Fuel Hostages

I know that I promised a post about my trip to Zanzibar, but there are times in Nairobi, where you have to just go back to blogging about the traffic because by trying to put it on paper and describe what happens, I hope to find some sense of logic in it. Oh and it is therapeutic for me as it is one of the only ways I can vent my frustrations about trying to drive in this city (well that, and cursing the matatus that continuously cut me).

To backtrack a bit, what Nairobi is facing right now is a severe fuel shortage. The root of this is not very clear.  A few weeks ago, fuel prices rose dramatically in the country, as they have generally in the Eastern African region. There have been calls to lower prices again, but this has not happened. Yesterday the city was further hit by a drastic fuel shortage – the radio was literally listing the fuel pumps in the city where fuel was still available. Most pumps were capping the amount of fuel you could tank so that there would be enough to go around (unless of course you paid off the fuel attendant thus got to fill the tank of your huge spanking new landrover in true Nairobi style). The average waiting time for the petrol stations was between 2 and 3 hours.

They are trying to determine the root of the crisis and there are a couple of stories flying around, one perhaps more incredible than the other.

The first story stipulates that the people running the petrol stations forgot that Monday was a holiday (in place of the 1st of May that fell on the Sunday). Therefore the banks were closed when they wanted to go an pay for their fuel, so the fuel stayed at the pumps and Nairobi suffered.

A slightly different version of story 1 is that they people running the petrol stations all went on holiday on Monday and therefore forgot to pay the bills.

Here are my issues with these versions:

1. Who “forgets” a holiday that occurs on an annual basis?

2. Who collectively “forgets” a holiday that occurs annually?

3. And who “collectively” forgets to pay their bills?

4.  All petrol station owners decided to go on holiday at the same time?

The third story says that there are rumours that the Energy Regulatory Commission want to lower the prices of petrol soon. The Fuel Barons (as I will name them) are not happy that there profits will be curbed. So they hold off supplying the pumps and hold the city of Nairobi hostage with fuel. Blame it on the rich, corrupt guys – definitely the more popular version in the press.

Now, as an economist (or just a rational person) the immediate conclusion of this is that the lack of fuel and rise in fuel prices should bring benefits to a city that suffers from ridiculous congestion by lowering the number of cars on the road.

But we are talking about Nairobi. The equation in this city is:

Rise in fuel prices + No petrol = Exponential increase in number of insane drivers on Nairobi’s roads

Driving home yesterday probably ranks as one of the most nerve racking, patience robbing and exasperating experiences of my whole life. It literally took me one hour to turn one corner in the city and for that time I was squished quite literally between a bus and three matatus who have made a 1 lane road, which they are not even supposed to be using, into a four lane mess.

Finally, when I got to my road I thought that I had conquered Nairobi traffic for the day. But instead, there was an accident between a school bus and a guard dog van, resulting in the school bus horizontally blocking my road, leaving only a small gap to pass through. So in true Nairobi driving style I pulled in my side mirrors, took a deep breath and squeezed passed. 2 hours later when I left the house to go to dinner again, the bus and the van were still there. They had been waiting for the traffic police to come and sort out the situation. Of course, they too were out of fuel.

When I had finally located a cab with fuel, we started off again into the mess that is Nairobi’s roads to go to dinner. Ironically it would have been quicker to walk. Given our cab driver’s fuel gage, which was consistently blinking on “E” from the time we left the house, I thought we were going to have to. It took him an hour to pick us up and a further 1.5 hours to get to dinner (a restaurant that is only 15 minutes away).


We did get to the restaurant. And as we got out of the cab, we requested our cab driver to come and pick us up after dinner about 2 hours later. He declined as he said that it would probably take him longer to find petrol. However, half way through dinner I got a triumphant text message “I found 5litres of fuel! Now I can come and pick you up.”

The point of all this rambling? I don’t know. I guess to give you a sense of some of the, sometimes unbelievable, craziness we go through in this city.

To conclude, I decided to leave my car at home today and walk to work, as I had had enough of driving for a while.

It rained.

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