General strike rocks Nigeria

January 12, 2012

Matt Swagler reports on the rebellion against austerity that is shaking Nigeria--and describes the backdrop to a struggle that could change the political map of Africa.

A GENERAL strike has brought business and transportation in key Nigerian cities to a complete standstill over the past week. Millions of Nigerians have refused to work in protest over the government's decision to cut a state gasoline subsidy.

For decades, the program has helped control the price of transportation and electricity in a country where two-thirds of the population--or about 104 million people--live on less than $1.25 per day.

On January 1, Nigerian President Goodluck Ebele Jonathan announced that the subsidy would be immediately ended, and official gas prices were more than doubled overnight. In some places, the price jumped by nearly five times. While the government had been discussing a cut to the subsidy for the past year, the sudden suspension of the program exposed the undemocratic nature of the decision.

Protests began immediately on January 2 across the country, and within a week, over 100,000 people had taken part in demonstrations in all of the regions of the country. The two main Nigerian trade union federations, the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) and the Trade Union of Nigeria (TUC), quickly called for a general strike to begin on Monday, January 9. The unions have vowed to continue with the strike until the fuel subsidy is reinstated.

Protesters fill the streets in Lagos during a national strike against fuel price hikes
Protesters fill the streets in Lagos during a national strike against fuel price hikes

Most spectacularly, the two largest cities in Nigeria, Lagos and Kano, are effectively shut down, and the strike has been equally successful in the capital of Abuja and other major urban areas, including Kaduna and Benin City.

THE SIGNIFICANCE of a general strike in Nigeria cannot be overemphasized. It is the most populous country in Africa, with almost twice as many people as any other country on the continent. Nigeria's economy is the second largest in all of sub-Saharan Africa, and over 10 million people live in the port city of Lagos alone--more than New York City.

While most Nigerians are simply refusing to work or go to school in adherence with the strike call, mass demonstrations also continue across the country. In Lagos, tens of thousands of people gathered in Gawi Fawehinmi Park on Monday. Hundreds of doctors participated, offering to provide medical attention for protesters in anticipation of attacks by security forces, which have been common during the past week-and-a-half of protests.

In Kano, thousands blocked main roads, forced gas stations to close and surrounded the home of the Nigerian central bank chief Lamido Sanusi. Protesters renamed the city's main square "Liberation Square," taking inspiration from the Egyptian revolution and Cairo's Tahrir (Liberation) Square. Some Nigerian protesters have even begun referring to the movement as "Occupy Nigeria," linking its aspirations to the Occupy movement in the U.S.

On the first day of the strike in the capital city, Abuja, speakers blasted the anti-corruption songs of Nigerian singers like Fela Kuti and Idriss Abdulkareem. Protesters managed to shut down the airport, carrying placards with slogans reading "Subsidy removal is a huge economic fraud" and "One day, the poor will have nothing to eat but the rich." The Nigerian president is now widely derided as "Bad luck" Jonathan, with strikers printing signs showing Jonathan with devil horns pumping gasoline.

Simultaneously in London, hundreds of people gathered outside the Nigerian High Commission for a solidarity protest organized by Nigerian student and youth organizations. In the U.S., Nigerian activists led a protest in front of the World Bank headquarters in Washington, D.C., as well as in New York City.

In multiple Nigerian cities, security forces responded to the protests with violence. In Kano, police shot more than a dozen people on Monday. At least three protesters in Kano and Lagos died from either gunshot wounds or tear gas on the first day of the strike, prompting unions to call off public demonstrations in Kano on Tuesday, while maintaining the strike call.

However, the police murder of demonstrators has provoked even larger protests in cities like Lagos, where 500,000 people came back to Gawi Fawehinmi Park on Tuesday.

Although workers in some areas of the country have not joined the strike, at least so far, the mass work stoppage of an estimated 8 million Nigerians has already had an impact on the Nigerian economy.

The BBC reported that the country's stock exchange plunged, with total share prices trading at one-fifth of their previous value. The strike has shut down all of the country's ports and stopped cocoa beans moving from farms to processing centers--a major disruption in the world's fourth-largest cocoa producing country.

Thus far, Nigeria's most important industry, oil extraction, has not been directly affected by the strike, but that may soon change. Babatunte Oke, a spokesperson for one of the two main oil workers unions in Nigeria, told Bloomberg news service, "Oil production is being shut down gradually in the anticipation that the government will so something, but if government doesn't do something about the strike, then it will be shut by the weekend."

