Heroes Of This Fuel Scarcity
MY name is Abraham. I completed my NYSC more than two years ago. I now work at my unlettered uncle’s ‘black market’ filling station as a ‘foreman’ – that was the job he said he was employing me to do three months ago when I went to him for help about my unemployment predicament. The first three weeks were uneventful as I performed what I thought was the foreman’s job – sat around and watched the two solitary empty fuel pumps and the two young female attendants as they lazed about, gossiped and chewed groundnuts. We never got a drop of petrol since I resumed. The fuel scarcity in the entire country was only getting worse by the day.
Then about two weeks later, I noticed that my uncle, who had made only one or two appearances at the station, had started coming to work even before the official resumption time. But what struck me most was that at those times he was unusually nervous, agitated and paced about the tiny filling station a million times before midday. He seemed to be anxiously awaiting some news of grave consequence.
After a few days, he assembled us in the cubicle he used as an office and excitedly announced that we would be receiving a consignment of fuel at 2am the next morning. Before I could express my surprise at the odd timing of the delivery, the two attendants jumped up in excitement and rushed out in jubilation. Confused, I stared at him for an explanation only to realise that he was also bristling with excitement. “God don carry better business come ooooo…” He tapped me playfully on the shoulder and hurried out.
Today, almost one and half months later, I have transformed into an enthusiastic attendant, not only dispensing fuel to hundreds of cars that crowd the station for almost twenty four hours, I also dispense to motorcycle, keke and jerry can owners. They come in their thousands and struggle hard to buy, not minding the price – which we sometimes triple or even quadruple in accordance with the intensity of the scarcity. Despite the fact that we have had to employ two additional girls, the large number of customers is most times unmanageable, as they fight, manoeuvre and outwit one another to get the fuel, not minding the price. As Uncle T said, God had indeed brought good business and all of us, especially me, couldn’t have had it any better.
Only the other day, I delivered the payment to a major marketer in town to have his truckload of Premium Motor Spirit (PMS), known as petrol, secretly diverted to our station under the cover of night. Before then, I had also received payments from a consortium of roadside retailers who sell in jerry cans to come and secretly evacuate a consignment of fuel from our station at three times the price we had paid. They would in turn retail same to motorists and other consumers who would be forced to buy, no matter the price because the scarcity had now assumed very critical proportions – it is now so terrible that ordinary consumers see outlets such as ours and the jerry can sellers as messiahs that are doing them a great service.
However, just as the hour of that first delivery was very strange to me, I have had even more bizarre experiences and come face to face with another sinister but, well, inevitable aspect of this business. Nevertheless, I’m right in the middle of it and have continued to be sucked deeper and deeper into its sweet bitterness!
One day, after we had gone without fuel for about a week, I received a call from Uncle T at about 3am that there was a truckload of petrol waiting to be offloaded. He informed me that he had already “done all the settlement”. All I needed to do was ensure the fuel is discharged into our dumps. There, I found out that the men who ‘accompanied’ the truck were not the usual guys who carry out such duties.
And the more we proceeded with discharging the fuel, the more it became apparent that these were novices in the business. I probed and was shocked to realise that they were actually armed robbers who had stolen (‘hijack’ was the word they used) the truckload of fuel on its way to another station in a different part of the country. Well armed, they had mounted a roadblock and forced the driver to stop on the highway. They tied up their victims in a nearby wilderness and had their own man drive the tanker to our station. Once through, they would drive away and dump the truck.
When they drove off, I shivered on realisin the extent to which we had descended in this ‘better business’ affair. I never imagined we could sell stolen fuel. Worse still, what if the driver or any of the crew of the stolen truck had resisted and been shot dead? True, I prefer the otherwise harmless business we do here of collecting tolls of N1000 from motorists to allow them buy fuel. For keke, and motorcycle owners, it is N500, while those who want to buy in jerry cans for generators, water pumping and grinding machines, etc., pay only N200. Once in a while, we also recalibrate the pumps in order to deliver lesser fuel than a customer actually pays for.
Through these harmless deals alone, I have stashed away a hefty sum in less than two months that I am told would be the envy of most senior civil servants in our country. It is for the ease and incredible turnover from these types of clean deals that yesterday one of the new girls, Hauwa, shouted to her colleagues in sheer ecstasy, “fuel scarcity na de best business for this our country ooo my sisters. Na im be our own national cake ooooo!” Well, sort of. Yes, sort of.
And, come to think of it. Can you imagine the havoc the absence of outlets such as ours would have inflicted on our economy, politics and lives generally? We have become the last hope of the common man as we offer a very ready source of fuel (forget the fact that it is sometimes so costly) in this country where the high and mighty brazenly cause but neither feel nor suffer from the effects of this scarcity. It is a big shame that we produce crude oil and export it and then import refined petroleum products! It is only in Nigeria that this great travesty can be possible!!
Those of you outside this business will never appreciate the psychological boost fuel stations such as ours sometimes inject into ordinary folks who are otherwise almost always depressed by debilitating feelings of low esteem and personal worthlessness due to their inability to achieve anything in this concrete jungle called Nigeria where only the rich and powerful hold sway. I’ll give you a practical example.
What would push a Nigerian taxi driver, for example, into spending three solid days in a queue, exchanging blows and the most foul insults, applying all manner of tricks to shunt under the blistering sun, rain, cold and the other elements only in order to buy half a tank of petrol?
I have studied a lot of such desperate Nigerians and come up with this strange theory: it is this compelling drive in the Nigerian to employ dubious means to attain that which he sees as the impossible that makes that driver endure all that suffering just to get half a tank of fuel. Getting a can of petrol by default is like attaining the peak of Mount Everest ahead of others! Surprisingly, those others that he short-changed to attain his goal look at him with some measure of respect for being able to manoeuvre his way through.
In other words, the filling station is an arena where the ordinary Nigerian plays the sport of measuring his smartness and how good he is in outwitting others. Paradoxically, therefore, fuel scarcity adds to the feeling of enhancing the self worth of most Nigerians. That is why, where other peoples in other parts of the world would have long ago revolted because of these persistent fuel crises, the Nigerian is ambivalent, routinely groans and complains but finally accepts it as the normal, even God-planned, flow of things; and also offers the rare opportunity to uplift his spirits! It is this mentality that has kept the dehumanizing tradition of the ‘I pass my neighbour’ generating set alive and in the process made us unable to demand for better services from those that are supposed to give us constant electricity supply in Nigeria.
So, before Nigerians come to their senses and do the right thing about this matter, we the heroes of this scarcity shall continue to bask in its glory because, as Uncle T would say, God don carry better business come ooo…!
Gyang is the media aide to Senator Jonah