By Kwei Quartey
On January 1, 2012, Nigeria’s fuel regulator announced that the government was immediately discontinuing its fuel subsidy to help cut government spending, causing an overnight spike in fuel prices from $1.70 to $3.50 per gallon. Such a hike would be outrageous even for Americans. But for a drastically poorer country like Nigeria—where 70 percent of the population of 160 million lives below the poverty line—it was insufferable. Cheap fuel is one of the few benefits Nigerians enjoy as citizens of Africa’s largest (and the world’s 14th-largest) oil producer.
Nigerians responded swiftly to the announcement. Demonstrations, protests, and violent clashes broke out, followed by a nationwide strike inaugurated on January 8. The strikes were set to go into a second week when they were called off after the president announced an immediate 30-percent drop in gas prices.
Nigerians took their cue from the Arab spring and Occupy Wall Street, establishing Occupy Nigeria in protest against the gas price jump. “Nigerians have been very quiet for so long,” commented Yemi Adamolekun, executive director of the “Enough is Enough” coalition, expressing the same sentiment behind much of the worldwide protests of 2011: people are sick and tired and are not going to take it any more.
There are other antigovernment movements in Nigeria—the radical Islamist Boko Haram and various armed resistance groups in the embattled Niger Delta, for example—but the protests against fuel prices are a separate phenomenon. As in the Arab spring, social media played a role in allowing Nigerians to convey information and express their feelings. And while there has been some head scratching over exactly what Occupy Wall Street wants, Occupy Nigeria expressed clear grievances from the very start, including the demand that the government tackle corruption.
At the time of the 2011 Arab uprisings, I suggested to a fellow Ghanaian that perhaps the same phenomenon could take place in Ghana when people finally get fed up with how the nation’s new oil industry is creating a Ghanaian 1 percent. I was surprised by his reply that a “Ghanaian spring” was well nigh impossible because Ghanaians don’t know any better. But I disagree. I believe that Nigeria’s demonstrations today could be a Ghanaian uprising tomorrow. West Africans—Nigerians, Ghanaians, or otherwise—can engage in expression of widespread discontent. They too can force the hand of government. President Jonathan didn’t restore gas prices to pre-2012 levels, but he did climb down from $3.50 a gallon to $2.27—despite the The New York Times’ assessment that “any retreat now on the subsidy could be interpreted as a sign of weakness, which would be harmful for a leader dealing with internal unrest on many fronts.”
Nigeria is no newcomer to protest. Additionally, it has a strong history of protest movements led by women. The Igbo Women’s War of November 1929 began when thousands of Igbo women vociferously protested a crippling tax on market women by the ruling British colonials, who had set up an undemocratic system of appointing “warrant chiefs” to rule locally. Traditionally the Igbo people had elected their chiefs.
The dynamic Madam Alimotu Pelewura led anti-tax revolts in the late 1930s and 1940s. During World War II, when the colonial government sought to control the pricing and selling of food, Pelewura led women against what became known as the Pullen Price Control Scheme after A. P. Pullen, the government official who proposed it. Nigerian women led many other movements as well, including the Oil Mill Protests of the 1940s and the Tax Revolt in Aba and Onitsha in 1956. Although instigated by harsh economic conditions, these revolts were ultimately uprisings against the impositions of colonial, imperialist rule.
The film Sweet Crude, directed by Sandi Cioffi, tells of a more recent women-led protest against Chevron Oil in 2002, when massive, peaceful sit-ins staged by women prevented oil workers from leaving their worksite.
Nigeria may be geographically far from the United States, but we live in an interconnected world. Because Nigeria is a major U.S. oil supplier, political unrest in Africa’s most populous nation could result in price increases at American gas pumps, which would be at best an annoyance and at worst a hardship. There’s another way to look at it, however: Maybe a few cents rise in the cost of gas is a small price for Americans to pay for economic and social justice in Nigeria.
Foreign Policy In Focus columnist Kwei Quartey was born in Ghana and raised by an African American mother and a Ghanaian father, both of whom were university lecturers. He lives in Pasadena, California where he runs a wound care clinic and is the lead physician at an urgent care center. He is the author of two novels, Wife of the Gods and Children of the Street, with Murder at Cape Three Points due out this year.