At 10:50am, I was still standing at College Road waiting for the bus. I had been standing for close to five hours and I had begun to feel pain around my ribs. My mission had been to spend the New Year holiday with an aunt who lives in Apapa, an area about 40 miles away from Ikeja, the city where I live. I desperately needed to collect some money from her, which she had promised to loan to support the payment of my house rent, due in January. I had also hoped to get some food items from her as she sometimes takes care of me in this way. But by now, I was frustrated and my journey was derailed.
As I stood endlessly, I was deep in the thought, “Oh goodness, when will this suffering come to an end? Nigerians like me, who live on the brink of society, are subjected to untold hardship by a government which is supposed to take care of our welfare. What is the justification for a regime that only pretends to derive its legitimacy from the people? My country ranks the highest producer of crude oil in Africa, and here I am a charity worker. I spend my life serving the interest of the less privileged and yet do not have access to take care of my own essential needs! God please help me.” A queue of vehicles at a fuel station located across the road extended to the bus stop, causing even more congestion. People were everywhere, some carrying kegs scampering to buy kerosene, and others waiting for any means of transportation to their destination. Some people were already choosing to walk, but my case was different: I could not walk for miles. In the mammoth crowd I noticed women, some carrying babies on their back. While it is common to see people waiting long times at bus stops, and not infrequent to pay double or triple the usual transport fare, this particular day was really extraordinary. I walked back home.
Fuel Price Increase Sparks Uprising
The reaction of Nigerians is better imagined when coupled with the facts of the situation: petrol prices rocketed from N65 to N160 per liter, understandably creating an atmosphere tense with fear of the unknown. I received up to 30 messages on my official Committee for the Defence of Human Rights (CDHR) Facebook and cellphone. People were anxious to know my organization’s stand and the next line of action. In particular, citizens were afraid of what the situation might be on Tuesday January 3, when many Nigerians were due to return home from the holiday. Many Nigerians who traveled to villages for the holiday were forced to sell their belongings, such as cellphones and wears in order to pay the unexpectedly high transportation fares back to their home cities.
The announcement of fuel increase sparked widespread protests in Abuja, Nigeria’s capital. Police fired tear gas to break up a protest led by Dino Melaye, who had earlier organized a signing of a petition near Eagle Square. His passionate promise was “to mobilise Nigerians to register their displeasure against the satanic increase of the pump price of petroleum products and to kick-start a mass protest that will follow. The battle to fight this is a battle of no retreat, no surrender.” Dino's action was disrupted by security agents, while armed soldiers and policemen cordoned off Eagle Square, barring more people from joining the early protest. Colleagues from the Nigerian Labour Congress also organized a protest that same day in Abuja. "We intend to work with other groups to completely paralyse the government and make the country ungovernable," said Denja Yaqub, the Assistant Secretary General of Nigerian Labour Congress.
Protests of several hundred people broke out in Kano, the largest city in Nigeria's north. In the cities of Lokoja, Benin, Kaduna, and Abeokuta, protests broke out as citizens agitated against the increased price of fuel. Student leaders threatened riots if the decision was not reversed. In Ilorin, Muyideen Mustapha, a protester was killed by police. At Yaya Abatan, Ogba-- very close to my residence in Lagos, Tunde-- a colleague was shot by the Divisional Police Officer during the course of the protest.
In Lagos, the most populous city and former capital, a Joint Action Front (JAF) made up of my organization, the CDHR, and others took to the streets. As the Director of Programmes and Projects for the CDHR, I set myself to the logistic work and prepared my organization for action against what I perceived as wicked, insensitive and a clear demonstration of the government’s deep contempt for the plight of Nigerians, the majority of whom are presently at the lowest ebb in life. I joined my organization’s team in the march, which took off from the Nigerian Labour Congress building in Yaba. Through Masha/Itire Road, we marched to Ikorodu Road, the major highway in Lagos. Protesters carried banners and placards with different inscriptions and chanted anti-government slogans. At Maryland, a team of Nigerian police joined us. The protest march continued till Gani Fawehinmi Park, Ojota, a distance of about 30 miles, where we were addressed by Femi Falana, a former President of CDHR, as well as other activists.
Unaccountable, Corrupt Government Does Not Constitute a Democracy
In Nigeria, the government calls its proposal to deregulate oil a ‘removal of the fuel subsidy’. Removing fuel subsidy, in turn, causes an increase in the price of all petroleum products. This has been an issue of debate since 4 October, 2011, when the federal government pronounced that over N3.7 trillion was spent between 2006 and 2011 on subsidizing oil, about 30% of the capital expenditure. Citing this significant expense, officials proposed a removal of the subsidy, which they purport, will make available a great amount of money to the nation. According to their claims, this money would be put towards maternal and general health care, public works, youth employment, urban mass transit, vocational training, and social safety net programmes for the poor who would be adversely affected by the new policy. This government “shopping list” is a bare-faced lie, as the total amount paid out as fuel subsidy could not pay for even one-fifth of the initiatives listed. Nigerians are tired of lies from our leaders! We ask for accountable, corrupt-free governance.