Royal Dutch Shell has avoided commenting on the movement's impact, but Shell and ExxonMobil's main offices in Lagos and Port Harcourt have remained closed since the general strike began.

IN THE past, fuel prices have often risen above the state mandated price, but now with costs skyrocketing, most Nigerians face the reality of even deeper impoverishment.

The end of the fuel subsidy will increase the cost of nearly every aspect of life in Nigeria. Communal transport fares have already increased, and the price of food and other basic necessities is expected to soon rise, too. One Nigerian writer pointed out that a sachet of drinkable water, a product many Nigerians rely on, has already doubled in price where he lives.

In addition, as municipal electrical power is inconsistent--or simply unavailable--families in many parts of Nigeria depend on gasoline-powered generators, which they may no longer be able to afford to operate.

Uche Madakulam, a 28-year-old information technology worker in Lagos explained what the end of the fuel subsidy has meant for him. He earns $3 per day and used to spend $1 per day on transportation to and from work. With his small savings, he would send money to his parents so they could operate a generator to provide electricity in the village where he grew up.

However, since the beginning of the year, he now has to pay $2 per day--two-thirds of his salary--simply to get to work. The cost of gasoline for his parents' generator will increase, but he has no money left over to help them purchase fuel.

Having met with this surge of resistance, Nigerian President Jonathan is on the defensive, and is trying to divert the protests.

Over last weekend, Jonathan tried to undermine the first day of the strike by announcing he would cut the salaries of his executive appointees by 25 percent, while paying public workers ahead of schedule. Additionally, he pledged to reduce the amount of money spent on political leaders' foreign travel. Finance Minister Ngozi Okongo-Iweala has promised that the money saved from cutting the fuel subsidy would be redirected toward maternal health programs, railroad infrastructure and the immediate provision of more public diesel buses.

Jonathan has attempted to deflect anger directed at himself and Okongo-Iweala by appointing a committee to oversee a "Subsidy Reinvestment and Empowerment Program" (SURE). This was no doubt in response to the widespread belief that the money saved from cutting the subsidies would end up in the bank accounts of the Nigerian political elite, and not in public services. Tellingly, SURE is to be headed by the wealthy former director of the Cadbury company in Nigeria, a choice that has instilled little confidence in most Nigerians.

Joanathan and Okongo-Iweala are simply trying to mask a program of austerity and privatization with the promise of new services. Even if the administration follows through on its pledges--which few believe it will--better maternal health programs will bring little relief to Nigerian women when the vast majority face insurmountable increases in the prices of food and transportation.

However, it is also clear that the Nigerian government is attempting to intimidate the movement with police violence and economic threats.

Nigerian security forces have been allowed to use tear gas and live ammunition on peaceful protesters, and the repression is sure to increase as the strike goes on. And on Tuesday, the attorney general announced the strike had been ruled unlawful and that public-sector workers would lose their pay.

THE LOSS of the gasoline subsidy is seen as particularly outrageous in a country that is the world's sixth largest supplier of crude oil--producing nearly as much as countries like Kuwait and Iran.

While Nigeria produces crude oil for export, its lacks the facilities refine the oil into gasoline for use in vehicles and generators. The country's four state-owned refineries have been underfunded and cannot produce enough fuel to meet domestic needs. Thus, the Nigerian state imports most gasoline from international companies and has--until January 1--sold it at a subsidized rate.

But the lack of adequate refineries is hardly due to a lack of wealth in Nigeria.

International petroleum companies exported over $69 billion worth of oil from Nigeria in 2010, yet Nigerians live with almost no public services. Instead, government executives and foreign oil companies have colluded in pocketing the export profits.

In 2010, WikiLeaks documents exposed that the main oil exporter in Nigeria, Royal Dutch Shell, has extensively bribed and paid off members of the Nigerian government with tens of millions of dollars--with the full knowledge of the U.S. State Department. In this context, most Nigerians see the gasoline subsidy as the sole benefit that they receive from the extraction of oil from their country.

The Nigerian government claims the fuel subsidy cost $7.4 billion last year and is impossible to maintain financially. Yet in 2010, Shell's oil and natural gas operations in Nigeria netted the company over $8 billion in profits. In other words, Shell alone could cover the cost of the Nigerian national fuel subsidy from the profits from its Nigerian operations.

