Naira, fuel scarcity: How PoS operators, petrol attendants feast on Nigerians

As many Nigerians groan under the weight of fuel and naira scarcity, petrol attendants and Point-of-Sale operators are singing a different tune.

Mr John Thompson was prepared for a fight as the fuel queue crawled to his turn. It was one of the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation franchises on Ikola Road, on the outskirts of the Alimosho area of Lagos State.

As he thought of how hard he worked to make a living as a civil servant with three children, he was determined to extract an explanation from the attendants.

He adjusted his rumpled suit and wiped the sweat beads on his forehead with his right middle finger. Soon, it got to his turn.

“Sir, for every N1,000 fuel you buy, you will add N100 for us,” the fair-complexioned female attendant said in a soft, I-don’t-want-any-trouble tone and waited for Thompson’s response.

“I don’t understand. This is an NNPC station. This additional charge, is it for you or your station? Why do I have to pay that kind of money?” Thompson replied as other motorists behind him protested impatiently his refusal to pay.

“That is how we do it here, you have to pay,” the attendant retorted, rather irritated as her face curled to a scowl.

“Do you know who I am? Can you defend the extra charges,” he fired back.

Soon after, there was silence.

Then the humming dispensing machine went dead.

“The fuel has finished,” the attendant announced as she slowly hung the nozzle in the machine and vanished.

The crowd of motorists who had queued behind Thompson abused him for enraging the manager, who appeared to be watching the whole drama from a distance.

It was, however, observed that another pump at the station continued to dispense fuel to jerrycans as motorists surged there.

Our correspondent visited another filling station in the Ikosi, Ketu area of Lagos.

After three consecutive days of gruelling queue, he could only access the product on the third day, but not without paying an extra fee.

“I won’t lie; I don’t want this fuel scarcity to end anytime soon, wallahi! I feel like a king,” a petrol attendant at the station, Saliu Baba, said.

A young female petrol attendant with a faux American accent told our correspondent that for every litre of petrol, N200 extra had to be paid.

This, according to her, is a ‘service charge’.

“Sir, it is because of you o! People with cars pay N2,000 to even enter, because our price is not like others, and this is the way you help us. We (attendants) are your siblings,” the light-skinned lady said as she filled the keg with five litres of fuel at N252 per litre and N1,000 ‘service charge’.

A 47-year-old bus driver, Adegbola Adegbite, said the fuel scarcity made the fuel attendants brazen in extortion.

He alleged that the managers were in on the scam but pretended not to know.

Lamenting, Adegbite said, “When I got here and heard that they were paying N2,000 to access the premises, I was shocked and opted to see the manager. He came out and said it was used to ‘settle’ security men who would guide us as we wait at night and during the day. I don’t blame them; it is the country I blame.”

In Oniru, Lagos Island, a motorist, who simply identified himself as Oga Sam, said at night, the attendants turn to ‘robbers’.

According to him, they inflate the prices at will and ask whoever does not want to comply to go elsewhere.

Reclining into his seat, Sam said, “Imagine staying in the queue from 10am till 5pm only to be told you have to pay N1,000 as a gate fee to enter the premises of the station. If there are over 500 cars, for instance, the station would make about N500,000 from poor and desperate Nigerians, managing to survive the scarcity. It is unfair.”

A Daniel comes to judgment
Many drivers said attendants of a popular filling station along Ajayi Road, Ogba, Ikeja, Lagos State, extorted between N500 to N1,000 from anyone who wanted to buy fuel.

A driver, Ndubuisi Oguike, paid an extra N500 because he bought fuel in his car and two kegs.

“It appears the management of that place gave them authority to do this evil extortion and make returns to them,” he alleged.

Another driver, Mr Philips Ogwu, corroborating Oguike’s claims, also fingered the filling station, which he said was ‘notorious for extortion’.

When our correspondent visited the station on Monday, the attendants said they charged N100 for all sales to kegs, adding that it was used to ‘run’ the company.

Demanding to speak to someone higher, the attendant claimed that no one was available to attend to this reporter.

Many customers said it was the norm at the station.

“This (extortion) is not new. They have been doing this since I started buying from them,” a customer, who did not want to be named, said.

After a few minutes, a lady, who claimed to be a ‘senior hand’ at the station approached our correspondent for a chat.

She said the fee was not compulsory and that if this reporter was not interested, he should try another place.

When our correspondent revealed he was a journalist, she recanted, saying she never told our correspondent to pay more.