It is extremely difficult for me to understand why my national government insists on carrying out deregulation policy when the effects prove to be unbearable to the majority of the nation’s citizens who are living in poverty. Every child, market woman, artisan, illiterate and semi-illiterate citizen feels the negative impact. Every common man knows that the government has increased the cost of fuel, gas, and kerosene, despite the increased hardship people are experiencing every day.
From the first day the president made the proposal to remove oil subsidy as part of the 2012-2015 Medium Term Expenditure Framework, as well as the 2012 Fiscal Strategy Paper, Nigerians vehemently opposed the policy. A brief consultation with a few influential groups of Nigerians clearly indicated the reactions and opinions of the public. Organizations and individuals voiced the feelings of the people for all to hear, including the government. Ranging from market women and artisans, student bodies and jobless graduates, to professional groups and organized labour movements, citizens spoke out in articulation of the adverse effects of the policy on the poor. Given my everyday experience of hardship in Nigeria, I, too perceived removal of fuel subsidy as an attack against the people. Indeed, my organization issued a public warning with this published statement on 22 December, 2011: http://saharareporters.com/news-page/removal-oil-subsidy-cdhr-warns-jona....
Though the government made a salient point that the amount being spent on the fuel subsidy is so large that it is accelerating the nation’s debt and forcing us to abandon development goals, the fact still remains that the subsidy goes with the greatest fraud in the nation. Though government refuses to let us understand the true picture, over the years, the monumental amount accrued from our country’s oil wealth has not been accounted for. Stories of corruption associated with Nigerian oil are a story of economic woe to our nation. In the government’s recent analysis regarding the removal of the subsidy, there are obvious indications that the whole process is embroiled in secrecy and corruption. Most notably, the analysis was initiated by a cartel which claims and enjoys the monetary benefits associated with the sale of oil, money that otherwise would have been accrued by the people of Nigeria. Because of corrupt practices and mismanagement, Nigeria imports fuel because refineries have not been maintained even when it exports crude oil. Nigeria refines very little of our crude oil, despite being a major global oil source and OPEC member.
Policy Hits the Poor and Vulnerable the Hardest
The negative effects associated with the constant increase in the cost of fuel-- seventeen times in the last 26 years-- have most drastically impacted the poor class, which constitutes 70% of women, as well as the vast majority of people with disabilities, jobless youths, children and other vulnerable groups who are on the fringe of society. These individuals bear the brunt of market forces, in addition to the crushing effect of poverty. In short, there is excruciating pain associated with the unaffordable costs of essential food and household items. What’s more, this group now bear the brunt of outrageous transportation costs in the face of our current fuel crisis. Consider the implications of kerosene scarcity, which means exceptional hardship related to preparing food and boiling water. Consider the loss of lives and houses to fire outbreaks as people resort to alternative means of preparing their food. Consider the implications of not being able to travel to one’s job.
A rise in fuel price can also create more boundaries among people as social liberties become less accessible to the less privileged, the vast majority of the more than 145 million people in Nigeria. Whenever there is a rise, the private sectors, namely, small businesses, suffer the biggest reverses. Many of these businesses are the domain of lower class people and will likely face liquidation due to higher business overheads. This has a multiplier effect on Nigerians because as one business is lost, many dependent families are exposed to poverty and other forms of social exclusion, including constrained access to education, the justice system, housing, medical services, and other essential needs.
Surprisingly, the federal government seems insensitive to the sufferings of the poor. The recalcitrant attitude towards the requests of Nigerians, coupled with the increased suffering among citizens, sparked more protest marches against the government. The refusal of government to yield to the demands of the people brought about a nationwide strike and intensified protests. But, I see these actions as signals for a turn-around in Nigeria. Nigerians are so much awakened to the realities of hardship they are subjected by the leaders. The Nigerian government should be warned that governance in Nigeria is no longer ‘business as usual.’
I leave home every morning to join the march organized by my organization in collaboration with so many others. Coming face-to-face with armed police officers is an experience I will not forget in a hurry. I take with me handkerchief soaked in kerosene in case the police decide to throw tear gas towards us protesters; ironically, inhaling through cloth soaked in kerosene—the very thing we are fighting for—negates the effects of tear gas. There is no water, no food anywhere for a person to buy, even for those who have some cash to spend. Citizens walk miles to join the protests and walk back home. Colleagues have been shot or killed by police bullets, some were run over by desperate commercial buses. In the end, the recalcitrant government was head bent and in dictatorial manner insisted that fuel sells for N97 per liter, with a view to hit the price to N100, as against the agitations of the poor people. Overnight, the government sent military men to occupy protest areas with an order to shoot at sight the armless protesters. The same poor people who bear the brunt of corruption and mismanagement of Nigeria’s oil economy also bear the burden of effects of the fuel price increase. The same poor people still bear the brunt of strikes, as they are made to stay in-house without enough food. Every challenge and struggle falls against those of us who live hand to mouth. We are the people who do not make even two dollars a day.
Nonetheless, we remember the words of a leader among us to encourage ourselves: ‘no retreat, no surrender.’ In moments of optimism, a question that comes to mind is: is the crisis launching a change where government resolves to be more accountable and responsible to the people and corruption becomes a thing of the past? The answer to this question will be provided by the outcome of recent revelations and scams revolving around mismanagement of trillions of Naira by government officials-- a cartel that promises to improve the lot of the citizens. Corruption may fight back in Nigeria!
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