The easiest way to get a good beating on any cool, breezy evening is for Customs or other security agents to find someone going home with a gallon of fuel in any of the communities that are 20 kilometres from the border. It would not matter if it was to run a power generating set to make one’s household comfortable, or even to pump water or run a grinding machine to process food.
In Ilara, a group of men that were interviewed even claimed up to 20 youths have recently been killed by Customs officers in the area. Mostly over purchase of fuel, saying “they have no value for our lives and are quick to shoot as though we are goats”.
In Owode-Apa, Badagry West Local Government Area, Lagos state, there hasn’t been power supply in four years. But to get fuel for alternative sources of power has also become a risky venture, unless it is bought at outrageous sums from those who braved the odds to source it. In Imeko-Afon Local Government Area, Ogun state, there is power supply but for a few hours in a week. While they are connected to the national grid, they sometimes go for one month without any power supply.
Caption: A filling station said to be owned by an association of teachers, has lain waste since the blockade on fuel supply
“They (i.e. the power company) have turned the light to toy so they switch it on and off anyhow,” says Victoria Ogunleye, the Iyaloja of Imeko. But, “since fuel became expensive (after removal of subsidy) I no longer use my generator. In the past I would buy one gallon of fuel, put it inside the generator and enjoy it, but that is no longer possible.”
She is not alone. “In the past, I could afford using a generator to provide electricity for my family, but now, I cannot,” says Sulaimon Abiola, a businessman who is now into farming. “My generator is the big one with tires,” he says, describing it. But these days, he drops his power bank at a shop where they charge it for a fee, picks it in the evening to charge his phone at home overnight, then repeats the process the following day.
If his children need to read, like others in the community, everything has to be done in the afternoon with daylight. Once it is dark, everyone must go to bed. The thought of switching on the TV for entertainment is pure luxury. But before subsidy removal, he used the generator nearly every day for 3-4 hours, which was powered by 3 litres of fuel.
“I have not used the generator since Tinubu became president,” he says. “We don’t need to tell lies (to feel big).”
The costly fuel in these communities is because those who go to buy and resell, do so with gallons and before they make it back with fuel, they have to pay police, customs officers and other security agents at multiple checkpoints. However, the amounts paid vary based on personal relationships, this reporter learnt.
What is clear is that the little things the rest of Nigeria take for granted, come to these border town dwellers at a premium. In May, they fetched potable water from those who pump water (with generators) at N40 for four big basins (of 20 litre capacity each). Now, they get only one basin of water for N50. Worse, the communities are increasingly being graveyards for small businesses that were struggling to exist until “Nigeria happened to them”.
A graveyard for livelihoods
Caption: This filling station has been overtaken by bush after years of abandonment
It is a graveyard of filling stations as one approaches 20 kilometres to the border. One starts to see dozens of filling stations covered in bush, many with goats roaming around them, and others converted to motorcycle parks. Some have been taken over by security agents, especially the police, who mount checkpoints in front of them.
Azeez (not his real name), was the manager of a filling station owned by his father in Ilara. It was the source of income to take care of the family while also providing employment. “Since it was shut down, there has been no other means of livelihood,” he says.
The pumps in the filling station are already damaged. “Anything that is mechanical and not used for a long time will become hooked,” he says. Even the underground tanks would have become rusty and leaking by now, including other pipeline installations that ran through the once flourishing business of six fuel dispensing pumps and a 45,000 litre-underground tank.
“To refurbish the filling station will cost us up to 30 million naira,” he says. There is no hope of raising the money to bring the business back to life even if the blockade on fuel supply is lifted today. But assuming they even get funding, it will take 2-3 months to be ready for business again, but this is from a wishful, best case scenario.
Caption: Located along Owode-Apa road in Badagry, Lagos, this is one of abandoned filling stations
Ezekiel Bamgbose, popularly known as Apari, used to drive buses conveying agricultural goods to Lagos from the villages. The business was good and he made a decent living but extortions and frustrations on the road pushed him out of business.
These days, he runs a grinding mill business, powered by a large diesel engine with which he mostly grinds cereals such as maize and millet for women in the community. But his new business has also been challenged. There is no diesel around Imeko, so he has to go up to 50 kilometres towards Obada where he buys at N1,100 per litre. He would usually purchase N10,000 worth and transportation by motorcycle costs N4000, if there are two passengers.
