Nigeria | Fuel to the Fire

Hit hard by the removal of petrol subsidies, Nigerians rise up against graft

A protester in Lagos criticises President Goodluck Jonathan’s decision to allow the removal of a fuel subsidy that had signified a rare instance of social welfare for Nigerians. PIUS UTOMI EKPEI / AFP PHOTO
01 February, 2012

IT’S THE FIFTH DAY OF NATIONWIDE PROTESTS in Lagos, Nigeria’s commercial hub and former capital. For five days running, the city (were it a country it’d be Africa’s fifth largest economy) has experienced a shutdown—a friend likened the desolation to something out of a zombie movie. Lagos’ 15 million or so resident-hustlers, who, with their cars and trucks and bikes, help to maintain the state of enduring chaos, are nowhere to be seen. The surreal serenity of Ikorodu Road is broken every now and then by a lone speeding car, or bike, garlanded with leaves as a mark of solidarity with the protesters.

All week, all roads have led to Ojota, a taxi and bus park that on a normal day would be crammed with touts, pickpockets, hawkers, gravelly-voiced bus conductors and travellers impatient to leave the madness of the city behind. Not long ago, the state government opened here a memorial garden for Gani Fawehinmi, lawyer and human rights activist who died in 2009. It is in this park, beneath a statue of Gani, that tens of thousands of Nigerians have been gathering daily, under the banner of ‘Occupy Nigeria’, to protest the New Year’s Day removal of petrol subsidies by the federal government, which drove the price of petrol up by 110 percent.

“During June 12 we never got numbers like this,” lawyer Jide Bello told me on the third day of the protests. “If we had numbers like this, things would have been different.”

In 1993, the then military president Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida annulled the 12 June presidential elections—widely adjudged as ‘free and fair’, in a country with a long history of electoral malpractice. Supporters of the presumed winner, MKO Abiola, took to the streets in protest. Predictably, the military government clamped down hard. Bello shows me a scar, on top of his head, where a tear gas canister fired by police hit him. The street protests eventually fizzled out, and the dictatorship continued—with Sani Abacha, an even more repressive general, succeeding Babangida—for another six years.

‘Occupy Nigeria’ clearly isn’t June 12, and not just because of the numbers. In April 2011, the country managed to administer an election whose results were announced—it was believed to be relatively fair, and an expression of the will of the people. But that popularly elected president, Goodluck Jonathan, is starting to seem like a man bent on making Nigerians—70 percent of whom survive on less than $2 a day—pay for the corruption and inefficiencies of the government. The subsidies—the government pays importers of petrol about ¢50 per litre to keep domestic prices low–are seen as one of the rare instances of social welfare in an oil-producing country (one of the world’s ten largest producers) full of poor people, and of second-hand cars shipped in from Europe and America.

No doubt the removal of the subsidy has hit people where it hurts the most—their pockets. Following the rise in petrol prices, prices of essential commodities rose instantly, in some cases out of proportion. Bus, taxi and food prices have all gone up. Rents and school fees are bound to follow.

The government insists that the subsidy, having been hijacked by a handful of corrupt importers who are manipulating the books, must be abolished, and that Nigeria can no longer afford the $8 billion—more than a quarter of the annual budget—that the scheme cost in 2011.

Many Nigerians, however, are asking the government to explain how the subsidy payouts rose almost two-fold between 2010 and 2011. The government, they argue, should focus its outrage on the import ‘cartel’ benefiting from the manipulation of the scheme, and responsible for the dismal state of Nigeria’s refineries. Hundreds of millions of dollars have vanished on bogus maintenance contracts in the past decade.

Beyond the simple economics of fuel and commodities pricing, issues of institutional corruption and government extravagance are what the Occupy movement is focused on confronting. Nigeria’s government is one of the best-remunerated in the world. The president of the Nigerian Senate earns several times what Barack Obama earns as president of the US. This year the presidential palace will spend, according to the budget, $6 million on catering. Nigerians are now arguing that they have been the ones subsidising the government all the while.

