Occupy Nigeria – more than fuel prices

Nigeria’s President Goodluck Jonathan is still in a bind. The fact that most Nigerian citizens cannot afford to stay away from work does not mean the issue of the fuel subsidy is settled. There is still the demand that the President agrees to revert the pump price of fuel back to N65, after his government removed fuel subsidies introduced on the first day of the New Year. Although the IMF and three of his ministers defended that Nigeria needs to ‘save’ the country some 8 billion US dollars a year that were spent on funding the importation of refined fuel into the oil producing country. 

The announcement by the President on 16 January, saying that fuel would now cost N97 per liter amounts to half a U-turn on the government’s removal of fuel subsidies which hiked the price up to N141/liter. It might be neither enough to ‘save the economy’, nor enough to quell people’s protests.

Late December 2011, the Newspaper Proprietors Association of Nigeria (NPAN) organized a town hall meeting televised live to the nation, at which the Coordinating Minister for the Economy & Minister of Finance, Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala (former Managing Director of the World Bank), Governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria, Mr. Sanusi Lamido Sanusi and the Minister for Petroleum Resources, Mrs. Diezani Allison-Madueke made very strong, even compelling economic arguments as to why petroleum subsidies had to be removed and the downstream sector of Nigeria’s petroleum industry deregulated. Perhaps the strongest of the arguments was that only a very small, but tight cabal was benefiting from the subsidy and not the Nigerian people. Because of the wide differential in the price of the commodity between Nigeria and its neighbors Niger, Chad, Cameroon and Benin, vast volumes of the product gets smuggled across the borders – the traders had more than enough margin to bribe their way through all the government structures. They argued that the subsidy merely fuelled corruption and it was time to do away with it. They acknowledged this would cause initial pain to Nigerians but they promised this would fade away in about a year, however they would keep consulting on the issue and implementation would not be till April 1, 2012.

Mr. Femi Falana, Human Rights Lawyer and Activist and former president of the West Africa Bar Association, one of those responding on behalf of the people drew attention to the date April 1, being “April Fools Day” where practical jokes are the norm and in a lighter mood, asked them to make it April 2. Those speaking on behalf of the people also included Issa Aremu, former President of the Textile Workers Union and a senior Trade Union figure, Mr. Olisa Agbakoba, Human Rights Lawyer and former President of the Nigeria Bar Association. Those speaking on behalf of the people made equally compelling arguments regarding choices and priorities facing the Nigerian State. They asked why the government chose not to deal with the corrupt petroleum traders since they knew who they were and manage the porous borders instead of punishing 99% of Nigerians for the sins of less than 1% of the country? They pointed out the cost of governance in Nigeria, the lavish lifestyles of top government officials and the fact that there is no social security or safety net for ordinary Nigerians who see nothing of the oil wealth of their country but this subsidy, which the government now wants to do away with. They spoke of the hardship that would result when prices of not only petroleum products double overnight but also things like transport, food, and medicines.

Broken promises

The scene was set for what looked like an interesting national debate to come in the new year however, Nigerians woke up, January 1, 2012 to the news that contrary to assurances given, the government had gone ahead and unilaterally removed the fuel subsidies without the much promised discussion and debate.

On 2nd of January 2012, young people took to the streets in several cities across Nigeria to protest against the removal of the fuel subsidies. The regime responded and attempted to forcefully put down the protests. The peaceful protest in Abuja on 2nd January 2012 started with the signing of a petition put together by a former member of Nigeria’s Federal House of Representatives, Mr. Dino Melaye, at the Eagle Square followed by a procession. Security forces fired on the procession and tear gas was used to disperse the peaceful protesters.

Tweeting against corruption

The “Occupy Nigeria” movement immediately gained momentum. Young people shared on Twitter facts and figures from the budget proposals of the government for 2012 which revealed for example that the country pays about N3m ($20,000) a day to feed the president and vice-president, and that the sum of N18bn ($120m) is budgeted for running State House, which incensed ordinary citizens and galvanized a hitherto docile people into an activist mass. The young people employed Twitter, Facebook and other social media in sharing the information at hand and their opinions every second, day after day and this swelled the numbers of people pouring out to protest and the number of cities affected. By day 12 of the popular protest, hundreds of thousands of Nigerians were involved insisting that the government must revert the price back to N65, with immediate effect.

Using social media, young people accused the labour movement of having sold out on this issue due to a loan of N5.3bn ($35m) they are alleged to have received from the Federal Government and so labour was, according to the protesters, “shamed” into joining the protests and by day 12 of the street protests, the official strike by the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) and the Trade Union Congress (TUC) began. Before labour joined in, between 10-12 young people across the country had been killed mostly in confrontations with the police.  The police infuriated the people all the more when they consistently branded those killed as “miscreants,” even those killed whilst playing football by the roadside.

