By Gordon Bottomley and Marina Grushin - Special to CNN, from CNN website, January 11, 2012
Editor's Note: Gordon Bottomley and Marina Grushin are Associates at Ergo, a global intelligence and advisory firm. Follow Ergo on Twitter.
Is Nigeria headed for an Arab Spring-like uprising?
After a turbulent year that saw the collapse of regimes in Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya, fears are mounting that the government of Africa’s most populous nation is at risk of being the first to fall in 2012 - and the first outside the MENA region. Two issues are currently intensifying these fears: mounting civil unrest over the removal of a long-standing subsidy on petroleum products, and a sustained insurgency led by radical Islamist terrorists.
Threats to Stability
Since mid-summer, Nigeria has struggled to counter the insurgency waged by Boko Haram, an Islamist sect that wants sharia law applied throughout the country. In August, Boko Haram shocked the international community with its successful suicide bombing (only the second ever in the country’s history) of the United Nations headquarters in Abuja, Nigeria’s capital, raising fears in the West that Nigeria is poised to become the next front of the global war on terror.
Despite a significant increase in security measures - including house-to-house searches for weapons in some cities - bomb blasts and gun battles persist in Nigeria’s north. The insurgency shows little signs of abating: since the U.N. bombing, the group has carried out near-daily operations, robbing banks, bombing government buildings and offices, and assassinating political elites. On Christmas Day, Boko Haram set off bombs in two churches, leading President Goodluck Jonathan to declare a state of emergency in the north of Nigeria, the group’s base of operations.
Against this already turbulent backdrop, Jonathan has done away with a long-standing subsidy that for decades kept fuel prices artificially low. The announcement - which came just days after Boko Haram’s Christmas Day attacks - sparked immediate backlash, only adding to the president’s security woes.
In a matter of days, fuel prices skyrocketed, increasing by as much as 116%. Nigerians, the majority of whom live on less than two dollars a day, are now unable to afford fuel for cooking or transportation. Thousands of demonstrators have already flooded the streets, and labor strikes have all but shut down economic activity in major cities.
A Nigerian Spring?
Will terrorism and civil unrest be catalysts that send Nigeria the way of Egypt, Libya, or Tunisia?
There is little reason to expect Boko Haram’s activity to bring down the government in Abuja. The sect lacks unified leadership and does not enjoy enough popular support to pose an existential threat to the Nigerian government.
Boko Haram’s regular bank robberies also suggest that they currently lack a steady stream of financing - a necessity for an effective, sustained insurgency. That is not to minimize the threat; Nigeria could fast become a country, like Yemen or Somalia, that is unable to deal with its insurgent elements. Nonetheless, the group’s tactics and radical ideology have alienated large swaths of Nigeria’s population, not only among the Christians and government entities they often target, but among prominent northern Muslims and political elites as well.
But if Boko Haram and its sympathizers represent only a subset of Nigeria’s population, the removal of the fuel subsidy has elicited outrage nationwide. Indeed, the civil unrest sparked by rising fuel prices now poses a substantial and immediate threat to Nigeria’s stability.
Few issues have as much power to unite Nigerians, largely because many view cheap fuel as their sole benefit from the country’s oil wealth, the majority of which is spent on government salaries and patronage politics, instead of infrastructure development and social services. In a country with hundreds of distinct ethnic groups and little sense of national identity, citizens rarely rally around a common cause. The sudden inability to procure fuel for basic needs such as transportation, however, has inspired Nigerians of all stripes to take to the streets en masse.
Protesters do not seek to overthrow the Goodluck Jonathan administration (not yet anyway), but they are aggressively calling for reinstatement of the fuel subsidy. For the time being, Jonathan is unlikely to acquiesce. He still enjoys the full support of Nigeria’s 36 highly influential governors, all of whom back the subsidy removal. Moreover, reinstating the subsidy would discredit the president’s administration, which has pledged to return fiscal discipline to the country.
