Oil-rich Nigeria hit by worst fuel shortage since military rule

Wednesday, February 26, 2003

LAGOS, Nigeria -- Cars and buses ground to a halt Tuesday in Africa's leading oil-producing nation, gripped by its worst fuel shortage since military rule ended four years ago.

In the commercial capital, Lagos, hundreds of thousands of commuters were stranded and most buses -- the main means of transport in this overcrowded city of 12 million people -- were off the streets for lack of fuel.

The West African country is the world's six-largest exporter of crude but it doesn't have the refinery capacity to meet its gasoline needs.

Lines first formed at gas stations on Feb. 17 during a strike by government employees overseeing loading at export terminals and fuel distribution depots, but shortages continued even after the strike ended Feb. 20.

The state-owned Nigeria National Petroleum Corp. initially blamed the crisis on motorists who engaged in panic buying but later acknowledged a serious shortfall in supply. Lagos is sub-Saharan Africa's largest city.

The crisis hit at one of the key claims of President Olusegun Obasanjo's civilian government -- that it had eased the chronic gas crunches of preceding decades of corrupt military rule.

Jackson Gaius-Obaseki, head of the petroleum corporation, said late Monday that the country's strategic reserves had dropped from enough stocks to last 24 days to enough for 11 days.

Nigeria, with a population of 120 million people, consumes 300,000 barrels of crude oil daily. The country's four poorly maintained refineries usually account for less than half of that. The rest is imported. Half of the country's crude output goes to the United States.

The shortages come at a politically sensitive time for Obasanjo, who was elected in 1999, is running for re-election in April.

Under a succession of military rulers since independence in 1960, Nigeria suffered nearly constant shortages as a result of endemic corruption, mismanagement and smuggling of fuel to neighboring states.

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