Moreover, the cutting of the fuel subsidy is just one part of Okongo-Iweala's broader plan to simultaneously privatize management of oil refineries in the country, a move called for by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Not surprisingly, Okongo-Iweala was a managing director at the World Bank before taking her post in the Nigerian administration.

But privatization will only make the situation worse for Nigerians. Today's dominance of the Nigerian oil industry by private foreign companies has meant that Nigerians have almost no way to demand a share of the immense profits made by companies like Shell.

Equally dire has been the environmental and humanitarian havoc wreaked by fossil fuel companies in the oil-rich region of the Niger Delta. Over 300 spills occur annually in the area, some of them massive ones that force entire communities to abandon their lands. A Shell spill this past December was the worst in the region since 1998, yet the company has faced no significant penalty. Furthermore, fossil fuel companies continue to use gas flares to burn off excess gas and waste, despite Nigeria having outlawed this heavily polluting practice.

Protection of oil profits has led to an increased militarization of the country, mainly with the aid of the United States and the oil companies themselves. When Nigerian activists have spoken up against the destruction of their lands, they have met brutal violence--and sometimes murder--at the hands of Nigerian security forces cooperating with Shell.

This deadly repressive force is now being turned on those participating in the general strike. At the same time that Jonathan is attempting to appease protesters by promising reforms, he is taking steps to secure the support of the military.

Nigerian Newsdesk reported that the president had approved salary increases for military personnel retroactive from September 2011. While Jonathan and his ministers justified cutting the fuel subsidy by claiming the need for fiscal austerity, they had no problem setting aside approximately 25 percent of Nigeria's federal 2012 budget for "security."

Police have been responsible for most of the violence against protesters, but Nigerian army troops have been sent to guard company offices and oil facilities in the city of Port Harcourt, while the Niger Delta is being patrolled by military boats and helicopters.

In recent years, Nigerian security forces have been accused of extrajudicial killings and torture. That includes a massacre in the city of Jos in 2008 that left more than 130 Nigerians dead in just two days--yet no one has been held responsible nor even subjected to an investigation.

DURING THE past decade, both the Bush and Obama administrations have funded and supported the increasing militarization of Nigeria. American companies and the U.S. government have a massive stake in Nigeria--44 percent of the oil extracted from the country goes to the U.S.. The U.S. imports more oil from Africa than from the Middle East, and Nigeria alone supplies 8 percent of the crude oil imported into the U.S.

Protection of oil interests in the Niger Delta has become the excuse for a dramatic escalation of U.S. military aid to Nigeria. Additionally, in 2008, the U.S. army carried out a war-games scenario based on the need to take control of the Niger Delta in the case of the collapse of the Nigerian government. The following year, the new secretary of state under Obama, Hillary Clinton, held meetings with Nigerian officials to discuss new joint security measures for the Niger Delta that would be supported by the Obama administration.

However, in the past few months, the Obama administration's rhetoric has shifted. In addition to controlling the Niger Delta, the U.S. government is now talking about a new front in the "war on terror"--against an amorphous Islamist group in Nigeria called Boko Haram.

Boko Haram was formed in northern Nigeria in the 1990s to advocate for the implementation of sharia law. In the past two years, people claiming to act under the banner of Boko Haram have begun carrying out deadly attacks, sometimes targeting Christian communities. Bombings of Christian churches on Christmas day left dozens dead, and some angry Christians have since responded by attacking Muslim Nigerians at mosques. Mutual retaliations continued to take place during the opening days of the strike.

Nigerian President Jonathan recently ramped up his own campaign against Boko Haram, proclaiming that the group's sympathizers had infiltrated the ranks of the government and security forces. The U.S. government and military have been all to eager to take this opportunity to become even more involved in Nigerian affairs.

Last August, the general in charge of the U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) made the questionable assertion that Boko Haram had vague connections with al-Qaeda in north Africa. By October, Hillary Clinton had announced that the U.S. would help lead the fight against Boko Haram, and as of November, 100 U.S. Special Forces were already on the ground working with the Nigerian military.

However, it's unclear what threat Boko Haram poses. According to Jean Herskovits, a long-time scholar of Nigeria, "[T]here is no proof that a well-organized, ideologically coherent terrorist group called Boko Haram even exists today."

In many cases, attacks on bars or Christian communities have simply been attributed to Boko Haram without any evidence. In other instances, individuals and small groups have claimed to carry out attacks in the name of Boko Haram, but it is unclear whether they have any actual connections to an organization of that name.

