Anger at President Goodluck Jonathan’s elimination of the fuel subsidy appears to have united Nigerians in a way not seen for many years. There have been popular protests in virtually all of Nigeria’s major cities. According to the Nigerian press, protestors have shut-down economic activity in Lagos, Ibadan, and Kano. In the capital, Abuja, most gas stations are closed. It is likely that road haulage will decline in the face of a tripling of gasoline prices since the end of the fuel subsidy-- most Nigerian goods move by road. It remains to be seen when or if civil aviation will be affected.
In Kano, the metropolis of the predominately Muslim North, the protest was accompanied by a reported accord between Christians and Muslims. There are news photos of Christians providing protection while Muslim protestors pray, and Muslims returning the favor—this in a city that has been a byword for religious hatred and Islamic radicalism. The Kano protestors are demanding restoration of the fuel subsidy and the firing of Minister of Finance Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala and the governor of the central bank (a Muslim from the North), Lamido Sanusi. The powerful Nigeria Bar Association and the National Medical Association are supporting organized labor’s call for a general strike next week. It remains to be seen whether unions in the oil industry will participate. If they do, they have the capacity to shut-down Nigeria’s oil production. In Lagos, apparently some of the police, who are widely hated, joined the protests. I have seen no evidence thus far that they have been joined by soldiers.
Is this the long-awaited Nigerian Spring? The conventional wisdom (which I shared but increasingly doubt) is that the country was too divided by religion and ethnicity and with too weak a sense of national identity for a popular opposition movement comparable to those that roiled Tunisia, Egypt or Syria. Yet, the protests are nationwide and peaceful; thus far, casualties have been caused by the security services, not the protestors. In some cases, protestors have organized themselves through the use of social media. Protestors in Kano are explicitly invoking the Arab Spring and the Occupy Wall Street movement. They refer to their encampment as ‘Occupy Kano’ and its venue as ’Tahir Square.’
Nigeria –at least for the moment – may be transforming itself before our very eyes. Enough is new to make the past an inadequate guide to the future.
What will the Jonathan government do? One answer would be immediately to restore the fuel subsidy and fire Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala. (There are press reports that Okonjo-Iweala will resign anyway if Jonathan backs down, which she has since denied.) If done over the next day or two, the protestors might be deprived of their oxygen. But, if the Jonathan administration does back down, it will appear weak and vacillating, with unpredictable consequences for the grass roots rebellion in the North labeled ‘Boko Haram’ or the possible resurgence of militant activity in the oil-rich Niger Delta. If, however, the government responds with repression (as it has done without success against Boko Haram in the North), the result could be further inflammation of public opinion and much higher levels of violence. Jonathan appears pinned by Morton’s Fork.
If sustained, the protests create the potential for profound change in Nigeria’s political economy. Christians providing protection for Muslims while they pray, and vice versa, could suck the air out of radical religious movements such as ‘Boko Haram’. The protests also raise the potential for Nigerians demanding a level of accountability from their government which would be new—and salutary—in a country that normally is a leader in the corruption indices.