Fuel prices have tripled in Nigeria, squeezing millions who are already struggling
ADRIAN FLORIDO, HOST:
Nigerians have endured tough economic times in recent years, and now the cost of fuel has almost tripled. The new president has removed a subsidy that kept prices artificially low for decades. A lot of experts think it's the right move to get Africa's largest economy back on track. But the hit to millions of people has been profound. NPR's Emmanuel Akinwotu, who reports from Lagos.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Singing in non-English language).
EMMANUEL AKINWOTU, BYLINE: Fuji songs and the hum of generators pulse from a pocket of Balogun Market, a vast mass of hustle and energy. Customers search the stores that line the walkways and old colonial-era streets of Lagos Island. On the roadsides, endless stocks of fabrics, jewelry, groceries and cosmetics are sold by hundreds of traders.
Many are like Kehinde Adebajo, a 56-year-old beautician and barber who has worked here since he was 16. He explains in Yoruba that for years he thrived here, but now he barely gets by.
KEHINDE ADEBAJO: (Speaking Yoruba).
AKINWOTU: "I've been working here since morning now, working and working. But I haven't eaten," he tells me and says, "the government should have mercy on us."
From the shade of his narrow stall, he threads a woman's eyebrows and describes how hard things are.
ADEBAJO: (Speaking Yoruba).
AKINWOTU: Now he buys half as much fuel as he used to and how the cost of fuel has become so expensive. And this is why.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
PRESIDENT BOLA AHMED TINUBU: The fuel subsidy is gone.
AKINWOTU: "The fuel subsidy is gone," announced President Bola Ahmed Tinubu, to the surprise of many at his inauguration at the end of May.
The subsidy has been in place since the 1970s and ensured Nigerians paid far less for fuel than the market rate. Nigeria is a major oil producer but doesn't refine its own oil. So even though it produces crude oil, it still has to import it, which makes it expensive. One of the world's largest refineries opened in Nigeria this year. But still, it will likely be years before Nigerians feel its impact.
(SOUNDBITE OF HORNS HONKING)
AKINWOTU: Abbey only gives me his first name. He's 38 and an IT technician at a local market. He says he's working but not earning anything. In May, fuel was 180 naira, roughly 25 cents for a liter. Now it's almost tripled to about 500 naira - 65 cents - and has driven up the price of food and transport.
ABBEY: (Non-English language spoken).
AKINWOTU: "Everyone is suffering right now, I swear to God," Abbey says. "The cost of fuel we're buying right now is too much."
Last year, the fuel subsidy cost a quarter of Nigeria's entire budget, so the consensus was it had to go. But the ripple effects of removing it were instant.
ABBEY: (Non-English language spoken).
AKINWOTU: Abbey says that if he was less moral, he would steal. He has a family, and they're struggling to manage. He says buying fuel is like wasting money, but he can't work without it. His generator hums in the background and powers the work station in his stall. But keeping it on has never been more expensive.
Economists have largely praised President Tinubu for the decision and other swift moves meant to revive Nigeria's economy in the long term and make it more attractive to foreign investors. But in a country where 70% of the population live in poverty, the impact has been immense. The World Bank says 7 million people could be plunged into poverty by the end of the year. And for Nigerians, this is just the latest blow after several difficult years.
ANJOLA LAWAL: People cannot even afford to paint nails or fix lashes...
AKINWOTU: Thirty-six-year-old Anjola Lawal is also a beautician who fixes nails and eyelash extensions. She says her sales have dropped because some of her customers can't afford beauty treatments when they're struggling to afford food.
LAWAL: They live far from here. They had money to the transport fare...
AKINWOTU: Some people don't have enough money to pay the rising transport costs and come to work, she tells me. On Lagos buses, commuters now regularly plead with passengers to sit on their lap - called lapping - and split the cost of their seat.
LAWAL: They are lapping theirself (ph). We are lapping ourself.
AKINWOTU: Anjola now spends less time with her three children. She hasn't seen them in days because she can't afford to go home every day, so she leaves them with someone during the week. It's helped her save money on transport, but it's a difficult compromise to make.
How difficult is that for you, not seeing your kids during the week?
LAWAL: It's very difficult, but I have to endure it. I have no choice.
AKINWOTU: The government say that support is coming, but it's not clear when, so millions like Angela wait and hope that it arrives soon.
Emmanuel Akinwotu, NPR News, Lagos.
(SOUNDBITE OF MASEGO SONG, "YOU NEVER VISIT ME") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.