There are indeed strong economic reasons for removing the subsidy, which cost the Nigerian government more than $8 billion last year. The government has pledged to put the money saved towards infrastructure projects and development programs. However, citizens worry that the subsidy removal will only line the pockets of Nigeria’s venal politicians, who have a history of using state funds for personal gain, rather than economic development. With labor strikes and demonstrations continuing nationwide, a standoff is emerging between frustrated citizens and the federal government.
If Jonathan is to retain control of the population without reneging on policy, he will need to demonstrate his commitment to improving the country’s dismal socio-economic conditions. The president’s announcement Saturday that he will cut the inflated pay of civil servants and create 370,000 jobs for Nigerian youths is a start - albeit a negligible one in a country with over 60 million unemployed young men and women (according to the country’s Youth Minister). Disillusioned Nigerians are rightly skeptical of the president’s promises. Additional tangible improvements are needed to ease the growing tensions and prevent sustained instability.
Nigerians suffer from many of the underlying socio-economic problems that helped to bring about regime change in the Middle East and North Africa. Thus far, Nigeria has escaped a similar fate. But the Nigerian government’s window of opportunity to deal with staggering socio-economic disparity and unemployment is growing smaller by the day. Jonathan is pinning his hopes on his administration’s ability to wait out the current storm. But if these underlying issues are left unaddressed, the removal of the fuel subsidy may prove to be a watershed event for the Nigerian state.
I am certainly no expert on Nigerian issues, their politics, their economics nor the potential future developments in that country. However, it does not take a rocket scientist to wonder out loud how long it will be before Boko Haram will use the petro subsidy issue to garner support among the masses. If there are 60 million unemployed youth in Nigeria, and the majority of people live on $2 a day, and prices of fuel have risen an estimated 116%, it will not be long before the aims of Boko Haram and the needs of the people will somehow converge. Such a convergence will not necessarily bring about a rescinding of the petro subsidy, but it certainly could bring about the demise of the "Goodluck Jonathan" government, in spite of the support of the 36 regional governors.
"Goodluck Jonathan" could easily and soon become "Goodbye Jonathan" without much more provocation...and that would leave a vaccuum...something the terrorists absolutely revere, if they are capable of reverence for anything.
Another thing that deeply disturbs this observer is that while this kind of information is available to the "Main Street" around the world, there does not seem to be a co-ordinated response of the community of nations that could and would seek to sustain responsible policies in Nigeria, while the people suffer, and the government reels from insurgency.
This period in world history is perhap remarkable for bringing together somewhat dangerous elements such as virulent terrorism (of the Islamic radical kind) and instability in economic conditions, especially regarding world oil prices. At the same time, environmentalists reminds us daily that we are suffocating ourselves, albeit slowly, along the lines of the "long-term suicide" of some who plan and execute their own deaths, for example on large, long and structurally eloquent freeways like the Autobahn in Germany.
A global economy dependent on oil, mined, refined and marketed by a cartel of huge companies has the potential leverage to crush the production of that global economy with rapid and dramatic changes in either price or supply, or both.
Governments seem impotent to defend themselves, and their people from such a scenario.
Even linked together in some loose form of alliance (such as the G8 or the G20) those same governments could muster little or no "push back" on such a cabal of companies if and when such a push-back were needed.
A single country, like Nigeria, with its own oil supply, might be able to moderate both prices and government spending, for the long term sustainability of its people, while at the same time, staving off the potential terrorist/citizen uprising, with some long-term vision, a substantial and verifiable plan and the support of the international community. And that means support from more than the OECD, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, although all three would and could be instrumental in such a scheme.
It would seem long past due that the world community of nations would see both the benefits of working together in such potentially explosive situations as the one presented here about Nigeria, and the potential dangers of failing to collaborate.
Yet where is both the appropriate forum and the political will for such a concerted, visionary and potentially beneficial intervention in Nigeria?
There will be more similar if slightly different, situations in the near, medium and more distant future and the world will have to come to terms with such realities sooner or later.