Occupy Nigeria

23 March 2012

January 1st, when Nigeria’s President Goodluck Jonathan announced that he was removing government subsidies of fuel costs in Nigeria, he possibly sounded the death knell of Nigeria as the world knows it. Reactions of citizens, opposition parties, experts, and labour groups were immediately loud and adverse. In the subsequent weeks, these voices of dissent only became louder and harder to ignore.

Starting January 9th, a nationwide general strike was called, which was to remain in place until the fuel subsidy was reinstated. Though many Nigerians, President Jonathan included, assumed that the Nigerian people would strike for a few days before begrudgingly going back to work empty-handed, the people captured the spirit of recent occupy movements and brought Nigeria to an effective standstill. Planes grounded without fuel, businesses closed most of the day, and borders shut to incoming or outgoing traffic were just the tip of the ice berg. Even oil production was threatened to come to a halt, a move that would strangle Nigerian economy.

All of this happened in a country that is the 8th largest producer of oil in the world. Just one week before the subsidy was removed, Standard & Poor’s announced that it had upgraded Nigeria’s economy, a move that is a real show of strength in a time when former western hegemonic powers such as France are being downgraded.

This is also a country in which the 99% so often referred to in occupy movements around the world actually lives like the bottom 1% in the countries where these movements originated. The removal of the fuel subsidy not only caused an immediate doubling in the price of fuel, but subsequently drove the price of virtually every good up in a country over 60% of a population is living below the poverty line.

Yet, Nigeria seems to be the first sub-Saharan African country to embrace the occupy movement; this is not simply because its population is vastly impoverished. Just as with the United States, Greece, and other countries where the occupy movement spread rapidly, there is simultaneously a large gap between the rich and the poor within the country as well as the sense that this gap is exasperated and fueled by government policies. Except, in Nigeria, this gap is larger and this attitude is more ingrained. The wealthiest 10% of Nigerians control over 40% of the country’s wealth; corruption in Nigeria government is so blatant and widespread that it has passed out of the realm of speculation in the conversations of everyday Nigerians and become more of a fact that everyone acknowledges but feels they can’t change.

But, maybe it can be changed through organic, popular action. On January 16th, President Jonathan announced that he would cut fuel prices by about 30% in a move to end the demonstrations. This concession, which came less than two weeks after the President stated he had absolutely no intention of reinstating the fuel subsidy, caused labor groups to call off the strike. The renewal of the fuel subsidy, forced by popular outcry and organized action, may herald a new era for Nigeria. This movement could be show of true democracy in a country, and a region, plagued with dictators, wars, oppression, and corruption. Whereas in the early 90s when fuel prices were spiked suddenly, public anger and striking allowed for a shift away from democracy to the dictatorship of General Sani Abacha, this recent movement used a fundamentally democratic form of expression to bring about a policy change within the existing government structure.

Occupy Nigeria could be the beginning of the end of entrenched corruption in the Nigerian political system. The movement has lasted longer and gained more than expected. It also passed without any significant civil violence or regime change. What will happen next is unclear. But, it is clear that the Nigerian people have discovered their power as a group, and now have proof that their power can lead to change when harnessed.

Khadijah Robinson

UCL - The School of Public Policy

Starting January 9th, a nationwide general strike was called, which was to remain in place until the fuel subsidy was reinstated. Though many Nigerians, President Jonathan included, assumed that the Nigerian people would strike for a few days before begrudgingly going back to work empty-handed, the people captured the spirit of recent occupy movements and brought Nigeria to an effective standstill. Planes grounded without fuel, businesses closed most of the day, and borders shut to incoming or outgoing traffic were just the tip of the ice berg. Even oil production was threatened to come to a halt, a move that would strangle Nigerian economy.All of this happened in a country that is the 8th largest producer of oil in the world. Just one week before the subsidy was removed, Standard & Poor’s announced that it had upgraded Nigeria’s economy, a move that is a real show of strength in a time when former western hegemonic powers such as France are being downgraded.This is also a country in which the 99% so often referred to in occupy movements around the world actually lives like the bottom 1% in the countries where these movements originated. The removal of the fuel subsidy not only caused an immediate doubling in the price of fuel, but subsequently drove the price of virtually every good up in a country over 60% of a population is living below the poverty line.Yet, Nigeria seems to be the first sub-Saharan African country to embrace the occupy movement; this is not simply because its population is vastly impoverished. Just as with the United States, Greece, and other countries where the occupy movement spread rapidly, there is simultaneously a large gap between the rich and the poor within the country as well as the sense that this gap is exasperated and fueled by government policies. Except, in Nigeria, this gap is larger and this attitude is more ingrained. The wealthiest 10% of Nigerians control over 40% of the country’s wealth; corruption in Nigeria government is so blatant and widespread that it has passed out of the realm of speculation in the conversations of everyday Nigerians and become more of a fact that everyone acknowledges but feels they can’t change.But, maybe it can be changed through organic, popular action. On January 16th, President Jonathan announced that he would cut fuel prices by about 30% in a move to end the demonstrations. This concession, which came less than two weeks after the President stated he had absolutely no intention of reinstating the fuel subsidy, caused labor groups to call off the strike. The renewal of the fuel subsidy, forced by popular outcry and organized action, may herald a new era for Nigeria. This movement could be show of true democracy in a country, and a region, plagued with dictators, wars, oppression, and corruption. Whereas in the early 90s when fuel prices were spiked suddenly, public anger and striking allowed for a shift away from democracy to the dictatorship of General Sani Abacha, this recent movement used a fundamentally democratic form of expression to bring about a policy change within the existing government structure.Occupy Nigeria could be the beginning of the end of entrenched corruption in the Nigerian political system. The movement has lasted longer and gained more than expected. It also passed without any significant civil violence or regime change. What will happen next is unclear. But, it is clear that the Nigerian people have discovered their power as a group, and now have proof that their power can lead to change when harnessed.Khadijah RobinsonUCL - The School of Public Policy