Friday, January 27, 2012

How the Fuel Row Caught Fire

Africa Confidential
20 January 2012

Nobody in government, least of all President Goodluck Jonathan, seemed prepared for the torrent of opposition excited by the decision to end fuel subsidies. This doubled the retail price of petrol on New Year's Day. The inflationary effect of the new fuel prices on goods and services was devastating for poor people and lost the government any goodwill it had picked up since April's elections. Many know that the main beneficiaries of the subsidy are a cabal of crooked oil traders, so they ask why the government can't pursue them and keep the fuel cheap for the public.

Muslims and Christians united in protest and protected each other from the security forces, from the commercial capital Lagos to the northern trading centre of Kano. Optimists, of which Nigeria has more than most countries, saw this spontaneous unity of protestors across the country as a response to doom-laden forecasts that Nigeria would break up. The latest round of shooting and bombing by the Islamist Boko Haram militia in the north (AC Vol 53 No 1) prompted criticism from intellectuals and nobel laureate Wole Soyinka commented that Nigeria has reached a 'dismal watershed' when militias shoot the faithful in their places of worship.It took two weeks, a national strike, threats to disrupt oil exports, mass street demonstrations and ten deaths before the government realised that removing the whole subsidy at a stroke was politically unsustainable. Then, on 16 January, Jonathan announced that he would restore half of the subsidy.

Far from winning credibility, this concession emboldened the opposition movement - the young activists, the trades unionists and the opposition parties - which wants a national debate about the cost of government.

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