Nigeria is a giant on the African continent, a maturing democracy and a major hub for culture and trade. It also contains about one sixth of Africa’s population, many of whom live in abject poverty. So when the government decided to "save" funds by removing a critical fuel subsidy, it lit a tinderbox of populist outrage.
Uprisings have been rocking the country all week. Tens of thousands of protesters amassed to express anger at a jump in oil prices. Labor activists launched a general strike. Oil workers have also threatened to shut down production, jolting global oil markets. Tensions, and the public's energy, run high as talks between labor and the government are pending.
At the start of the mass actions, the Nigeria Labor Congress and the Trade Union Congress issued a joint statement to
congratulate the Nigerian masses for a second successful day of strikes, rallies and mass protests.... By their actions in the past few days, Nigerians have left the Presidency and the world in no doubt that sovereignty belongs to them and that they intend to reclaim their country.
Though Nigeria may seem like a post-colonial country on the brink, it’s also on the precipice of a political awakening, from Lagos to London. The old fuel price, “65 naira,” has become a rallying cry. Al Jazeera reported on a protest that reflected the ethos expressed last year at Tahrir Square, Wisconsin and Zuccotti Park:
The main groups of protesters in Lagos remained peaceful, however, with some 10,000 people at one of the largest demonstrations dancing and singing anti-government songs.
Some vowed they would begin camping out there.
"I am here with my water and toothbrush because we are not leaving this arena until our demand for fuel at 65 naira [$0.40] is met," said Akinola Oyebode, a 23-year-old at the main protest in Lagos.... We shall not be intimidated by the police because our protest is legitimate and constitutional."
On Tuesday, according to the diaspora news site Sahara Reporters, protesters with the Occupy Nigeria movement “blocked the shipping routes and shut down petrol stations.” Occupy Wall Street protesters demonstrated in New York in solidarity the next day.
Noting solidarity protests across the diaspora from Lagos to London, Sean Jacobs at Africa Is A Country observes, “The protests are probably the largest in any Sub-Saharan African country in a long while.”
In a CNN commentary hinting at a possible “Nigerian Spring,” Gordon Bottomley and Marina Grushin of the think tank Ergo wrote, “Nigerians suffer from many of the underlying socio-economic problems that helped to bring about regime change in the Middle East and North Africa.”
The government claims it will use the money “saved” from the subsidy to invest in infrastructural improvements, but the oil prices threaten to cripple already embattled communities. (The turmoil is aggravated by conflict in the north involving Islamist insurgents). Previously, the government has attempted to cut fuel subsidies and been thwarted by political resistance. But President Goodluck Jonathan has decided to go all-in.
According to SR, government crackdowns have led to several reported killings of protesters that “infuriated the protesters in Lagos who defiantly began to curse Mr. Jonathan and to demand his resignation.”
The oil workers have threatened to shut down production, but suspended actions over the weekend in anticipation of talks with officials. Earlier this week the Petroleum and Natural Gas Senior Staff Association of Nigeria (PENGASSAN) announced a “red alert, in preparation for total production shutdown.” Pressing the government to respond to more limited strike actions so far, the union demanded major reforms that went further than just fuel price supports, including
fixing of the four refineries and building new ones, regular power supply, provision of social infrastructure such as rail system and roads and crucially the elimination of corruption associated with supply and distribution of petroleum products in the downstream sector of the oil industry.
Such statements reveal that the removal of the subsidy has ripped a tight band-aid off a much larger wound—the problems of governance and economic imbalance that have bled Nigerians dry over the years. The irony of Nigeria being an oil-rich and yet impoverished nation aligns with the twisted logic of global capitalism. Nigeria exports masses of crude for global consumption, but it lacks the refinery capacity to support a self-sufficient energy economy.
While Jonathan has suggested that money saved from removing the subsidy would foster infrastructural improvement, many Nigerians wonder why they've yielded so little of the oil wealth that multinationals like Royal Dutch Shell have been hording with abandon. In fact, the dilemma of the fuel subsidy is driven by more than the market’s invisible hand.
In an analysis of a 2009 Wikileaks cable, SR reports on “official manipulation that may have cost Nigeria billions of dollars” because “international fuel traders... overcharged the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) by over $300 million.” The document seems to confirm that, thanks to “sweetheart deals” threaded through huge loopholes, “the principal problem in the country is corruption and lack of transparency which will swallow whatever is saved from withdrawing the subsidy.”
Nigeria, by the way, is a major supplier of the oil to the U.S. So it shouldn’t surprise Americans that they haven’t seen many news headlines about rebel groups sabotaging oil pipelines in recent years, or the many Nigerians killed or the communities ruined by oil spills. Even now, Washington's main concern will likely be confined to oil price spikes due to fears of market “disruption” from Nigeria while the crisis with Iran escalates.
Nonetheless, restoring fuel subsidies wouldn’t remedy Nigerian society’s fundamental inequities. A Brookings Institution report notes that since wealthy people consume more fuel per capita, “it is the rich not the poor who disproportionally benefit from Nigeria’s fuel subsidy,” and it is financially unsustainable in the long term.
But at this political moment, the price of fuel is just a touchstone for a rising movement. Nigerians have refused to bear the social cost of the looting of their country, and are ready to redeem their nation's democratic promise.