The protests appear to be the strongest in Lagos and Kano, Nigeria’s two largest cities and where there is a tradition of opposition to any government in Abuja. The oil workers joined the strike only on Tuesday morning, so it remains to be seen what the impact will be on Nigeria’s oil and gas production. Oil and gas are more than ninety percent of Nigeria’s exports and provide about eighty percent of the government’s revenue.
Jonathan and his political allies are seeking to rally support for the subsidy elimination. He appears to have the support of many – not all – of the governors. As a confidence building measure, Jonathan has announced the establishment of a blue ribbon panel to oversee the use of resources freed by elimination of the fuel subsidy. The economic arguments for elimination of the subsidy are widely rehearsed from official sources.
Jonathan has undertaken other initiatives to restore confidence in his government. He has announced the purchase of large numbers of buses, presumably to strengthen the very weak public transport system. He has ordered a twenty-five percent reduction in government salaries (still grotesquely high for a poor country). With respect to Boko Haram, in a speech, he appeared to acknowledge that its support is more than solely criminal; he said its adherents are to be found even within the government, and that it posed the greatest threat to the country’s unity since the civil war. Perhaps to extend an olive branch, the federal government, the Bauchi state government, and the police are paying compensation to the family of Boko Haram founder Mohammed Yusuf for his extra-judicial murder.
Given their size and scope, the fuel subsidy demonstrations have thus far been remarkably peaceful, with eleven people reported killed—all, apparently, the victims of the security services. Some police have joined the protestors. Thus far, no soldiers have joined, and there have been no statements from the military. However, as the upper reaches of the army are now dominated by Jonathan’s fellow Christians, they are likely to stand fast with president. There are unconfirmed reports that he has increased military pay. In those parts of the country where Jonathan’s political support is strong, the strikes have been notably weaker than elsewhere.
In the past, the federal government has backed down in the face of widespread protests over reduction or elimination of the fuel subsidy. That may happen this time. Last night there were negotiations between government and trade union representatives, which, however, made little progress according to press reports.
The elephant in the living room is the profound distrust Nigerians feel for their government. Is that distrust so great that a deal over the fuel subsidy is impossible? If so, what happens next?