'Occupy' Protests Become Major Challenge to Nigerian Government

Whether commuting to and from my job to my office in the Nigerian capital, Abuja, or racing down the back roads of the country's parched and neglected North, I would often shake my head in amazement at the lack of any display of discontent from ordinary Nigerians.

Power outages that drag on, in some cases, for days; crumbling roads; rampant corruption and rising food costs -- these are common complaints among the tens of millions of Nigerians that have been left behind by the country's oil wealth.

My bewilderment came from the knowledge that Nigeria is among the ten largest oil exporters globally, and yet it can hardly manage to power the street lamps in the showcase, man-made capital city of Abuja. Most people live on less than $2 a day; malnutrition and even cases of polio can be found in the northern states.

During national elections last year, government workers had to use candles and flashlights to check voters' IDs.

"Nigerians will just sit back and tolerate whatever fate that is handed to them," said a driver for an international NGO. "They will say it is God's will -- or they will lean on their extended family members for help."

I spent several months in Nigeria last year -- just as the "Arab Spring" was sending convulsions through the precincts of many North African and Middle Eastern power centers. I even travelled to Cairo to see empowered protesters staring down armed riot police in Tahrir Square. Yet even though Nigeria is just a few hours flight from Egypt or Libya, no one believed for a moment that the winds of change would reach Africa's most populous nation.

But that all changed on January 1, when the Nigerian Government moved ahead after months of deliberation and removed a long-cherished fuel subsidy that more than doubles the price of fuel and transport fares. The impact has been so great that many ordinary Nigerians can no longer afford to get to work. Over the past few days Nigerians have been taking to the streets in great numbers, in the first mass protests against the relatively new government of Goodluck Jonathan and his powerful PDP ruling party.

"The subsidy was the only benefit that we have been getting from the oil wealth and now that is gone," tweeted one angry Nigerian.

(Because of the subsidy Nigerians have the cheapest pump prices in Africa; but many use the petrol to power generators that have been made necessary by shoddy infrastructure).


To be sure, there are few parallels between the 'Arab Spring' protests and what is now transpiring in Nigeria. But one significant similarity is the use of social media to share feelings of outrage and to mobilize people.

One brief, revolting video of a young man being beaten by Lagos police during a protest went viral as soon as it was posted on YouTube.

So paranoid is the government of the situation galloping out of control that it is reportedly considering a move to shut down Blackberry messenger services in the country. The service has been a vital link for protest organizers and supporters. In many cities there are reports of police arrested and beating protesters.

Just yesterday indications were that the massive and powerful trade unions will join the protests, a move which could effectively bring the country to a standstill.

Even though Nigeria is the continent's biggest oil producer, it imports refined oil. Plans to install refinery capacity have never gotten off the ground, due to corruption and mismanagement. Most Nigerians harbor well-grounded suspicions that billions of dollars in oil wealth have been salted away in the offshore accounts of current and past leaders.

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) has reportedly been pressuring the government to remove the subsidy, which costs the treasury an estimated $8 billion a year. If this is indeed the case, the IMF could be repeating the horrendous mistake of the last 1990s, when pressure on countries like Indonesia to remove subsidies and devalue their currencies triggered the East Asian financial crisis.

A general strike has been declared for Monday and on Twitter and Facebook the outrage is palpable. Said one Tweet posted by a Nigerian: "Nigeria is a fool at 51 (years old) and a fool forever. No electricity, no transportation, no fuel, no education, no good governance, no nothing."

Even members of the Diaspora are in awe at the growing 'Occupy' protests. "I'd like to see Nigerians truly have a revolution and be willing to die for what they believe in," said Oluwa Uduak, a Nigerian-American lawyer, on her Facebook page.

To be sure, Jonathan is not the first president to try to do away with the cherished fuel subsidy -- his predecessors tried but quickly backed down in the face of widespread opposition. Promises to plow the extra $7.5 billion of revenue from the scrapping of the subsidy into health, education and infrastructure have been poorly communicated and met with skepticism by ordinary Nigerians.

In order to quell unrest, promises could be made to install additional refineries, which could help to bring down the real cost of fuel. But such actions take months if not years and, with anger past the boiling point, the Jonathan administration may not have the luxury of time to bring about major reforms.