Young men became entangled in a swirl of flying fists. Gas station workers swatted away boys hoping to fill their plastic cans. A mother with a sleeping baby in her minivan was chased off, rightly accused of jumping the line. A driver eager to get ahead crashed into several cars, the sound of crunching metal barely registering amid the noise.
Nigerians were getting used to days like this.
But then came the ultimate insult to everyone waiting at the Oando mega gas station: A bus marked Ministry of Justice rolled up to a pump, leapfrogging no fewer than 99 vehicles. “Service With Integrity” was painted on its door. A gas station supervisor who calls herself Madame No Nonsense stepped aside to let it fuel up before anyone else. The crowd howled at the injustice.
Plummeting oil prices have set off an economic unraveling in Nigeria, one of the world’s top oil producers, and the collective anger of a fed-up nation was pouring out.
“Starvation in the land of plenty,” said Tony Usidamen, a public relations consultant waiting for fuel.
For months, many Nigerians have endured painfully long lines for gasoline and power failures that last for days — with no fuel for backup generators. Scant power means water cuts for homes that rely on electricity to pump it. Everyday items are missing from stores, and those that remain cost more than usual.
In this country of rampant inequality, the poor have long been desperate, and the rich are still able to buy their way out of problems. But the situation in Nigeria, Africa’s largest economy, is having an outsize impact on the expanding middle class, which has become accustomed to air-conditioning, owning a car and going out for Domino’s pizza. Now, even a bottle of Perrier is too expensive for many.
President Muhammadu Buhari is urging patience, noting that when he took office last year he inherited a corruption-plagued mess.
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“We are experiencing probably the toughest economic times in the history of our nation,” Mr. Buhari told Nigerians on Friday. “I cannot promise you that this will be an easy journey.”
Low oil prices are not helping. The resulting shortage of dollars means less cash for imports, including fuel to power the nation. Though Nigeria produces millions of barrels of oil a day, it has long had to ship its own crude oil out of the country to be refined into gasoline.
Imported fuel has been arriving in Lagos, a city of 20 million, by tanker truck, a trip that takes a week. Old trucks and bad roads cause delays. Trucks sometimes disappear across the border, where thieves sell the fuel and pocket the cash, and militants keep blowing up oil platforms and pipelines.
The lines at gas stations ebb and flow, depending on the day. But the government says the supply is getting better. It has finally fired up Nigeria’s three rickety oil refineries, and the wait in Lagos improved drastically last week. Eventually, officials say, Nigeria will make all of its own gasoline.
“A certain amount of pain must be endured,” said Garba Deen Muhammad, a spokesman for the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation. “Everybody must make sacrifices.”
At the gas station in Lagos, Olafay Segun and Abu Bellow tried to sleep away the pain of losing a morning of valuable fares in their yellow minibus. They joined a huge line of vehicles backed up along the expressway. Both men stretched across the old metal seats. In the beating sun, it was like sleeping inside a TV dinner.
Suddenly, the car in front gave up on the wait, pulling out of line and leaving a gap. Mr. Bellow bolted for the driver’s seat, turning the key. Nothing happened. Long seconds passed as both men panicked that someone would pull in front of them. He tried the key again. Success. The bus jolted ahead a few feet.
They wound up behind Adeanike Oso, whose mind was on her chickens. As the owner of Oso Farms, a 3,500-bird operation outside Lagos, she worried they might not have enough food and water.
That morning, Ms. Oso had dropped off her children at school before heading to the farm, but her Nissan Pathfinder was running low on fuel so she pulled into line. That was two hours ago.
Toward the front was Toyin Adeniyi, who was on her way to work as a school administrator. Three hours after arriving at the station, she was still waiting.
As midmorning arrived, young men holding plastic gas cans gathered. “There’s no light, there’s no water, there’s no anything,” said one, Michael Tungi, venting about Nigeria. “Everything is spoiled.”
The station was not allowed to sell gas to Mr. Tungi, to prevent fuel from slipping onto the black market. People had been filling jerrycans and selling gas at high prices to drivers looking to skip long lines at filling stations. Mr. Tungi and the others were optimists, hoping to sneak a few liters.
First they would have to get past Nike Olorunfemi, 50, the station supervisor. Wearing a straw hat and bright yellow vest, she hollered, sometimes with a bullhorn, to let them know they were waiting in vain.
“That’s why they call me Madame No Nonsense Action Lady,” Ms. Olorunfemi said. “I don’t take nonsense.”
The day had started out orderly and calm. Drivers inched forward. The procrastinators, the planners, the innocents — the line absorbed them all, having mercy on no one.
“I’m late already,” grumbled Peter Ademola, a swimming pool maintenance man. He had hopped into a minibus, heading to a repair job, but it was low on fuel. Now he was stuck in line, wiping his brow. Tiny beads of sweat formed above the purple lipstick of the passenger next to him.
“What can I do?” Mr. Ademola said.
Another driver, Ify Ezeobi, a shopkeeper, figured every hour of waiting cost him $100 worth of business at his store. “I’m sick and tired of this,” he said.
It was almost noon when the line stopped altogether. The station’s supply had run dry. Vehicles squealed away to search for fuel elsewhere. It was anyone’s guess when the next fuel truck would arrive.
Some drivers made use of the empty hours until more fuel came. A policeman read over a stack of witness statements. One driver repaired a busted side mirror. A doughnut saleswoman paraded alongside the vehicles. Old friends found one another in line, their reunion an upside to the otherwise grim day.
The hottest part of the day came and, with it, stress. A mother made the calculations of every busy parent — if she waited, would she get to school in time to pick up her children? Three energetic boys bounced in the back seat of another car, hanging out the windows and slugging one another. It was the first day of vacation and their father needed gas to reach their grandparents outside the city.
A billboard with a man clutching his head taunted the stalled motorists: “Need pain relief?”
Ms. Olorunfemi — Madame No Nonsense — was still trying to chase off the people holding gas cans. She snatched a can from one man’s hand and threw it onto the freeway.
“Anybody jumping the queue, they call Action Lady and I send them out,” she said. “I hate cheating.”
But by afternoon, cheating was in abundance. Some drivers employed a fried-chicken strategy: gaining entrance inside the station’s parking lot by claiming they were patronizing the adjoining KFC.
At 2 p.m., a fuel truck rolled in, eliciting a cheer. But unloading its 33,000 liters would take hours.
Two men lugging a heavy generator rested it on the driveway. Three elementary-age boys, sent by their mothers, arrived after school with plastic cans to try their luck.
At nearly 5 p.m., fuel was finally in the pumps again. Drivers started their engines. Wheels spun in the dirt. Station employees blocked off the cars at the KFC, dashing the hopes of line jumpers. Workers gathered around Madame No Nonsense for a pep talk.
“Don’t sell to anyone with a can,” she said. “Be nice to all your customers.”
Horns started blaring. A security guard in T-shirt and jeans, with an AK-47 slung around his chest, stepped in front of the vehicles. The station’s gates scraped open.
“O.K.,” Madame No Nonsense said. “Let’s go.”