Fuel crisis in Malawi

“Excuse me, do you know if there is going to be a petrol delivery today?” I’m in a small office at a local BP petrol station in Lilongwe. There are snaking queues of vehicles coming out of the station in every which direction, the usual chaos that precedes the arrival of a tanker these days.

“Maybe,” says one of the attendants. She’s sitting on a stool, looking bored. I tell her I must get petrol today, does she know where I can find some? She assures me there is no certainty of petrol arriving today in the city. She says this with a straight face, as if the hundreds of people hanging around the pumps just outside her office were not there. Our short exchange leads exactly where I thought it would: she has black market petrol for sale, how many liters do I need?

Black market fuel is one of the most profitable enterprises in Malawi nowadays; a model of true capitalism at work. It took fuel station employees a few months to fully understand the power of their menial position, but now they are exploiting it to the fullest extent. I dare say their valuable input in the recent shortage has single-handedly prolonged the agony.

Here’s how it works: a delivery of fuel arrives in anxious anticipation from motorists who have wasted the better part of their day queuing. Alongside the vehicles there is a line of jerry cans waiting to be filled. The official story dictates that vehicles have priority, the true story is you have a better chance to get fuel with a can; vehicles often go home empty. Once the fuel has been put into the pumps and the nozzle unlocked, the attendant undergoes a metamorphosis from a common mortal to the almighty of energy. And why should he fill your tank or jerry can instead of others? For a small fee, he’d be glad to help you. There’s no point in trying to denounce this corruption. Last week a friend was asked for a fee to fill her tank in Senga Bay. She stopped the attendant on the spot, wrote a statement signed by witnesses and took the document to the police. Nothing has come of it.

In fact, the police are also abusing their power to keep their vehicles running. At Nkhata Bay, in the north, a delivery to the bay was stopped and confiscated. No one knows where the fuel has gone, but if there is a need to drive across the country to look for it, the local police could manage.

Most of the cans that get filled belong to the attendants and other employees at the station. Last week in Mzuzu I asked the security guard of a Total station if there was going to be a petrol delivery that day. I had already been assured all stations were getting deliveries that day, but I was curious to hear what he would say. “No, there’s not going to be any petrol today. Maybe tomorrow.” He was dead serious, but when I asked if he was selling black market petrol, he broke into a big affirmative smile.

The price of black market fuel is usually twice the official rate. In the last couple of weeks that price has escalated, not quite reaching three times its value, but close. But today at this local BP the helpful attendant who wants to sell me however many liters of petrol I could want, quotes me the ‘fair’ double rate. It seems she’s been reading the papers.

Today the Reserve Bank of Malawi (RBM) announced it will release US$3 million to buy fuel for the nation. The seemingly generous contribution represents about 20 days’ worth of supply. A whole 20 blissful days of respite in the suffocating dearth that has the country on a standstill. Gee, thanks dear government! Any chance of finding a long-term solution? No? Ok.

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