In this context, U.S. military aid to Nigeria has only served to increase tensions and violence between the very small groups of both Muslims and Christians who are carrying out attacks.

While the Nigerian and U.S. governments clamor for greater militarization, the general strike has provided the basis of increased unity among working class and poor Nigerians. The sectarian violence has been widely condemned by both Nigerian Muslim and Christian leaders, and during the first day of the strike, Christians were reportedly protecting Muslims while they prayed, and Muslims had volunteered to defend Christian churches.

The loss of the fuel subsidy, widespread unemployment and the incredible wealth disparity in Nigeria has spurred a movement that has easily crossed regional and religious divisions. Government corruption, in cooperation with foreign oil companies, is something that has long angered working class and poor Nigerians of all backgrounds, and that anger has now found expression in the largest general strike in the country's history.

THE CURRENT general strike is not the first struggle by Nigerians to defend the fuel subsidy. In fact, Nigerian ruling elites have been attempting to cut the program for decades, yet have been turned back by mass protest each time.

In 1986, an IMF structural adjustment program devalued Nigeria's currency, increasing the cost of the subsidy for the government. The military ruler Gen. Ibrahim Babangida tried to pass this loss onto Nigerians by raising fuel prices, but he had to abandon the plan in the face of nationwide demonstrations.

Less than ten years later, Gen. Sani Abacha tried again to scrap the subsidy, but a general strike shut down the economy, and Abacha was forced to back down. Similar movements to save the subsidy succeeded at the end of the 1990s and in the early 2000s. Although the subsidy had been decreased recently, it remained in place because of this history of protest.

With the strike still in its opening days, it remains unclear what will happen next. Before the strike began, the Nigerian House of Representatives called on Jonathan to reinstate the fuel subsidy and instead seek consultation before altering the program. Many Nigerian political representatives hoped to head off a general strike by convincing union leaders to negotiate. But mistrust of Jonathan now runs so deep and the momentum for the strike was so unstoppable that union leaders moved ahead anyway.

Powerful international and national politicians will continue to put pressure on union leaders to cave into some form of protracted 'dialogue' with the Nigerian government, but thus far, workers have been determined to keep the strike going until the subsidy is returned.

The strike is proving to be about much more than the subsidy alone. Many Nigerians recognize that one reason the subsidy costs are so high is because of the abuse of import cartels, which have been overcharging the government for gasoline--usually with the cooperation of various Nigerian ministers, who receive a cut of the corruption.

And while calling for austerity, President Jonathan recently had the audacity to propose a $6.2 million catering budget for himself and his vice president in 2012.

While many Nigerian protesters and writers have agreed that better electricity production, railways and other public services are needed, they also argue that the money is available for such programs without cutting the fuel subsidy. One place where they have identified funding is within the quarter of this year's Nigerian budget to be spent on security forces--the same forces currently gunning down protesters in the street.

As Nigerian writer Tolu Ogunlesi sardonically wrote on the second day of the strike, "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."

Thus, the strike has also become a protest against the incredible wealth accumulated by Nigerian leaders and foreign companies at the expense of the Nigerian people. Not surprisingly, many protesters, including the National Association of Nigerian Students, have demanded firing of Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, and some are already calling for Jonathan himself to step down.

Yet, the problems in Nigeria run much deeper than corruption. Privatization and deregulation pushed by international banks have brought nothing but greater impoverishment for the majority of Nigerians--yet they are still being encouraged by the World Bank, IMF and UN representative Jeffrey Sachs. Continuing to put pressure on the World Bank and other banks to drop Nigeria's $31 billion debt is an important way that activists outside of Nigeria can support the long-term goals of the strike movement.

As Nigerian socialist Baba Aye wrote on the verge of the strike, in order to see the changes most Nigerians want, the strike will have to demand more than the return of the fuel subsidy--it will have to develop into a movement like those that toppled the regimes of Tunisia and Egypt:

We would have to organize organs of people and street power, as the situation deepens. In our neighborhoods, schools and, yes, workplaces, we would have to entrench direct democracies, by constituting General Assemblies with action committees to address diverse needs of keeping the revolution alive...The genie is out of the bottle. We might be entering into a long drawn-out period of people and street power of the 99 percent against the less-than 1 percent that has brought Nigeria to its knees and made our lives a misery.

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