By Onyebuchi Ezigbo and Chineme Okafor
They are back in business and every day, they smile to the bank. The pain of motorists, who drive many kilometres round the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) in search of fuel, is their gain.
In a twist of irony, what the motorists could not get at many of the filling stations in the FCT is easily available on the streets; albeit at a steep price. If any of the motorists is ready to pay between N200 to N250 per litre for petrol, he could fill the tank of his vehicle for as often as he desires.
For majority of them, it is a tough choice. You either cough up the steep price of the product at the black market or have fuel in your car to move around or you roam the FCT in perhaps a futile search for where to get petrol at the official price of N97 per litre.
Petrol, which has become a scarce commodity at the filling stations owing to the biting fuel scarcity that has gripped the nation’s capital like other parts of the country, is one of the most available products on the streets of Abuja today. Major roads and streets have been turned into mini-markets for the sale of fuel in jerry cans.
Fuel hawkers have become a common sight in town and they are making a killing from their business. Despite various laws that ban fuel hawking, the itinerant sellers of the commodity have been operating with impunity, daring the state, which created the lacuna that makes their business to thrive, to arrest them.
However, their activities have become a major source of concern to FCT residents, many of who fear of a possible fire outbreak that could arise from their careless way of handling petrol. With the dry season already around the corner, some of the residents have expressed fears that the activities of the fuel hawkers are a disaster waiting to happen.
The business is so lucrative now that some people have switched trades. For instance, youths who had hitherto been hawking other goods such as sachet water and confectionery as well as commercial motorcyclists have abandoned their former trade to hawk fuel along many FCT streets.
THISDAY checks round some major streets in Abuja showed that the hawkers are having a field day displaying and selling fuel openly to vehicle owners in flagrant disregard to the serious danger such a highly inflammable product poses to road users and residents.
Many of these youths could be seen lining up every street corner in the capital city with jerry cans of fuel and literarily chasing vehicles to make a sale.
The hawkers are plying their illicit trade in full public glare with little or no form of check by relevant authorities and the security agencies.
The Department of Petroleum Resources (DPR), whose task it is to deal with such malpractices, however, lamented the inability of the organisation to get the needed support from security agents to clamp down on the illegal fuel vendors.
While addressing journalists in Abuja at the end of field operation, the Head, Downstream Operations, DPR Zonal Office, Abuja, Mr. Yerima Kolomi, said the department is not getting the required support from security agents to clamp down on the hawkers.
“Some of these boys are violent; they were even stoning our vehicle. It is dangerous for us because we are just civil regulators, we don't have anything to restrain them," he said.
He said the decision to rid the streets of the illegal vendors was informed by the fact that their activities constitute an embarrassment to the regulators, operators and the Federal Government.
"Their activities contribute to the fuel crisis because people who sell it to them tend to hoard the product so they can sell to them at night. So we are out to sanitise and make sure they are off the street," he said.
Apart from support from security agencies, he said the filling station operators had been warned that any station where illegal vendors operate will be taken as their supplier and sealed, adding that this step is meant to dry up their source of supply and quicken an end to the activities of the fuel hawkers.
"When we get them arrested, we will hand them over to police for prosecution because for anyone to operate in petroleum products, you must get a licence and filling stations which supply them when caught will be sealed," Kolomi added.
He dismissed suggestions that the hawkers are into business because of the prevalent fuel scarcity in Abuja, stressing that whether or not there is fuel scarcity does not give room for people to break the law and engage in illegal sale of petroleum products.
On the sale of fuel above the official pump price of N97 a litre which allegedly portrays the DPR as lacking the capacity to enforce the regulated price of fuel, Kolomi said: "It is not true. As far as DPR is concerned, the official price of fuel in Nigeria remains N97 a litre and we enforce that to the best of our ability."
He added that a station in Gwagwalada was shut down last week because the DPR was made to understand that the owner was the kingpin of the people selling above the official price in the area.