Week in the Life: Daredevil driver who ensures the oil gets through

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The Independent Online
SULISU ABUBAKAR is a fuel- tanker driver in Nigeria. In a good month he earns 3,000 naira (pounds 21) for doing one of the most dangerous jobs in the world.

Just last Wednesday Mr Abubakar, 33, who is married and has three children, experienced the real danger of his job first-hand.

To prove it, he has two bullet holes in his cab, one just above the grille and another straight through the windscreen. There is a third dent in the tanker itself.

"The fuel shortages in Nigeria means that people will do anything to fill up their cars and motorbikes. I am constantly in danger of being hijacked, even when my 33,000- litre container is empty, because bandits cannot see whether there is fuel in it," he said during a delivery to Abuja, the Nigerian capital.

"I would do almost any other job if I could get one," he added.

In Nigeria - a leading exporter of high-grade crude oil, which should have no problems satisfying its own fuel needs - people are accustomed to spending the night in their cars while they queue for petrol at prices far exceeding the official N20 (12p) a litre.

Once at the front of the queue they must bribe their way on to the forecourt, where stressed pump attendants sell the volatile liquid amid frayed tempers and frequent fights.

The situation has been deteriorating for five years because corrupt military leaders have run down Nigeria's own refineries to allow themselves to profit from exporting crude and re-importing it as fuel. Mr Abubakar's job is to collect petrol or diesel from fuel depots and transport it to filling stations.

"My week can start anywhere in Nigeria, even though my wife, Rikaya, and three children are in Kaduna. As a matter of fact I only see them for six or seven days a month. The rest of the time, I sleep in the cab. My two motor boys (assistants), Bello and Ahmed, sleep on the road, under the vehicle.

"My week might start at home or at a fuel depot. All we tanker drivers queue up at the depots, typically Port Harcourt or Warri, and wait for our bosses to send us on a delivery.

"We buy food from hawkers and women by the side of the road. I travel to Lagos an average of three times each week, overnight there and return to the depot.

"Last year the union asked the transporters to pay us a minimum N15,000 a month but they refused.

"Some of the bosses pay as little as N1,500 a month, yet a single trip, for a transporter, can yield N150,000 and their only overheads are the driver's pay and the fuel for running the tanker. It is the driver's responsibility to pay the motor boys, if he can afford to, that is," said Mr Abubakar, a driver for 14 years.

He only rarely manages to pay his assistants, 25-year-old Bello and 26- year-old Ahmed, whose role is to guard the big orange tanker and operate its vents and valves. But the men say Mr Abubakar always gives them food and any spare cash.

Drivers live in constant fear, Mr Abubakar said. "We work long hours as it is - some of my colleagues can drive for more than 24 hours without an allowance or break. Even without the danger of bandits, this job amounts to working with a bomb on your back.

"Last Wednesday at about 9pm, in Adamawa state, near the border with Chad, I got caught in my first ambush. You hear about these things happening but you assume it will not happen to you. I do not carry a gun because it is illegal for civilians in Nigeria to own firearms.

"The bandits had lain rocks across the road to stop the truck. I drove over them and then the shooting began. I just lay on my side, still driving, for 500 metres and prayed I would stay on the road. When I told the police about the attack they said such events were common and that it was not even worth filing a report."

Last month, at Onipanu fuel depot in Lagos, three days of fighting between tanker drivers and cattle herders claimed seven lives, left trucks wrecked and surrounding buildings vandalised.

The clashes apparently began when a man stole 10 litres of fuel. They increased when the fighting became polarised along tribal lines; most of the cattle herders were Fulani from the north of Nigeria, whereas drivers involved in the fighting were southern Yorubas.

The scramble for fuel has often been deadly in Nigeria. Last October some 500 people died when a fireball swept across Jesse, near Warri, in southern Nigeria, after villagers had been scavenging for fuel from a leaking pipeline.

But for Mr Abubakar there are lighter moments in a Nigerian tanker driver's life, such as when "you reach a place that has not had fuel for many days and people are waiting for you, like a king.

"Everyone makes way for the truck and the people at the fuel station look very happy. Of course you have to be firm with the crowd, because everyone comes running and cannot wait to be served.

"It is vital to open the vents correctly before discharging the fuel, or the build-up of fumes can cause an explosion. But once all that is done, we can rest for a bit and perhaps get a free meal while people fill up their tanks and jerrycans," he said.

Alex Duval Smith