Response to Ethan Zuckerman on “Occupy Nigeria”

On January 1st, the Federal Government of Nigeria removed its subsidy on petroleum products. The price of fuel rose almost immediately from 65 Naira to at least 140 Naira, though I have heard the price hit over 250 Naira in some places. The removal of the fuel subsidy has unleashed mass popular anger, resulting in protests in different cities and plans for an indefinite national strike, which begins tomorrow.

The protests and the fuel subsidy controversy have generated a number of analyses. CNN, the BBC, and Think Africa Press have nice overviews of the situation.

The analysis that caught my eye though, was by Ethan Zuckerman, who directs the Center for Civic Media at MIT and is a renowned blogger. Although I have great respect for Zuckerman’s writing, in his piece on Nigeria he makes two arguments that I disagree with.

The first is that removing the fuel subsidy was a good decision. Zuckerman argues that the expense of the subsidy is a crippling burden on the government’s budget, and that the money would be better spent on building infrastructure. Zuckerman is, however, aware of some arguments against removal. He notes,

Given the history of corruption in the Nigerian government, it’s not hard to understand why many Nigerians are skeptical that the monies released from the subsidy will go anywhere other than in politicians’ pockets,

but he also says,

It’s possible to imagine a Nigeria where imported petroleum products were less necessary, if the country had functioning rail systems, a reliable power grid minimizing the need for generators, and refineries that could produce diesel and gasoline locally.

Zuckerman’s second argument is that the demands of the Nigerian protesters are out of sync with the broader global “Occupy” movement. Zuckerman writes:

I’m interested to see Nigerian take on some of the rhetoric and tactics of the Occupy movement, including the occupation of a public square in Kano. I’ll be intrigued to see whether any of the global energy over Occupy goes to support the Nigerian protesters. The irony, I fear, is that while the global occupy movement seeks to equalize income disparities and fight government corruption, the Nigerian movement [by this I think Zuckerman means the Jonathan administration – Alex] is currently pursuing radical and important reforms, and the Occupy Nigeria protesters are fighting against that change. Read one way, Occupy Nigeria is a conservative movement fighting to keep a dysfunctional status quo in place, which seems at odds with other branches of the movement.

I disagree with both arguments and I find their pairing strange. I also reject the premise of the second argument. I do not believe that just because some Nigerian activists “take on the rhetoric and tactics of the Occupy movement,” that makes the current protests a “branch” of the movement. The protest organizers and the controversy itself predate Occupy. Nor do I believe the politics of the fuel subsidy protests should be judged according to how they measure against goals of protesters in the United States and Europe. Nor, finally, do I believe that the fuel subsidy protests are “reactionary” or “conservative.”

In any case, is protesting the removal of a fuel subsidy really out of line with Occupy’s goals? I am not a member of the Occupy movement, but I thought one of its underlying values was to support the welfare of the “99%” over interests and policies that favor the “1%.” Yet the voices Zuckerman cites in support of fuel subsidy removal are those of the International Monetary Fund and some of the most powerful ministers in the Federal Government of Nigeria – these are voices more likely to speak for the 1% than the 99%, no? Contrast this with the voices speaking out against subsidy removal: labor unions, civil society organizations like the Nigerian Bar Association, students’ organizations, etc. These are more likely to represent the 99%, yes?

One could of course make the argument that the 99% don’t recognize their own true interests, and that the short-term pain they feel now is necessary for their long-term prosperity. But that sounds suspiciously like the arguments for austerity that have been invoked by the 1% around the world to justify slashing pensions, firing government employees, and other measures that always seem to add up to a lot of pain, but never seem to bring that promised shared prosperity for the 99%.

So will the removal of the fuel subsidy help or hurt the 99% in Nigeria? So far, the answer is that it is hurting them. The price of fuel has more than doubled, and has already begun to push the prices of other goods, especially food, upwards. People are struggling to get to work, to buy food, to put fuel in their generators at home and in their shops. The political uncertainty generated by removal, moreover, adds to an existing climate of tension and insecurity given ongoing religious violence in various parts of the country. If next week’s strike turns violent, it will most likely be members of the 99% who are injured or killed. Fuel subsidy removal has so far made life more costly, and less secure, for ordinary Nigerians.

Now, what about the future? What about the promised benefits of removing the subsidy? I agree with Zuckerman that the money could be invested into infrastructure and a broader transformation of Nigeria. But Zuckerman has no answer for Nigerians’ pessimism that the money will go to public goods instead of private enrichment. Zuckerman notes that there is corruption involved with the subsidy – but removing the subsidy is not guaranteed to end corruption, and could simply shift it elsewhere.

Nigerians’ pessimism seems justified to me. If we trace the latest round of the fuel subsidy debate back to last year, it really got going around the time that the Federal Government began insisting that state governments begin paying a newly passed minimum wage. Governors protested to the Federal Government that they could not afford to pay the new wage, and the idea of removing the fuel subsidy (re) surfaced, as a proposal to free up money (a related proposal was to increase the share of oil revenues that states received, in order to help them pay the minimum wage). Now it’s a new year, and the subsidy is gone, but some states are still being accused of dragging their feet on paying the minimum wage. If the promises of the past have not come true, how can ordinary Nigerians be expected to have faith that the money saved by removing the subsidy will benefit them? Moreover, if removing the fuel subsidy is a good and/or necessary step, why could it not be done gradually, so as to minimize the shock to people’s wallets and to the overall economy?

The fuel subsidy debate in Nigeria touches on core issues of government’s relationship with the people and of ordinary people’s struggles to survive in one of the world’s most politically turbulent countries. Political struggles over the subsidy predate the Occupy movement by decades, and even if the current protests are partly influenced by Occupy, or by the Arab revolutions, that does not mean that Nigeria’s protests have become merely one “branch” of a global phenomenon. Rather they are deeply rooted in histories and politics that are particular to Nigeria. The merits of removing the subsidy deserve to be judged according to how the decision affects the Nigerian people, not according to a supposedly universal political spectrum designed by activists elsewhere. And if there is a universal set of values to be invoked concerning the interests of the world’s 99%, the 99% in Nigeria seem to be speaking solidly in favor of keeping the subsidy.