By Tolu Ogunlesi
The piece below was originally published in the Guardian U.K.
Today he seems bent on recreating all the obstacles he faced all those decades ago; eager to ensure that as many Nigerians as possible study with lanterns and survive on a single meal a day. How is he doing this? By hurting the most vulnerable using one of the most ubiquitous items in the land: petrol.
A fuel price increase – and the associated increase in the price of commodities – has sparked nationwide #OccupyNigeria protests, driven largely by young people mobilising themselves via social media, mobile phones and word-of-mouth.
Nigeria is a crude-oil producing and exporting country, full of poor people – 70% of the population survives on less than $2 a day. These citizens consume more petrol than is necessary because Nigeria has consistently failed to produce enough electricity for its 150 million citizens (South Africa, with 50 million people, produces 10 times as much electricity as Nigeria), leaving much of the population dependent on petrol-guzzling Chinese generators to keep the lights on.
It gets worse. The country is largely unable to refine crude oil as all four refineries operate at an average of 23% of their potential capacity, and it has to import most of its fuel needs. Controlling the price of petrol has, therefore, been the easiest way to ensure that Nigerians enjoy the benefits of the crude oil they produce. The subsidy system works this way: the government pays importers to ensure prices are kept reasonably low, well below the cost of importation.
But over time corruption has crept into the system, and dubious importers have found ways of inflating their receipts. Between January and October 2011, the government claims to have spent 1.3 trillion naira (about $8bn) on subsidies, instead of the budgeted N248bn. The government has admitted the existence of a cartel, but has done nothing to confront or expose it. The only solution, they’ve argued, is to scrap the entire subsidy, the only thing that resembles welfare in a land teeming with poor people.
Over the last couple of weeks Jonathan has been meeting with labour, civil society, and youth groups, ostensibly engaged in a dialogue. In reality he has only been buying time for the implementation of a policy he and his advisers had made up their minds about a long time ago. The government is outraged by the cost of the subsidy, but not by the corruption responsible, or the fact that we have to depend on imports to meet almost all of our fuel needs. And if all the hundreds of billions of dollars of the last decade (annual budgets of about $25bn) have not improved our roads and schools and hospitals, is it this $8bn that will bring transformation?
At the root of the opposition is a trust deficit. So for Enough is Enough Nigeria and most Nigerians, the conversation is not merely about the fuel subsidy, but about a wasteful and corrupt leadership, given to making false promises and asking citizens to sacrifice for a better future. The message to President Jonathan and his government is simple: earn our trust with the trillions you already have in your possession, then we can, and will, wholeheartedly hand over this subsidy trillion to you.
Unfortunately for the president, his decision could not have come at a worse time. With inspiration from the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt and the power of social media, more people than ever before in Nigeria are aware of and angered by the corruption in the system. Never before in the country’s history have ordinary citizens been inspired to discuss budget items line by line. The questions are mounting. For example, how can N1bn ($6.25m) be allocated to the president and vice-president’s catering budget, in a country stalked by hunger?
The target of the protests is a system constructed to oppress the poor and protect wealthy criminals. Every day since 2 January, the day after the fuel price increases, protesters have been assembling across several Nigerian states, marching and sharing their messages. And in many cases, enduring police harassment.
Young Nigerians are waking up and realising that we are where we are today because previous governments – maintainers of the corrupt system – were hardly ever seriously challenged, or rigorously questioned.
Now, having woken up, we will not be going back to sleep.