* 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 (Reuters) - 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 sources said.
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)