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The Nigerian Crucible

LAGOS – Nigeria’s president, Goodluck Jonathan, who was elected only eight months ago, is already swimming in a sea of troubles. On January 1, New Year celebrations were abruptly cut short when Nigerians woke up to learn that the government gasoline subsidy had been withdrawn. The country’s poor immediately hit the streets, already angry because their corrupt and incompetent government has been unable to repair state-owned refineries, thereby forcing Africa’s largest oil producer to import petroleum products. 

To ordinary Nigerians, the fuel subsidy was the only advantage that they derived from the petrodollars that pour into the national treasury. Suddenly, politicians, civil servants, and their cronies were embezzling even that benefit.

What began as sporadic protests quickly ballooned into a show of people power in Abuja (the national capital), Lagos (the commercial capital), and Kano (the most populous city in the north), led by the civil-society organizations Joint Action Front and Save Nigeria Group. Other towns and cities also joined in the protests, and Abdulwaheed Omar, President of the Nigeria Labour Congress, called on workers around the country to strike until the government rescinded its decision to remove the subsidy. Millions complied, paralyzing the economy.

The Jonathan government had calculated that eliminating the subsidy in the midst of the New Year festivities, a time when most Nigerians travel to their home villages, would impede coordinated resistance, so the speed, ferocity, and scope of the demonstrations caught the authorities completely by surprise. When the protest leaders’ grievances expanded to include the 2012 budget’s lavish provisions for the president and top civil servants, the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation’s shady deals, and government corruption, Jonathan realized that he had to back down.

First, he announced a 25% salary cut for all political appointees. This did not impress the protest leaders. Next, the government promised to eliminate social-services waste. Finally, in a humiliating retreat, Jonathan retracted his decision on the gasoline subsidy.

Even as Jonathan was struggling to defuse the rage in the streets, Boko Haram – the violent Islamic sect that has been terrorizing the northern part of the country since 2009 – escalated its attacks. The sect had bombed a church in Madalla, a town on the outskirts of Abuja, on Christmas Day, killing 45 worshippers, and its spokesmen then demanded that all Christian southerners residing in the north leave.

The government responded by declaring a state of emergency in several of Nigeria’s northern states. In apparent retaliation, on January 21, Boko Haram launched a daylight attack on government facilities in Kano, including several police posts, killing an estimated 160 people. A key Boko Haram member, suspected of masterminding the Madalla bombing, then escaped from police custody, suggesting collaboration between security officials and sect members.

Indeed, an increasingly embattled Jonathan recently declared that his own cabinet, in addition to the security agencies, is riddled with “Boko Haram sympathizers.” In desperation, his national security adviser, Owoeye Andrew Azazi, has called on the United States to declare the sect a terrorist organization and to provide the Nigerian government with counter-terrorism assistance. Government officials have also held meetings with officials at the Israeli embassy, who have expressed willingness to help the country in its self-declared “war against terror.”

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But critics of the government, including several respected public intellectuals, have pointed out similarities between Boko Haram and the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, an armed militant group in the country’s oil-rich region, which has been killing soldiers and kidnapping foreign oil workers since 2006. Both groups are led by impoverished youths, angry at official indifference to low living standards, with a majority of Nigerians living on less than two dollars per day since the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) took power following the end of military rule in 1999.

Moreover, there is mounting evidence that several of the Boko Haram sympathizers against whom Jonathan railed are members of the PDP’s northern faction. The northerners are angry that Jonathan, a southerner, beat them to the presidency last year, and they see the sect as a useful instrument with which to intimidate him into ceding the office in 2015.

Neither Jonathan nor his northern adversaries enjoy much popular support. Jonathan is now widely viewed as weak and indecisive, while the PDP’s conservative faction in the north is understood to be part of the “cabal” that has misgoverned the country and looted its treasury since independence in 1960.

With a corrupt and rudderless government, Africa’s most populous country has resumed its dance on the edge of the precipice. Its poor and powerless citizens, angrily demanding transparency and accountability, do not want the country to disintegrate into its many squabbling ethnic parts. But its rich and powerful, who have already plunged the country into a bloody civil war once, appear ready to do it again. 

Ike Okonta, an Abuja-based policy analyst and writer, is currently a fellow of the Open Society Institute, New York.

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