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Monday, December 21, 1998 Published at 16:07 GMT

World: Africa

Fuel price shock in Nigeria

People have been forced into a desperate hunt for fuel - with tragic results

By Lagos Correspondent Barnaby Philips

Nigeria's military government has more than doubled the price of fuel in the country, despite warnings by trade unions against such an increase.

Few subjects animate Nigerians as much as what is known as the ongoing fuel crisis; the extraordinary inability of one of the world's leading oil producers to provide its citizens with enough petrol.

The fuel crisis has Nigeria's economy in a stranglehold. The government has said it can no longer afford to sell petrol at its current subsidised price of about 10 American cents per litre.

Every company and every individual has to take into account the hours and even days that have to be spent each week waiting in line at the petrol station. Long distance travel across Nigeria is often impossible because of the unavailability of petrol along the route.

In the south of the country the situation is bad. In parts of northern Nigeria, petrol has almost dried up completely.

Bringing fuel in line with the black market

Those who have money do have an alternative, to buy fuel on the black market at anything up to 20 times the official price. For weeks now the government has been dropping hints that it would like the official price to get closer in line with that of the black market.

The government argues that this would reduce the temptation for smuggling and hoarding and, therefore, increase the availability of fuel. And in any case, say the authorities, as so many people are already paying above the official price, increasing it would not bring enormous hardship.

Nigeria's trade unions disagree. They say that the erosion of living standards which began back in the early 1980s has gone too far.

Any further price increases are unacceptable and they argue that it is because of the state of disrepair of Nigeria's four oil refineries there is a fuel crisis in the first place.

Without its own refining capacity, Nigeria, which exports about two million barrels of oil per day, has been forced to rely on expensive petrol imports.

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