Their Troubles, My Profit


Twenty-six-year-old Abubakar Bello from the Bakori area of Katsina State, hawks water in sachets and coconuts in Abuja but also takes advantages of the protracted petrol shortages to make some illicit money on the side. He shared his perspective on the fuel scarcity withChineme Okafor

  “It is not my fault that there is fuel scarcity. I am only taking advantage of the bad situation to make some extra money for myself, even if I don’t like that people have to go through these difficulties to get fuel, there is really nothing I can do about it, I just have to do what I am doing,” said Abubakar Bello to THISDAY through a translator.

Standing dark and reedy, Abubakar was at first suspicious and cautious when THISDAY initiated a conversation with him, and from the experience of this reporter trailing his likes who hawk petrol on the streets of Abuja now that the country has severe shortage in fuel supplies, to talk, he really had reasons to be wary.

Just like him and others in the trade which is commonly regarded as ‘black-market’, they are often looked for, hounded and picked up by officials from the environmental taskforce unit of Abuja because the city abhors their trade, yet, they still manage to make a living from what they do.

Abubakar who described what he does as a matter of survival and which does not need compassion, is just one of the several unemployed army of young Nigerians who constantly benefit from the country’s inefficient petrol supply systems.

Every other quarter when Nigeria seems to contend with at least a bout of petrol scarcity, these army of youths flock the streets and road networks of cities in the country with their jerry cans of fuel and plastic hoses hawking and earning monies from the country’s inefficiency.

As it is a norm now, each time there is fuel scarcity, it could take the country’s government weeks, and in some cases months to restore supply to normalcy, and that is after blames of who or what caused it had been passed.

Within these openings, the likes of Abubakar quickly take to the streets to make some quick money from the faulty system and this is despite citizens’ ill thoughts of their trade.

Standing side-by-side with THISDAY on the busy Garki Area-3 Junction off the Nnamdi Azikiwe Expressway of Abuja, Abubakar was dispassionate in his conversation about the situation and his trade.

“It is not my fault. I do not pray that it continues but it will not be my fault that it continues and I make money selling from my jerry cans, it is the government and not me that should be blamed. People are not happy that this is happening and we are here hawking petrol but they also rely on us when it is difficult for them to get from the petrol stations,” he said.

Perhaps, the World Bank had considered the dilemmas of his likes when it recently said in its report on Nigeria’s productivity and rising population that with over 170 million people and a high rate of population growth, the country would need to create between 40 to 50 million new jobs in the next 14 years (2010 to 2030) if it hopes to reduce poverty and promote more inclusive growth.

But while the sun beats and the dust from the unpatched area of the road where Abubakar stood freely dispensed into the air and perched on humans and objects within its reach, Abubakar reluctantly volunteered information on his trade – hawking petrol in jerry can – to this reporter.

He had said that he would rather look out for potential customers to sell his petrol than hold any conversation on what he does, and when he made an attempt to walk away, he was gently pulled back and persuaded to consider holding the conversation even if it was for few minutes.

When he eventually agreed to talk, he said he would only talk for 10 minutes and also requested that a financial compensation be considered for the time he would have spent looking for customers for his fuel and his request was agreed to. However, he insisted on keeping his real name and picture from the pages of the paper, and made the translator promise him that this reporter would respect his wish.

“Usually, I hawk pure water and coconut but whenever there is fuel scarcity, I take up my gallons and hawk fuel by the road sides,” Abubakar explained when he resumed talking.

Sounds of running footsteps of his mates in pursuit of motorists to sell fuel constantly interrupted the conversation and of course his attention, but he was reminded of his promise to speak for a while and that he was breaking the agreement.

Turning back to the conversation, this reporter for the first time in the few minutes of standing with him observed that he had physically been beaten up by the scorching sun. His eyelashes were covered in brown dust and the red Manchester United Football Club replica jersey he wore on a black pants which was folded to knee length perhaps to give him some level of freedom when running to meet up with customers, was turning brown on the shoulder area from constant exposure to the sun.

His dusty legs also showed that he had been doing his own rounds of chasing after customers to sell petrol; he confirmed this when he disclosed that he had sold up to four gallons already that day, and it was a little over 1pm when THISDAY interrupted his sales.

He also told THISDAY that he hawks sachet water and coconuts at normal times when there are no scarcity of fuel and that he was constantly alert to evade officials of Abuja environmental services. He said he had mistaken this reporter for one of such officials hence his initial suspicion.

“I make N5 from a pack of sachet water but when I sell 10 litres of petrol, I make N200. You can now understand why I do this whenever there is scarcity of petrol,” Abubakar explained.

Shortly after the conversation had restarted, he was again momentarily interrupted, this time by a colleague who was also suspicious of the conversation and attempted to warn him but he then assured him that it was not a problem, adding that he already had the trust of this reporter.

“Every time I am out of stock, I have to refill my 10 litres gallon with N1500 from the filling station, I then sell for N1700 and make a gain of N200 from a gallon. Sometimes, when the scarcity is a bit tough, the prices go up because the price from the filling stations also go up and it becomes increasingly difficult to get stock,” he continued.

According to him, “it could take up to 24 to 48 hours to restock.” But then he noted that his sources of supply were always reliable.

Although, there is no known law in Nigeria that prohibits street hawking of petrol or black market sale of petrol by the likes of Abubakar, various agents of the government – the police, military, environmental enforcement units and the Department of Petroleum Resources (DPR) – have often clamped down on their activities, describing it as embarrassing and unwholesome.

The government through these agents would sometime issue threats or warning to the likes of Abubakar, but he said that such threats and its successive costs are always easy to overcome.

“We know the taskforce will always come after us but you have to be smart to see them before they see you. If you don’t see them and they catch you, you just have to settle them or they will take you and your gallon to their office that is just here,” he said while pointing to an office he said belonged to the Abuja Environmental Protection Board (AEPB) and from where he said they are put before a makeshift court and their sentences – usually financial penalties – read to them.

He said when asked why he still hawks fuel even with the challenges of sourcing it and dealing with the taskforce, “I run from them or get caught when I sell pure water and coconut. There is nothing new about it, it is the same risk that it takes but this one gives me more money from which I send home to Katsina for my father and wife.”