* Gasoline imports down slightly from Q4
* Oando, Total, Folawiyo among winners
* Nigeria increasingly important for European refiners
(Adds details, background)
By Joe Brock
ABUJA, Feb 27 Nigeria has granted licenses to
more than 30 companies to import around 26 million barrels of
gasoline, or around 3.1 million tonnes, in the first quarter of
this year, down slightly from the previous quarter, industry
Nigeria gave the largest allocation of 1.3 million tonnes to
state oil company NNPC, according to a list of importers
compiled from trade sources by Reuters.
Nigeria is Africa's top oil producer but relies on gasoline
imports because its refineries work at a fraction of capacity
due to poor maintenance and old age.
Africa's most populous nation and the continent's second
largest economy is an increasingly attractive market for
refiners because U.S. gasoline imports have dried up, with U.S.
production having risen due to the country's shale oil output.
The gasoline import allocations were announced late in the
quarter but importers will be allowed to bring in fuel up until
the end of May, two industry sources told Reuters.
The imports are lower than the 30 million barrels of
gasoline allocated for the fourth quarter of last year, which
followed a brief halt in imports due to a supply glut.
Lagos-listed Oando received the second biggest
allocation in the first quarter of 120,000 tonnes, while Total's
local unit was awarded 60,000 tonnes and Folawiyo, in
which global commodity merchant Glencore is a minority
stakeholder, won 90,000 tonnes.
Officials from Nigeria's Petroleum Product Pricing
Regulatory Agency (PPPRA), the downstream regulator, were not
immediately available for comment.
Large trading houses such as Vitol, Trafigura
and Mercuria were absent from the list, although
Trafigura continues to supply Nigeria with fuel through a
crude-for-product swap deal.
There have been long fuel queues in Abuja this week, which
fuel suppliers say are caused by panic buying due to a rumour
the government is about to hike the price of petrol, after
President Goodluck Jonathan removed the head of PPPRA Reginald
Stanley last week, replacing him with Farouk Ahmed.
The PPPRA said in a statement on Thursday there was no plan
to raise the pump price.
Fuel imports have a large economic impact in Nigeria because
the government caps the pump price of gasoline at 60 cents per
litre by using subsidies which have come under scrutiny in
several corruption investigations.
Nigeria spent roughly $6 billion on fuel subsidies last
year, equivalent to a fifth of the federal budget.
Parliament and the finance ministry both probed Nigeria's
fuel subsidy in 2012, in the aftermath of an aborted attempt to
remove it - President Jonathan was forced in January of that
year to reinstate it after a week of protests.
The probes exposed a web of corruption and fraud by
government officials and fuel marketers that cost the state
billions of dollars, with much paid-for fuel never being ordered
or being diverted to Nigeria's neighbours.
Finance Minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala has since tried to
bring more transparency to the scheme by withholding payments
for claims until they are verified, and periodically publishing
what Nigeria pays to fuel importers.
Corruption in Nigeria's oil business was in focus again this
month when internationally respected Central Bank Governor
Lamido Sanusi was suspended by Jonathan, shortly after he gave
evidence to a senate hearing which he says proves the state-oil
firm failed to pay $20 billion into government accounts.
($1 = 164.65 Nigerian naira)
(Additional reporting by Emma Farge in Dakar and Simon Falush
in London; Editing by Tim Cocks and William Hardy)