harmattan, hot, dry wind that blows from the northeast or east in the western Sahara and is strongest in late fall and winter (late November to mid-March). Source: Britannica Online Encyclopedia
It’s New Year’s Day. You wake but you cannot go to church today as you do every year. You stay home like you did on Christmas day. Rightfully so, considering that Boko Haram attacked a church that day and killed almost 40 people. You decide to brave the outdoors to get some petrol for the generator. To your surprise, without warning, overnight, fuel prices have more than tripled. You learn that the government has suddenly revoked the fuel subsidy with no preamble. You remember them discussing this a while back but there was no timetable. You’re in the village, miles away from work, visiting family. In an instant, the money you saved to travel back to the city is not enough, you will need four to five times that amount to pay for transport. Until you figure that out, you’re stuck and you will probably lose your job. You wonder why the government implemented this law when they have not addressed the insecurity that has you afraid of going to church and has your friends grumbling about revenge. Clearly you are not a priority for your government. This is the last straw.
As you read this, day 15 of the revocation of the fuel subsidy in Nigeria has passed. Nigerian citizens concluded the 14th day of protests and 1 week of strike. Some have lost their lives protesting. Banks are closed. Commerce is halted. Oil and gas exports are threatening to shut down. Nigeria is at a standstill. This is the crossroad.
The ongoing protest in Nigeria in response to the sudden removal of the fuel subsidy on New Year’s Day has been dubbed OccupyNigeria by many, although the activism here well predates the movement in the US. The strike is the largest in recent times with participation from crucial areas in Nigerian commerce. I have read some pieces from Westerners who, in their analysis, miss the nuances of such a movement and dismiss it as a misguided group of disgruntled seekers of entitlement refusing to let go of a hampering practice. Not only are such assessments offensive, they are grossly off base. As someone who is currently in Nigeria and spent the bulk of my life in the US, I believe I have a unique perspective as I watch history unfold.
Let us examine the oil subsidy and the root of Nigerian citizens’ furor. State-run Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) has the duty of regulating the petroleum industry yet has done little to build or repair existing oil refineries. In the years that it has been active, that organization has operated far afield from its mandate. Instead it has served to enrich those who can tap into its corrupt inner workings.
The fuel subsidy was put in place in to provide relief to citizens who have the undue burden of filling in for a failed power system. The removal of the subsidy has been lauded here and abroad as an opportunity for the Nigerian government to retain funds which it can use to address many of its failings. Apparently, the faulty power grid, disastrous infrastructure and various other ills are to be solved by removing the one thing the government provided consistently for Nigerian citizens, relief from the burden of high fuel costs. The subsidy has been the sole relief for citizens who feel that Nigeria provides them with little else although it reportedly exported $59 billion worth of oil in 2010.
At this time, Nigerians are heavily dependent on petrol. While Nigeria is a major oil producer, it is also a major importer of refined petroleum products with barely any functional refineries in the country. In essence, Nigeria sells the oil and then has to buy it back in refined form, primarily as petroleum to fuel cars and homes. There is no escaping petrol usage in Nigeria. It is a part of daily life here more so than anywhere else.
The removal of the fuel subsidy is a case of putting the cart before the horse. In discussions about this prospect in 2009 with the government, Nigerian Labour representatives believed that there was an established agreement that a number of key conditions would be met before removal would be considered plausible. They are:
- Consistent power supply – Aside from being infused in everyday products, petrol is necessary for the generators that practically every Nigerian home operates to supplement the shoddy, inconsistent power grid that blacks out daily if not for days or months on end, providing a few hours of power a day at its highest function. Petrol is a necessity in Nigeria for even the simplest activities even if you don’t own a car. Everything electricity-based is moved by fuel when the power grid shuts down. As I type this, the power has gone out and eventually, I will have to turn on the generator to keep my laptop battery going, burning precious, expensive petrol in the process.
- Repairing and building refineries – Doing so would remove the additional cost of importing petroleum products, removing dependence on outside entities to process an abundant national resource for astronomical savings all around.
- Infrastructure improvements – Again, providing working railways and repairing and maintaining roads would provide relief to Nigerians and would reduce the overall individual dependence on fuel as they go about their daily lives.
- Eliminate oil industry corruption – This would result in cost efficiencies in supply and distribution of petroleum products resulting in overall savings that could be passed down to consumers. Corruption in general costs Nigeria an estimated $1o billion yearly. Considering that the subsidy costs $8 billion a year to provide, it would be more cost effective to eliminate the graft pervasive in Nigerian government.
It is quite interesting that items a majority of Nigerians wanted to be in place before removal of the subsidy are the very things that the government says it needs to remove the subsidy to address. How can the government and its people be so misaligned? Simple. The government of Nigeria, as demonstrated through policy and action, has no regard for its people. Its function is primarily the enrichment of those lucky to participate within its confines. It has very little interest in anything else and has been quite successful in reaching its goal of augmenting politicians’ wealth.
We can go on for some time about the merits of keeping or removing the subsidy. The Nigerian government may have a valid point in seeking removal that it says will finally free up funds to fuel change for necessary projects to improve the lives of all Nigerians. I daresay Nigerians, already used to struggle, would not mind participating in something that would result in something as rewarding as stable electricity and infrastructure as well as reasonable fuel prices. The greatest issue here lies in the government’s management of the entire fuel subsidy removal process. Their timing and actions, at best, indicate a disconnect from its citizens’ needs and, at worst, an outright disregard and disdain for the very people who put them in power. Here is why:
- The fuel subsidy was removed on January 1, 2012 in the middle of people’s holiday celebrations. During the holiday season, most Nigerians travel back to their home villages from city centers and other places of work to reconnect with their families and communities. These travelers budgeted for their return to work by putting aside money for transportation or fuel for their cars. With the announcement–with no warning– of the revoking of the subsidy, many people were left stranded and still are to this day. The sudden hike in fuel cost outstripped the money they had set aside to return. Petrol and transportation now cost far more than they anticipated and many could not return to work or had to sell items to compensate for their shortfall. Removing the subsidy without warning during downtime indicates a government that absolutely could care less about inconveniencing its people.
- Most importantly, the timing of the removal after horrific attacks by Boko Haram on Christmas day on Christian churches indicates the government is not only disconnected, it is unwilling to address issues of immediate concern to Nigerians. While it toys with subsidy removal, Nigeria is poised to break out into waves of violence that may result in civil war. Rather than focus on what is necessary to stave Boko Haram and retaliatory Christian attacks and assure all Nigerians of their security, the impotent Nigerian government continues to keep its eye on those very things that will make it richer.
In 1967, Nigeria entered into the bloodiest war of its history, the Biafra war. It lasted for thirty months and claimed at least two million lives, a majority of which were children. After watching their young swim in streams of blood, Nigerians were welcomed with decades of harsh military rule and corruption that taught it that suffering can outstrip war. Nigerians have suffered and smiled. They have quietly tried to get on with their lives. They have been compliant. They have tapped into the game. They have done their best. They can no longer ignore the rampant hoarding of wealth and resources at their direct expense.
This is the time of the harmattan. In those winds, a change must come. I pray that it is a peaceful and enlightened one. A change is coming. It is long overdue.
For some more essential reading on the protests, strike and fuel subsidy removal in Nigeria, please read #OccupyNigeria – 7 essential reads about the protests in Nigeria (with additional updates).