Oil is about everything

As thousands of angry Nigerians took to the streets this week to protest against 30% hikes in fuel price, across West Africa some of the world’s poorest were also feeling the pinch, struggling to cope with the record-breaking cost of crude and its knock-on effect on basic goods.

The price of a barrel of oil rocketed from about $40 at the beginning of the year to reach a record high of more than $70 on August 30 this year, making consumers the world over dig deeper and deeper into their pockets for goods and services.

Though the average West African doesn’t even own a bicycle, let alone a car, high fuel prices have forced up transport costs, making most goods, including food, more expensive.

“Many products are imported and that means they have to be transported,” grumbled an old woman on the streets of Dakar, where petrol and diesel have gone up 25% since last December. “When the price of fuel goes up, that has repercussions on everything, everything, everything!”

Across much of the region, which is host to the world’s six poorest countries, kerosene lamps are used to light homes with no electricity and meals simmer away on kerosene stoves.

But in Togo, where the traditionally cheap fuel has peaked almost 10% in recent months, Nadou Lawson said: “I can’t afford to use kerosene to do my cooking anymore.”

With six children to feed she scratches a living selling deep-fried fritters at the roadside in the Togolese capital Lome, using scavenged palm nut husks for fuel. The taxi motorbikes that whiz past as she hunches over the bubbling oil leave choking clouds of blue smoke in their wake.

“The price of fuel is killing us!” said young motorbike taxi driver Ekue, draped on the iron railings of a Lome petrol station, waiting impatiently for his next passenger.

Despite working all day every day and often at night, his bid to provide for his wife and two kids has become a struggle since oil soared, because there are so many motorbike taxis that customers are able to bargain down fares and whittle away his dwindling earnings.

“We’re obliged to take clients at less than the normal tariff because nobody’s got enough money to pay the normal fare,” said Ekue.

In Senegal too, cash-strapped customers are forcing taxi drivers and fishermen to absorb the burden of the fuel price rises whenever they can.

“We can’t increase the price of fish because of competition from elsewhere in Senegal or cheap imported fish,” said Ousmane Ndiaye, a fisherman who goes out every day in a traditional fishing boat off the Dakar coastline.

“But if things go on like this, we’ll have to speak to the fish sellers on the market and get them to increase their prices.”

Yet under pressure from donors demanding market liberalisation, governments across West Africa for the past decade have been calling a halt to fuel subsidies, which cost the Nigerian government alone $2-billion a year.

Despite its rich oil resources, Nigeria does not have the refining capacity to meet domestic demand and must re-import consumable refined oil at a premium.

But many Nigerians nonetheless believe access to cheap fuel is a god-given right, and national strikes to protest previous fuel price rises have won wide backing, even forcing the government to back down last year.

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