The Nigerian government’s decision to raise fuel prices is coming under fire and threatens to exacerbate the country’s economic crisis.
Economists, businesspeople and investors say President Muhammadu Buhari’s government has sidestepped a decision on the country’s exchange rate by raising the price of petrol without adjusting the official currency peg, and warn the measure does not go far enough.
“This temporary solution may cause more disorderly outcomes,” said Bismarck Rewane, chief executive of Financial Derivatives consultancy in Lagos.
Oil-producing Nigeria imports almost all the fuel it consumes because its refineries can only process a fraction of the country’s crude output.
Analysts say the measures may amount to a “disguised devaluation”. But a Nigerian energy expert who asked not to be named, said “without a strategy around devaluation, inflation, insecurity and instability are real risks”.
The Buhari administration is facing severe economic challenges. Low oil prices have slashed federal revenues and dramatically slowed the economy. The central bank has maintained a peg for its currency, the naira, at N200 to the dollar since March 2015, but it has traded at 30 per cent below the official rate on the black market for several months.
The government last week raised the price cap for petrol by two-thirds in an effort to end the fuel shortages that have gripped the country on and off since March. Importers were told to use the parallel, or black, market to get dollars they need to bring in fuel.
“There just isn’t any foreign exchange for the importation of fuel as there used to be,” Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo told investors at a conference in Lagos hours after the decision was announced.
Officials say the price rise reflects the weaker value of the naira, but the move is a risky one for Nigeria, where impoverished citizens see cheap fuel as the one benefit they reap as citizens of an oil-producing country. The price hike is expected to push up inflation, which rose to 13.7 per cent last month, and the country’s main labour unions say they will start an indefinite strike on Wednesday unless the government reverses its decision.
The rise in fuel prices has also renewed speculation that the central bank will have to devalue the naira, although this was denied by a bank spokesman. Mr Buhari has been reluctant to devalue the currency, saying it would be akin to “killing” it. He has said that previous devaluations — including one in the 1980s after he was toppled in a coup — have not help ordinary Nigerians.
Some observers say it is too soon to tell whether the measures will ease pressure on the currency. “If it’s a sign of more flexibility, that the government is willing to insert more flexibility into [monetary] policy, then this could be positive,” said a western diplomat in Abuja.
But economists say a currency adjustment is inevitable and warn that without it the spread between the official and parallel rate will widen. They point out that the new policy will force hundreds of millions of dollars in monthly demand from fuel importers into the black market, which they say does not have enough liquidity.
“You cannot force the oil importers to go to the parallel market. We are talking about many billions of dollars and the parallel market currently trades on $2bn-$4bn maximum in a year,” said Mr Rewane. “If Nigeria adopts a more flexible exchange rate, dollar demand for oil imports can be accommodated in the official market.”
The naira’s black market value has been falling since the policy was announced. The dollar was trading at N360 on Monday, down from N320 before the petrol price rise.
“There is now even more pressure on the foreign exchange market”, said Manji Cheto of Teneo Intelligence in London. “If the naira’s depreciation on the parallel market continues, the government would be forced to further hike the fuel price.”
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