“I never said you should pay any charge. We pay our attendants well. They cannot do what you are saying they did,” she said, fidgeting.

For the few minutes our correspondent was there, no extra charge was collected to the joy of the customers.

Edo, Akwa Ibom, others
A pastor of the Refiners Fire Bible Church, Edo State, Moses Omodamwen, was shocked when an attendant on Tuesday asked him to pay an extra charge of N200 per litre of fuel.

“I just wanted to buy N2,000 fuel for my keg but I was surprised that the attendants said if I didn’t pay the extra fee, he wouldn’t sell to me,” he said over the phone.

In Port Harcourt, the situation has worsened as many filling stations do not have the products, causing the few that do to take advantage of the situation to rob the public.

In Uyo, the Akwa Ibom state capital, a nursing mother, Mmemabasi David-Efe, said since the fuel scarcity began, she always paid an extra N200/litre for petrol, which sold between N450 and N470/litre.

“The queues at the filling stations are so long that even if you are with your keg, you will still have to queue for long hours. We will still pay the inflated price of N470 per litre and the attendants will not let us rest with their extra charge. This is man’s inhumanity to man,” she lamented.

Lucrative fraud
Two fuel attendants, who worked in an Ogun-based filling station, said they made between N10,000 and N15,000 during their shifts ‘on a good day’.

One of them said she preferred the morning shifts because then ‘customers are desperate to do anything to buy petrol.’

“We don’t force anybody to pay us anything. It is just like they are giving us a ‘tip’. We are serving them and we deserve it. We use the tip to do a lot of things for the station.

“Besides, it is not just me who shares in the spoil; the manager also has a share. But at the end of my shift, on a good day, I can make N10,000 extra, especially if it is in the morning. At night, too, we make money, because we run an 18-hour station if we have products,” the attendant said.

Another Ogun-based attendant said the only time he enjoyed being an attendant was during fuel scarcity.

According to him, everyone who comes to buy petrol respects him because he has the power to decide who to sell to and who should wait in the queue.

“It is not our fault that there is no fuel and we are one of the very few stations that have the product. The station has increased fuel price to N415/litre from around N160 or N165/litre before. Nothing will come to us if we don’t collect this ‘small small change’ from the people who come to buy. It is not our fault. How much do we even make?” He asked, making some mental calculations in his head.

“Sometimes, N5,000 or N8,000 per shift. How is that extortion?” he queried.

Scarcity bites harder
As of the time of filing this report, fuel scarcity had worsened in various parts of the country.

Many motorists lamented spending as long as 12 hours in queues to get fuel, which was sometimes rationed.

The National Operations Controller, Independent Petroleum Marketers Association of Nigeria, Mr Mike Osatuyi, attributed the scarcity to unsteady supply.

In Abuja, where the problem first started, IPMAN’s President, Debo Ahmed, said the situation was a result of a supply gap blockade.

Corroborating that claim, the Nigerian Midstream and Downstream Petroleum Regulatory Authority said the scarcity in Abuja and other surrounding states was caused by the inability of fuel trucks to have access to Lokoja roads, occasioned by the floods that ravaged the country in 2022.

By New Year, the scarcity defied all solutions as experts posited that the Federal Government could no longer fund subsidies.

The Nigerian National Petroleum Company Limited repeatedly complained about the enormous burden of shouldering fuel subsidies for the country.

The Minister of State for Petroleum Resources, Chief Timipre Sylva, said NNPC was selling petrol at a loss because of its mandate from the Federal Government as regards fuel subsidy.

The Minister of Finance, Budget and National Planning, Zainab Ahmed, in January 2023 said the Federal Government budgeted about N3.6tn for fuel subsidy till June 2023.

Reacting to the development, oil marketers stated that the fuel supply crisis in many parts of the country which often led to fuel scarcity might persist till June based on the government’s plan to end petrol subsidies that month.

In a statement, the National Public Relations Officer of the Independent Petroleum Marketers Association of Nigeria, Chief Ukadike Chinedu, said fuel imports and subsidies were making Nigerians suffer.

The President of the Petroleum Retail Outlet Owners Association of Nigeria, Billy Gillis-Harry, also stated that the availability of petrol for marketers to distribute had remained an issue of concern.

The spokesperson for the Depots and Petroleum Products Marketers Association of Nigeria, Adewole Olufemi, said the depots were in need of more fuel supplies from the NNPCL.