Caption: Apari, as he is called, holds a one litre bottle of diesel as he laments the cost and stress to get it
He points to a basin of maize on the ground that had just been milled, saying in the past, he would charge N100-150 but it is now N500. The increase in fuel costs affect everything including spare parts for his grinding machine, but he continues to persevere.
“My own suffering is more than that of every other person here,” says Moroof Tijani, who previously worked as a filling station attendant with Asas Oil Nigeria Limited. His wife left him after losing his job (when the filling station had to close down).
“When your employer and the business begin to struggle, it affects you as an employee,” he says. And this was his reality. Since the filling station was closed, following the government’s directives, “as our boss became hungry, so did we employees become hungry too,” he says.
Caption: One of over 160 abandoned filling stations in Badagry axis
His salary was N65,000 monthly back then in 2019, but he would usually also get tips from people so much he says he hardly touched his salary. He says his salary was going into developing a property to live with his family. But since the filling station stopped working, his building project also stopped. These days, the challenge is feeding himself and the one child his wife left with him, while she took three.
Now into farming, he makes about N150,000 a year, each month coming to about N13,000. Before the blockade, he would have made his current annual income within 3 months (surely less if tips and gifts were factored in).
He plants maize, cassava, yam, peppers and some vegetables on about three acres of farmland, which he says is several kilometres away. Asked how he commutes to the farm daily, he demonstrates in French saying “Allez”, while gesticulating how he would start marching when he hits the road around 4am. Armed with a torch, he starts marching to the farm, a journey of two hours to arrive by 6am and then start the day’s manual labour.
“If you saw me 2 or 3 months ago, you would have agreed that truly, this one is suffering,” he says. This he says is because, before the rainy season, his face had been burnt seriously by the sun due to the long hours on the farm and trekking about. “They should have mercy on us, the masses,” he pleads.
For traders like Olanireti Bankole, the tales of woes get worse. Bankole, who is the Iyaloja of Ilara, deals in fabrics at the Ilara market, which she sources from Oshodi in Lagos. In the past N13,000 fuel will make the journey, but if the vehicle was consuming a lot of fuel, then N15,000 worth. These days, they buy fuel of N30,000 to N35,000 and the driver carries four passengers, each paying N15,000.
After paying so much to bring the goods, selling becomes a problem. “Since you have sat here, how many people have you seen coming to price clothes? Once they are told the price, it chases them away,” she says. “They are not rushing the fabrics like before.”
Caption: Young men mount road blocks along the Imeko-Abeokuta expressway, adding to extortions by security agents
In Owode-Apa, Badagry, Adenike (not her real name), also a female fabric trader, has the same story. “Before, when I went to Lagos to buy goods, at most I would spend N7,000 but now I spend N30,000,” she says. She buys her goods from Ebute Ero market in Lagos and apart from transportation costs, the challenges of extortions on the road are equally too much. “I will still sort the checkpoints separately,” she says. Then selling becomes the final challenge as people back in her community are increasingly unable to spare more money.
Adenike, who especially sells fabrics for school uniforms, says that these days, she sees many children moving about with tattered clothes and uniforms. In as much as she pities them and their mothers, “I can’t sell at a loss, so I often have to sell at close to cost price,” she says.
Her problems with the cost of fuel also mean she can’t dream of using a power generator, more so in a community without light for over four years. To light up the house at night, she would bleach palm oil, add some kerosene and mix inside a tin, then put a small piece of cloth in it. It is then ignited to burn and provide illumination at night.
“That is how we provide light at night,” she says. “Those who are well to do use solar.”
For her two children who attend Kankon secondary school; one in SS2 and the other in JSS2, a girl and a boy respectively, they both got N600 daily when going to school. But since June, following removal of fuel subsidy each child now takes N700, and N1,400 for both of them. Out of this, they spend N1000 on transportation.
Caption: Abandoned filling station along Badagry-Seme road
Subsidy, which was the attraction for fuel smuggling from Nigeria to neighbouring countries, has now been removed for over four months (at the time of this report). Fuel has become more expensive across Nigeria, yet the border towns remain cut off from being supplied as though they are unwanted appendages of the rest of Nigeria. Abandoned filling stations that litter those communities remain reminders of some of the multibillion naira losses for local businesses and their now jobless former employees too.