.

Frustrations grow as the vote approaches

On the other side of the road, 50 or so people are huddled outside a bank, with more people continuously joining the crowd.

Like everyone else, Alexander Okwori is trying to get some of the new banknotes unveiled last October to replace the old naira, the deadline to make the swap was January 31.

But days before the deadline, only a few banks were distributing the new notes, leaving many Nigerians, who are overwhelmingly poor and have no bank accounts, without access to cash.

Under pressure, the government agreed to push the deadline back to February 10 but, on Tuesday, many banks were still unable to distribute the new notes.

“No ATM are giving money. I went to 10 banks, there are no new notes,” said Okwori, who wonders how he will manage to buy food for the day.

His anger has reached the point where he has no intention of voting on February 25.

“To get my PVC (voting card), I have to queue again. For what? They (politicians) are all the same,” the 21-year-old said.

The two main candidates vying to replace Buhari are Bola Tinubu of the president’s governing party and Atiku Abubakar of the leading opposition group.

The two are old political hands, wealthy but also dogged by corruption suspicions in the minds of many voters.

Outside another petrol station on Awolowo Road, a queue has completely blocked traffic, leaving Vanessa Ifejitah stuck in her car for three hours with her children on their way to school.

Wearing an elegant orange dress, the mother of two steps out of her car and starts shouting at military officers standing nearby.

“You are the cause of our problems!” she shouts, pointing at their vehicle parked in the middle of the queue, making things even worse for those trying to drive through – so Ifejitah starts directing traffic herself to sort out the mess.

“The queue is getting worse every day… I don’t know what is happening in Nigeria,” she says, getting back into her car, on the verge of tears. “My children are two hours late for school.”

Less than a month before voting day, frustrations are growing across the country.

Protests broke out over the fuel shortages in Benin City and Warri in the south on Monday and Thursday respectively, according to local media.

Angry crowds also protested a recent visit by Buhari to Kano, the biggest city in the north, with many setting bonfires and hurling stones at police in a city that is traditionally one of the president’s strongholds.

Source: News Agencies