Black marketers win big
Speaking with our correspondent, a black marketer, who did not want to be named, said the season was one to ‘rejoice and enjoy’ himself.

“I have a pact with the major fuel stations. They supply to me at N250 and I resell at N800 to people who cannot queue. I still charge an extra fee of N200 if you want to buy with a keg, although this depends on the ‘level’ of the customer,” he added.

Another black marketer at Ikosi, Lagos, who identified himself only as Ola while confiding in our correspondent, said he had made more money in the last four months than he made in 2020 and 2021 combined.

“It is an arrangement. The fuel stations and oil marketers are all in. Everyone wants profit. The masses must buy fuel, and if there is a queue in the filling stations, they will have no choice but to come to us,” he said with a laugh at intervals.

PoS machine

PoS operators
As though Nigerians have not had enough pain caused by PMS scarcity, the Federal Government, through the Central Bank of Nigeria, declared that the current N200, N500 and N1000 notes would no longer be legal tender from January 31, 2023.

The policy, according to the Federal Government, is to fight insecurity, curb vote buying and money laundering and boost the economy.

But the process was marred with glitches and forced the extension of the cash swaps deadline to February 10.

Despite this, many continue to spend hours queuing in banks for cash.

Others, who patronise PoS operators, pay outrageous charges.

One such person is a Lagos-based student, Matt Akin, who said he spent days queuing at the Automated Teller Machines only to go back home without cash every single time.

When he decided to visit a PoS operator, he said he could not believe his ears when he was told to pay 10 per cent of his withdrawal as a service charge.

“She (PoS operator) said I should pay N500 for a N5000 withdrawal. I couldn’t understand her. I was so angry that I walked out only to meet a lady who charged me N800 for the same amount. When I asked them why, they said I should ask the CBN.

“It is frustrating. On Sunday, on my way to church, I had just N250 on me so I felt I would just visit an ATM before leaving. All the banks I visited either had long queues or were not dispensing. I decided to use a PoS but the man told me to pay 50 per cent for the amount. I almost slapped him. Why would he demand such?

“So, he would collect N2500 for me to pay N5000? That is wickedness. I had to pay another agent N1,000 for N5000 of old notes that day because I had no choice. These PoS people are fleecing us,” he lamented.

In Bonny Island, Rivers State, a self-employed lady, Pat Hart, said she paid as much as 10 per cent per withdrawal using a PoS outlet.

“They charge us 10 per cent for every withdrawal, and that is if you even see the one that agrees to have cash. Most of them save their cash for their customers, who don’t mind paying more for the withdrawal.

“This has affected my business so badly that I have to make extra provision for a 10 or 15 per cent charge as the banks’ ATMs in Bonny claim not to have the new notes. Old ones are not available. They are frustrating me,” she added.

Buying naira with naira
A PoS operator at the Ojodu Berger area of Lagos, who identified herself as Iya Risi, said she bought the naira notes she was using to run her business.

Since the bank ATMs are crowded with customers who only get rationed notes, Iya Risi says she meets Bureau de Change operators, butchers and fuel stations to buy her cash.

“For N500,000, I pay N20,000 extra. Anything lower than N400,000, the BDC will charge N10,000, and that is only because I am a customer,” she added.

Another PoS operator, who confided in our correspondent, said he was making ‘a lot of money’ because of the scarcity.

“I have people in the bank who sell this money to me. I make returns to them,” he said, smiling as he counted the N10,000 notes that this reporter requested, which he charged N2,500 for as a service charge.

While reeking from an alcoholic beverage, he boasted, “Na our turn to shine! Make everybody commot for road, make we pass. I dey make up to N50,000 for half day if I won dey wicked. But, as you be my brother, I get plenty brothers, too, wey I dey do discount for so make we say the money go be around N40,000. But, gain dey the business.”

He claimed to have other PoS outlets around the area that made returns to him every day, saying he had not had much sales in his two years of being a PoS operator.

We are victims too – Operators
Meanwhile, some PoS operators have said it is not true they make a lot of profit, insisting they are also victims of the CBN redesign policy.

Speaking to our correspondent on Facebook, an entrepreneur, Esther Zinee, said she begged market women for cash but was not given.

She said someone told her where she could get cash from traders in Ogun State.

“I bought N100,000 for a charge of N7,000. I bought another for N100,000 for N5,000 charge. Another charged me N30,000 for N500,000. Another cash hawker sold N300,000 to me for a N20,000 charge.

“I got there around 8am but got the cash at 7pm because I had to wait for the traders to make sales. It is frustrating,” she lamented.

