16 January 2012. A World to Win News Service. Nigerians, whose country is one of the world's major oil exporters, woke up on 1 January to a brutal new year: Overnight, President Goodluck Jonathan more than doubled the price of fuel. The next two weeks saw the kind of ethnically united nationwide movement against the government seldom witnessed in recent years.
The price at the pump jumped from the equivalent of 1.75 dollars a gallon to 3.50 dollars. This is a country where the minimum wage is 43 dollars a month and 70 percent of the people make less than 2 dollars a day – if they can find work at all (30 million unemployed out of 160 million inhabitants).
Not that many Nigerians are driving gas-hog limousines and petrol-hungry SUVs. Most fuel goes for buses and trucks, and the generators needed by homes and businesses because of the lack of a reliable power grid. The fuel price hike drove up the cost of food and other necessities, mainly because of increased cost in transporting goods to market. The price of staples like onions, dried crayfish, hot peppers and watermelon seeds (used for cooking oil) doubled.
The president apparently had no choice in the matter. The IMF head Christine Lagarde paid him a visit in December. The World Bank in Washington had just sent its executive director Nguzi Okonjko-Iwela to take over as Nigeria's finance minister. She was also made co-ordinating minister of the economy, a portfolio created especially for her. President Jonathan was told that government subsidies had to end immediately.
Why? Presumably so the government could increase its revenues and pay back its debts. And why did Nigeria, the world's fifth biggest oil producer, have to borrow money? Among other things, to build infrastructure for the oil industry that makes the country a major source of profit for British-Dutch Shell, the U.S.'s Chevron, the Italian company Agip and France's Total.
Shell, the leader in Nigeria's destruction, has left much of Ogoniland in the Niger River Delta a dead zone, where life of any kind is difficult to sustain. Now it has moved its operations offshore – from where it continues to devastate Nigeria (not to mention the damage to the world's ecosystem). Last month a tanker spilled more deadly oil onto Nigeria's coastal waters and wetlands than anything seen in more than a decade of continuous disasters that, taken as a whole, overshadow any oil spill the West ever known.
Since the oil companies are moving towards more automated production facilities, it can't even be argued that they are providing jobs. They are simply killing the country.
Ever since Nigeria started down the road to oil dependency half a century ago, living and social conditions have worsened for many and perhaps most people. Rich fisheries and agricultural land have been coated with oil. The country has an enormous amount of arable land that under current market conditions lies unused.
And why, until now, did this oil-producing country – whose only reason for existence, as far as international finance is concerned, is its ability to produce cheap, easy to refine oil – subsidize oil prices?
Because the oil refineries in Nigeria do not provide enough oil for the domestic market. It's not clear how much this is due to chronic underinvestment in refineries, and how much is because, according to a former oil minister, it's more profitable to export cheap refined oil abroad and then re-import it at a higher price. (Anene Ejikme, The New York Times, 12 January 2012)
This operation is carried out by middlemen who are by far the country's wealthiest people and a main pillar of support for the regime (and the military), aside from those who work directly for foreign companies in Nigeria. They are unfailing in their cooperation with the British (for whom Nigeria is a bigger source of wealth now than when it was a UK colony) and other foreign capital because that subservience is the source of their wealth and power. About 95 percent of the country's export earnings and 80 of its total revenue come from oil exports.
It could be argued that since the subsidies enriched the middlemen, then it made economic sense to eliminate them. But the market protected their wealth (by doubling fuel prices) while punishing the people who have to spend most of their money trying to eat.
But the IMF and World Bank are not the only weapons used to keep the world safe for capital investment and profitability. Nigeria is remarkable for the quarter of its 2012 budget allocated to security and the military. The money is to reinforce the presidential palace, the wealthy residential areas and of course the corporate headquarters and other foreign corporate facilities and embassies. That is many times more than the cost of subsidizing petrol.
When a movement demanding justice for the Ogoni people arose in the 1990s, the Nigerian military hanged the Ogoni leader and well-known playwright Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight other men. International lawyers brought charges against Shell in New York for complicity in that murder. Just before the trial opened in 2009, Shell reached an out of court financial arrangement with the families. The evidence never saw the light of day.
Some watchdogs for Western interests (such as the U.S. Council of Foreign Relations) like to claim that Nigeria's problem is its culture of corruption. But what is the difference between the fabulous incomes enjoyed by Western CEOs and politicians and their Nigerian counterparts, all of whom thrive on the exploitation of the world's people? The same logic applies to both: since they make so much money for investors they have to be paid accordingly or they'll hire themselves out to other investors. That's just how the market works.
WikiLeaks released cables from the U.S. Embassy in Nigeria revealing that Shell had bragged to the American ambassador that it had assigned its people to the country's main ministries so that it had "access to everything being done in those ministries." Shell worked with U.S. and British government officials to try and thwart a rival bid for Nigerian oil from the Russian oil company Gazprom. (Guardian, 8 December 2010)
President Jonathan recently signed a strategic security agreement with Obama's government. This is a significant step-up in American economic, political and military commitment to the Nigerian regime. U.S. oil investments in Nigeria are not only considered good business, they are also a way of diversifying the U.S.'s oil supplies and decreasing its vulnerability to Middle Eastern political developments. It's also strategically important for the U.S. to deny oil supplies to its rivals (especially China and Russia.) Washington considers Jonathan the very model of a modern African president.
When protesters demanding a rollback of the price hike staged a sleep-in at a traffic roundabout in the northern city of Kano a week ago, police broke it up with tear gas and gunfire, arresting dozens of people who had been sleeping on borrowed mattresses in the open air. Five people were killed and more were beaten and hospitalized.
This protest marked the spread of the movement from the oil-producing south to the main city, Lagos; the capital, Abuja; and on to several cities in the more agricultural north. Nigerians also massed in front of the embassy in London to support the Occupy Nigeria movement.
Seldom have Nigerians been so united in recent years. Photos on the Occupy Nigeria Wikipedia page show Christians standing guard over Muslims while they bend over for prayers.
Although the Christian southern tribes have traditionally dominated the mainly Muslim north, and the Islamic group Boko Haram launched murderous attacks on Christian churches on Christmas, many Nigerians feel that this is not unrelated to the winner-take-all tribal politics the Western powers have always fostered in Africa. General Carter Ham, the head of the newly established U.S. Africa Command, used the Christmas incident to argue for more American military intervention. So far no African country has dared allow the Africa Command to set up shop on the continent.
A professor writing in The New York Times has argued that Boko Haram may be at least manipulated by southerners seeking to further clamp down on the north. "In Nigeria, religious terrorism is not always what it seems to be." (Jean Herskovits, NYT, 2 January 2012) Citing th Christmas attacks, Jonathan declared a state of emergency in the north the day before he announced the oil price hike.
As protest marches by tens of thousands of people and a general strike brought the country to a standstill, this nationwide movement forced Jonathan to reduce fuel prices by 30 percent, to 2.75 dollars a gallon, still considerably more than before.
Many people expressed disappointment that the trade union federation accepted this compromise and decided not to shut down the country's oil industry. People writing on the Occupy Nigeria Facebook page are saying that the movement needs to continue. Soldiers continue to man roadblocks and checkpoints on main streets in several cities.
If Nigerians want to take back their country, who occupies it now? The same criminal class and system that occupies and brutalizes the whole world.