And so they have been trooping out all over the country—a people already symbolically united by the colourful hardships of life in a country that, after gaining independence from Britain in 1960, has earned billions of dollars annually in oil revenues since the 1970s, and is today one of the world’s fastest growing economies.

Tinuke Arigbabu, 22, is a student at the University of Lagos. I first heard her speak on a BBC World Service radio show the day after the subsidy removal was announced. I was intrigued by the young, fiery female voice insisting that Nigerians had had enough of the government’s insensitivity, and were going to be out on the streets to protest the removal of the subsidy.

“We need change. It’s something I’ve been screaming for the past six years,” she told me at one of the protests.

I asked how the price increase has affected her personally. “My parents are upset,” she said. “We cannot switch the generators on again. We now switch it on two to three times a week.” Before they used to switch it on every day.

Power supply is dismal in Nigeria, even by African standards, forcing Nigerians to depend on petrol and diesel generators, imported from China, to power their homes and offices. The country produces, for its 150 million people, a tenth of what South Africa produces for its population of 50 million. For much of the 1980s and 1990s, the government invested little or nothing in the power sector. In the past decade the 10 or so billion dollars invested have produced a handful of new power stations either uncompleted or crippled by a shortage of gas to power them.

At the end of one of the rallies, a man walked up to me to ask what activist group I belonged to (decades of government tyranny have turned Nigeria into an activist-factory). He would like to join, he said. I decided to ask him what he thought about the removal of the subsidy.

“I’m unhappy,” he said. “Firstly, because of [my] name. I should be unhappy.” Goodluck Ikporo shares his first name with Nigeria’s president, whom citizens have since renamed ‘Badluck Jonathan’.

Like Arigbabu, he insists “there must be a change”. An accountant and project manager, providing his services to construction firms, he told me a bag of cement, which sold for n1,900 until the end of December, has now shot up to n3,000. And his SUV, which he used to fill with n5,000 ($30) worth of petrol, now costs him n12,000 ($75).

Owning an SUV automatically sets Ikporo apart from the tens of millions of Nigerians who struggle below the poverty line, and for whom the price increases therefore cut much deeper. But clearly he feels the pinch enough to join the protests. “[Normally] I don’t come out,” he told me. “I didn’t let my wife know I’m here.”

Later that day, on the taxi ride home after the rally, my friends and I got an unexpected lecture from the driver, a young man in his early 30s. “It’s not fair at all,” he told us. “We’re all pissed.” He lamented his recent move, in December, from Ogba, in Ikeja, Lagos’ capital, to Ikorodu, on the outskirts of the city, because of rising rents. “It’s cheaper [in Ikorodu],” he said. But because Ikorodu is far from his taxi routes, he often has to sleep in his car for three days in a row before making his way home to his wife and child. “This seat”—he gestures—“is my bed.”

“I want the government to give Nigerians a better life in general,” says Seun Kuti, 29. “Education, healthcare, housing, transportation...”

Seun, the youngest son of Fela, Nigeria’s best known revolutionary musician, is himself a fiery musician, now fronting his late father’s band, Egypt 80. Fela spent his life railing against the establishment in angry anthems that still stun, decades later, with their timelessness.

Seun’s demands are similar to what his father spent his life pleading the government for. His elder brother, Femi, two-time Grammy nominee, and another regular face at the protests, has kept me company for days with his track ‘Dem Bobo’ playing on my car stereo (bobo in Nigerian pidgin English means ‘to deceive’).

“Yesterday, dem tell us say, today, na we go gain. So we struggle, suffer dey, for this new democratic change. But the truth of the matter be say, dem disguise another way to continue their crooked ways,” Femi sings.

It is a fine summary of the Nigerian situation: overweight governments that insist the people have to shed weight so Nigeria can have a better future. In the late 1980s, General Babangida imposed a Structural Adjustment Programme—removing petroleum and fertiliser subsidies, devaluing the naira and privatising government-owned corporations—while maintaining one of the most corrupt governments ever in the history of Nigeria.

More than two decades later, Nigeria is back in the same place. But this time round, Nigerians appear to be saying they are sick, and tired, of government ‘bobo’.