Another operator, Rita Kachi, said it was false that banks sold cash to PoS agents.

“I buy my cash from transporters, fuel stations and supermarkets. They are the only ones that have the cash right now. These people sell the money to me at high rates. I bought N150,000 for a charge of N15,000 from a transporter. If I don’t charge extra, how do I recoup my money?” she said.

However, a banker, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said she helped her neighbour get cash from his office for free, only to find out that she sold the money.

“I was so devastated, so I stopped giving her money. Now, she has closed her shop and joined other operators to buy from hawkers. Nigerians can be greedy people,” she added.

The rich also cry
A popular actress, Shan George, complained of how she was frustrated by the fuel and naira scarcity in Port Harcourt, Rivers State.

“After queuing for hours (for fuel), it got to my turn and I had to pay and my bank app stopped working. The attendants said they were not going to let me pay with my ATM card. When I even tried, it didn’t work.

“My car was impounded for hours while I tried to get money from the bank, which was not successful as no bank agreed that they had any money to give me. It was two days later that I was able to go get my car back. I was using tricycles and taxis to move around despite my status. These problems got to everyone,” she said.

The son of a former Lagos State House of Assembly member, who did not want to be named for fear of victimisation, said he was almost mobbed at a filling station when a fight broke out between him and an attendant, who asked him to pay a gate fee of N2000.

“They had standby mobs who would not fail to use sticks and stones to destroy your car and beat you to a pulp if you tried to argue or fight the attendants. This is a system and it is wickedness to the poor masses. I could afford to pay N2,000 as a gate fee, but I still had to argue because things are not easy for anyone. Imagine the poor man who earns N30,000 as salary for an entire month,” he lamented.

Experts speak
A financial analyst, Ade Dayo, said the extortion by PoS agents was a currency supply problem.

He said, “About 60 per cent of all goods and services sold in Nigeria daily are done with cash. That translates to more than N520bn daily across the country.

“You have to ask, has the CBN printed enough cash to cover that demand seeing that they have outlawed the old currency? Of course, not.

“Hence, the naira notes are worth more than the value they carry. So of course, the PoS people are market participants; they have to factor in the cost of acquiring that cash. So, N10,000 will most likely cost more than that to get. They have to make a profit.”

Another economist, Adetunji Olawale, said the PoS operators were taking advantage of the law of demand and supply.

He said, “The CBN has mopped up close to N2tn from circulation and printed less than N1tn in the hope that people will prefer other means of transaction than cash. It is miscalculated; Nigerians are low-trust people and prefer cash, hence the scarcity of naira notes.

“People are trying to access cash the same way they did last year but there is not enough cash in circulation. The demand for the naira far outstrips its supply. Naira scarcity is not because banks are hoarding it. It is because they don’t have enough. The CBN is trying to discourage the use of cash, hence giving them little.”

The Managing Director/Chief Executive Officer of Cowry Asset Management Limited, Mr Johnson Chukwu, said the nation could no longer afford to pay for fuel subsidy.

“Nigeria has been borrowing to import fuel and pay (petrol) subsidies. The government does not have limitless resources. The government spent N5.24tn on interest remitted on loans and borrowed another N6.6trn of which a larger portion of that went into subsidy payment.

“It became obvious that the subsidy was not sustainable and something was going to give in. What gave was the volume of crude oil imported. Clearly, when you have a short supply of a product whose price is regulated, you are either going to have a rationing or black market or both. And now, both are involved in the fuel scarcity issue because we’re not importing as much quantity to meet the consumption of Nigerians. So, we’re dealing with rationing and we’re dealing with the black market,” he said.

On the extortion by PoS operators, he said, “That is purely ethical and not under commercial consideration. A businessman would take advantage of any situation to earn more.”

‘Arrest PoS operators engaging in sharp practices’
The President of the Association of Mobile Money and Bank Agents in Nigeria, the umbrella body for all PoS agents, Mr Victor Olojo, said the union was against members engaging in sharp practices and called for “swift action to be taken against any individual found to be taking advantage of the situation”.

“Contrary to recent allegations, mobile money and bank agents have not been exploiting the public. In fact, many of the agents who were selected to participate in the cash swap programme carried out the exercise using their funds and without profit. The truth is that many agents have been struggling to access cash from conventional banks and had to resort to alternative means. This shortage has left many agents with no choice but to close their business, affecting their livelihood and those of their families,” he added.