Nigeria: tensions as Jonathan accedes to fuel protestors’ demands – By Ejiro Barrett
The nationwide strike called by labour unions against fuel subsidy removal in Nigeria has been suspended pending further negotiations, but it is not clear whether the protests will continue. The President announced a sixty percent cut in the price of petrol, indicating the continuation of a moderate subsidy regime. On Monday, most protest grounds had been taken over by the army and check points were set up across Lagos, Nigeria’s commercial capital. Prior to this apparent breakthrough, two days of Intense closed door negotiations at the end of last week between the state governors, Nigeria’s president Goodluck Jonathan, members of the Nigerian senate and executive members of the Labour unions ended in deadlock as no one seemed willing to shift grounds. Across the country, the protests were organised at public squares that became symbols of the anti government rallies. In Lagos, Nigeria’s largest metropolis and known for its political liberalism, the crowds chose to gather around the Gani Fawehinmi Park, named after one of Nigeria’s most celebrated civil rights lawyers.
In some cities there have also been pockets of violence. The labour unions have had to suspend protests in Kano, the commercial hub of the north. They have cancelled protests in a few other cities where there have been lootings and attacks on members of the country’s northern Muslim communities resident there. There have also been some migrations by northern, predominantly Hausa, residents from southern states. These acts have been condemned by the Unions and have raised fears of retaliatory action in the northern parts of the country where Boko Haram militants have attacked several Christian centres of worship.
It is expected that as the protesters become more entrenched, then these attacks will cease. Surprising to many however, there have been no attacks on southern Christians in the northern cities where most Nigerians expected a breakout of sectarian violence during the protests. On the streets of Kaduna, considered one of the most volatile centres in the north with a history of sectarian violence, protesters were seen holding crucifixes and Muslim prayer beads in both hands as a sign of unity in the struggle. Nigeria came close to an explosion of national religious conflict over Christmas when the terrorist group, Boko Haram, claimed responsibility for attacks on several churches and warned all Christians to leave towns and cities in the North. These warnings have heightened fears among southern Christians who live in the northern, predominantly Muslim states and have also sparked some migrations.
HEAVY-HANDED SECURITY RESPONSE
Some state governments imposed dusk-to-dawn curfews in order to calm the situation. There have also been reports of heavy-handedness by Nigeria’s security agencies against protesters resulting in several deaths. Most of these deaths have been blamed on members of the Police and army. Nigerian security agencies, known for their violent response to public protests and their use of live ammunition against peaceful protesters, have been blamed for several fatal shootings in the five days of protests. The police have denied any involvement in most of the killings but eye witnesses say they have seen police men open fire at protesters in several cities.
The labour union leadership, anticipating a heavy-handed response from the police, gave certain guidelines to follow during the protest marches. It has warned that any act of violence by the police would be raised before the International Criminal Court (ICC). Protesters have been asked to stay away from public properties and to remain peaceful.
PAINS OF SUBSIDY REMOVAL
Nigerians were already feeling the pinch of subsidy removal as the strike and protests continued – the costs of the most basic commodities have going up by between 30 and 100 percent. Petrol filling stations across the country have adjusted their meters upward, food prices have risen and house rents are expected to follow soon. Some basic foodstuffs like beef were absent from the markets for a short while in some southern cities as fears of attacks kept the predominantly northern cattle sellers away from southern markets.
Banks and most commercial chains have remained closed and most interstate road transporters have stopped all operations either in solidarity with the strike or because of a nationwide shut down by most petrol filling stations in compliance with the directives from labour unions. Aside from the new prices for petroleum products, the strike has made what little available fuel products there are even more expensive, further raising transport costs across the country beyond the subsidy induced prices.
The removal of fuel subsidy remains the key reason for the strikes and protests, but many believe it is a catalyst for a growing demand on government to end massive corruption – an issue that stokes public distrust of government in Nigeria. Protests under the “Occupy Nigeria” banner have attracted the support of many Nigerian celebrities. One of the upshots of the subsidy removal debate is the question of government expenditure, particularly on salaries and ancillary benefits to political office holders. Since Jonathan was sworn in as president, figures show government spending has increased and there has been very little effort by his government to investigate allegations of corruption amongst members of his cabinet.
The government however insists that the fuel subsidy had to go. It claims that for over thirty years subsidy has been a constant drain on government resources and only a select group of fuel importers have benefited. In the last year, government claims that over 8 billion dollars has been spent on subsidy – this being a huge drain on available funds for developmental programmes. The government also claims that Nigeria produces about thirty percent of the fuel consumed locally while it subsidises imported fuel, which means that the subsidy is susceptible to fluctuations in international market prices. A select group of fuel importers have formed a wealthy clique with enormous powers to influence political decisions. The subsidy administration has been fraught with fraud and has seen a large part of the subsidised fuel smuggled out to neighbouring countries where the product sells at the international price. However, while Jonathan has admitted the presence of such a group and its smuggling activities, his government has done nothing to prosecute any of the culprits.
The cost of government, which Jonathan has promised to bring down, has continued to rise. Under Jonathan’s presidency, the abuse of government funds has spiraled out of control. Many people ask how a budget of $2 billion for subsidy suddenly increased to $8 billion within a year. The recently unveiled 2012 budget has exposed further increase in the cost of government contributing to heavy budget deficit and mounting public debt.
Jonathan insists that the funds derived from the removal of subsidy will be used to provide essential services such as health, transport and physical infrastructure. What Nigerians are asking is how the government intends to provide palliatives for the expected increase in food costs, rent, private medical costs and school tuition.
Many Nigerians say it was not so much the removal of the subsidy that sparked anger but the way it was done. The decision was arbitrary and it took the whole nation by surprise, especially as government had commenced discussions with members of civil society groups on alternatives, and senior government officials had given the impression that the subsidy would not be removed before April 2012. Many people say the government’s decision to remove the subsidy on the first day of the New Year exposed insincerity in its decisions.
Even as the government accedes to labour demands to reverse its decision, most Nigerians remain apprehensive about its commitment to fighting corruption. It is not clear whether the protests will continue but it is expected that the pressure will be kept on government to bring down its huge expenditure and to investigate all allegations of corruption.
Ejiro Barrett is a freelance journalist and reporter. He writes a weekly column for The Nigerian Observer.