 Musicians, celebrities, politicians, students, market women, youth, religious people – people from all walks of like took to the streets except members of the National Union of Road Transport Workers who had been promised interest free loans by the government. All attempts during the first week of protests to intimidate, cajole and harass the movement failed as it stayed peaceful in most places. The Attorney-General of the Federation & Minister of Justice, Mr. Adoke personally threatened all Federal Workers with the sack if they did not immediately return to work. They defied his threat.

The government imposed a 24-hour curfew on a number of cities where there were some acts of violence or the Security Forces believed violence to be imminent. One of such was the city of Kano, whose residents subsequently defied the curfew and came out to protest. So there are mutually reinforcing layers of strikes and protests and not one. There is the original street protest by young people under the banner of Occupy Nigeria; there is a Civil Society Movement superimposed on that and then the official NLC/TUC strike representing steps in the escalation of the matter. The final straw that might break the camel’s back would come from the official joining of the strike by members of the Petroleum & Natural Gas Association of Nigeria which has the power to shut down all oil production and export from Nigeria.

More than protest over fuel prices

The people of Nigeria are not only reacting to deception on the part of a government that promised dialogue and discussion but went on to remove the subsidies on New Year’s day regardless of the advice given by clerics, academics, political parties and civil society groups. The protests have transformed into a call for action on a wide range of issues around corruption and poor governance:

The US Department of Justice fined international firms who had acted corruptly in Nigeria a whopping sum of $3.3bn in 2010/2011 and people hear that only 14% of that money was returned to Nigeria. How much did Siemens AG pay in fines to the government of Nigeria and what deal was done to let them off the hook in Nigeria? No one knows but the people suspect foul play on the part of the Attorney-General Mr. Adoke who had the accused companies sign confidentiality agreements.

In return, through Twitter, email, BBM, Facebook, SMS and so on, they have been exposing what is allegedly a long list of bank accounts held by Mr. Adoke in some Nigerian banks and the mind boggling sums in those accounts allegedly as proof of his corrupt dealings. Through the same media allegations were circulated that the Minister of Finance purchased a huge house in the highbrow area of Abuja called Maitama for over $7m. The anger of the people has turned to trying to identify person by person, the role each top government official has played in the misery they now face. They are unhappy about the wages, salaries and allowances that Federal Lawmakers have set for themselves (totaling up to $1m year, some even more), and cannot believe that this administration wants them to make the sacrifices whilst the cost of governing the country remains unsustainable.

Stem Corruption Now

They are calling for Nigeria’s petroleum refineries to be fixed first, before any talk of removing the subsidies. The protesters have been told that President Goodluck Jonathan signed a contract with the China State Construction Engineering Company for the sum of $8bn to build three new refineries in Nigeria.  The arguments that go for removing the subsidy on petrol are similar to the arguments for removing subsidy on electricity tariffs – will this be the next area the government would go to? The people would rather Occupy Nigeria now, to get the administration of Goodluck Jonathan to reorder its priorities.

So, even if Mr. Jonathan were to revert the pump price to N65/Liter, the street protests are unlikely to go away until there is clarity over how the government will deal with corruption and trim down the excessive cost of governance at all levels.

People’s anger is not only directed at the federal arm of government. Most of the State Governors had promised implementation of the N18,000 ($120)/month minimum wage. On success at the polls, they refused to pay stating that they do not have the funds to do so and then called on the Federal Government to remove subsidies on petroleum products and share this sum to them ostensibly to be able to pay the minimum wage. The Governors are now mounting severe pressure on the administration of Goodluck Jonathan not to accept the demands and push through with the implementation of fuel subsidy removal and so the government is in no mood to back down.

Damned if he does, even more damned if he doesn’t

Whatever a severely beleaguered President Goodluck Jonathan chooses to do, he is politically damned if he accedes to the people’s requests and even more damned if he doesn’t!

The way forward for a responsible government should include the following steps:

1. Revert the pump price, unconditionally to N65/Liter but work assiduously on Turn Around Maintenance of the existing refineries so they can produce petrol and drastically reduce Nigeria’s dependence on imported fuel to the bares minimum

2. Expand the group with whom negotiations are being carried out to include representatives of all walks of Society (in its various shades) and ordinary folk on the street

3. Accept that subsidy removal would not be part of the 2012 budget but work with representatives to put in place palliative measures that would cushion the effects of subsidy removal for ordinary people, and get the targets agreed for this and reducing the cost of governance

4. Race against time to put the measures in place before the next budget cycle and ensure a proper change management and communications strategy is put in place and implemented

5. Improve transparency and public accountability of government decision making by putting structures in place that satisfy the people

6. Consult widely with the people to craft a National Strategy to Combat Corruption demonstrating how it would be governed and financed; and finally,

7. Monitoring and evaluation of progress must be possible by the public and efforts must be made to communicate any achievement of milestones.

Then and only then, would the government be able to repair its broken credibility and have any chance to achieve removal of fuel subsidies sustainably.