New Internationalist

Nigeria’s fuel subsidy: the spark that lit the fire


The removal of the fuel subsidy in Nigeria is an issue likely to bring Nigerians to boiling point. This latest attempt by a government to cut the subsidy has been debated for the past two months but despite the very vocal opposition from the people, the government went ahead and announced its removal on, of all days, New Years Day 2012.

The cost of fuel rocketed from $0.40 to $0.86 per liter with prices as much as $1.00 in some places.  The fuel subsidy is a symptom of Nigeria’s primary disease: oil. Oil rents, oil corruption, oil environmental destruction, oil bunkering, oil militarization, oil underdevelopment and oil spills. Oil has brought unimaginable wealth to Nigeria’s one per cent. But for the masses the fuel subsidy is the only way they have benefited from Nigeria’s oil wealth. Taking it away leaves Nigerians with minus zero.

But the anger at the removal of the subsidy is not just because of the end to cheap petrol and kerosene. It is the reasoning behind the removal. President Goodluck Jonathan claims the removal will release $8 billion which can be used to develop infrastructure. What this fails to do is to question why Nigeria, a country with such enormous wealth, has no decent infrastructure, including no electricity, in the first place. Worst of all the country’s four oil refineries remain so far under capacity that Nigeria has to import petrol which is like bringing sand to the desert!

Rather than tackle corruption, the root cause of loss of oil rents, Goodluck Jonathan’s government is asking Nigerians to pay for the last 40 years of $billions upon $billions of stolen and wasted oil revenue. The word ‘sacrifice’ is one commonly used by Nigerian governments but this no longer washes. Thousands of Nigerians have been killed by the Nigerian military over the past 20 years. Tens of thousands have died over sectarian and communal violence over the past 10 years and in the last year alone hundreds have been killed in attacks by Boko Haram or people claiming to be part of this terrorist group.

On Christmas day, just a week before the fuel subsidy was removed, more than 40 people were killed, including those in churches, in a series of bomb attacks across five states and the killings continue almost daily. Nigerians are still debating who is behind Boko Haram and my feeling is that they are a disparate group born out of a mixture of poverty, disenfranchisement and religious fundamentalism which has been helped by the declaration of Sharia law in 12 northern states.

But if we look back over the past 23 years we see that Nigeria has been in a state of perpetual war with its own people. That for the most part the war has been carried out in the far eastern Niger Delta and in pockets of the middle belt has meant most Nigerians remain unaware of this fact. This is to a large extent due to the failure of the Nigeria media to report events. But now we are in a different time. More and more Nigerians have access to the various social media which is in itself forcing the mainstream media to accurately report events.

The government of Nigeria is being exposed to the world and there is nowhere for it to hide. The Nigeria Labor Congress and Trade Union Congress have called for a nationwide indefinite strike on 9 January. But the protests over the fuel subsidy have already gone well beyond this single issue and are now encompassing all the pent up grievances Nigerians have had for years: lack of power, lack of development, but most of all the country’s rule by a corrupt kleptocracy.

There have been outbreaks of violence but there have also been significant outbreaks of solidarity as Nigerian Muslims vowed to protect Christians against any attacks by those claiming to be Boko Haram. Let us hope that the latest protests are not just a spark but a rage which will bring real transformational change.

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