from Africa in Transition

A Nigerian Spring?

January 4, 2012

Blog Post
Blog posts represent the views of CFR fellows and staff and not those of CFR, which takes no institutional positions.

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A vendor displays a newspaper showing headlines of an increment in the price of petrol in Lagos January 2, 2012. (Akintunde Akinleye/Courtesy Reuters)

This is a guest post by Jim Sanders.

Debate continues to rage in Nigeria over President Jonathan’s intention to remove fuel subsidies. Business Day Online cites a former Nigerian official as saying, “there is never a time the level of anger in society has risen to what is obtainable now.” Could anger over the threatened removal of the popular fuel subsidy be the catalyst that provokes broad-scale unrest?

In the past, observers have said that sustained protest in Nigeria is unlikely because ordinary Nigerians cannot afford to take too much time away from work. But technology may have changed the equation. Bill Wasik writes in “Crowd Control,” in the January 2012 issue of Wired magazine, that, “Today’s protests, revolts, and riots are self-organizing, hyper-networked—and headed for a city near you.” He notes in cases in North Africa, UK, the US, and elsewhere, that for these protesting groups, “suddenly coalescing into a crowd feels like stepping out from the shadows, like forcing society to respect the numbers that they now know themselves to command.”

In the US example, “street protesters were merely the visible symbol of the giant, subterranean mob of Americans struggling to get by.” “What’s really revolutionary about all these gatherings—what remains both dangerous and magnificent about them—is the way they represent a disconnected group getting connected, a mega-underground casting off its invisibility to embody itself, formidably, in physical space.”

But for this to happen, “for tech to become effective as a tool for civil disorder,” Wasik explains, “it first had to insinuate itself into people’s daily lives.” Has this happened in Nigeria? Perhaps the process is further along than most realize. The telecom industry in Nigeria is robust and it is paralleled by a youth bulge, largely unemployed, but tech savvy. According to the Nigerian Communications Commission, there are over eighty-eight million active mobile phones in Nigeria. Nigeria also has an Occupy movement, though little is reported about it. The stage appears to be set.

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