Nigerians feel pinch as fuel strikes take a toll

Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan has drawn praise from economists for cutting a costly fuel national subsidy, but citizens have responded with rolling strikes that have shut down cities around the country.

Akintunde Akinleye/Reuters
A protester holds a placard on the second day of a protest against a removal of fuel subsidies in Lagos, Nigeria, Monday. Tens of thousands of Nigerians took to the streets for a second day on Tuesday and many more stayed off work nationwide to try to force President Goodluck Jonathan to rescind a removal of subsidies that has doubled the price of petrol.

Folenke’s food shop, in the heart of Lagos, is nearly empty because she can’t afford to go to the wholesale market to restock the bare shelves.

Tarek Shams, station manager for Egyptian Air at the Murtala Mohammed International Airport, looked shell-shocked as he tried to explain to angry passengers why he had already decided to cancel the flight out of Lagos on Tuesday.

“I can not face tomorrow what I faced today,” he said, explaining that his workers had to have an armed police escort to deliver fuel to the one Egyptian Air flight that landed and departed Lagos on Monday. As the airline workers were transferring fuel, Mr. Shams said, they were greeted by union protesters burning debris in the road. He said union people came to him and told him he should stand with them and not fly today. Domestic flights were cancelled and other airlines such as KLM canceled their Monday evening flights out of Lagos.

Welcome to the brave new world of Nigerian shock-therapy economics. On Jan. 1, the Nigerian government decided to remove fuel subsidies, with President Goodluck Jonathan calling them a "cancer" on the Nigerian economy -- preventing government from spending in other areas, such as building roads, maintaining schools, and keeping the electric power supply running. Economists such as the International Monetary Fund's Christine Lagarde and Harvard economist Jeffrey Sachs have praised the move, but citizens have reacted with a mixture of anger and bewilderment. A series of rolling strikes started Monday, shutting whole cities around the country. 

Though Nigeria is Africa’s largest oil exporter it imports nearly all its fuel because its refineries are in bad repair. To keep fuel prices within the reach of ordinary Nigerians, the government has paid importers the market rate and allowed fuel to be sold to customers at nearly half the cost. But officials say the fuel subsidies, estimated to be about $7 billion each year, were crippling the national budget and siphoning funds needed for roads, schools and other infrastructure.

Less than two weeks after the subsidy removal, its effects are starting to trickle down to the larger economy. Fuel prices skyrocketed from a mere 41 US cents to as much as 94 cents in some areas. It’s a price jump that has turned poor people into protestors and Lagos gas stations into deserted islands as millions of Nigerians took the streets around the country to demonstrate against the government’s decision to no longer help people pay for fuel.

The protests turned many of the roads in Africa’s most populous country into ghost towns, as no one showed up for work. Shops were shuttered, schools were closed, businesses were locked up tight. Meanwhile, near the center of Lagos, thousands joined in morning protests and three people were killed. The protests dissipated after police showed up in riot gear and cautioned people not to destroy property.

The fuel subsidy strike has no end in sight but not all Nigerians are in favor of it, especially small businessmen.

Chukwu Ebka, owns a small auto body parts shop in Lagos but on Monday he was sitting in a chair with his workers reading the newspaper, listening to the radio and watching the roads as no cars went by. He said the government should have removed the subsidy gradually instead of all at once. Then they should have made more people aware; because they didn’t, the protests were called.

“Protesting….I would like them to stop it,” Mr. Ebka said. “It’s not helping matters. It’s not helping. It affects us. I can’t open my shop, I can’t sell anything, no one has been by and it affects my business.”

Samuel, who declined to give his last name, was among a small group of men standing at a deserted bus stop. He said the removal of the fuel subsidy was a good decision. But he questions if it will benefit all Nigerians.

“What Nigerians are calling for is good government,” he said. “We are actually not against the idea of removing the fuel subsidy for the proper reallocation of such funds. But we have heard this story before. They deregulated diesel and I paid more. We’ve had promises from past governments yet we still have a poor educational system, no roads, and no electricity and so on and so forth…these are the issues that should be addressed but they haven’t.”

Does he trust that the extra funds the government will get from eliminating the fuel subsidy will be diverted properly?

“That’s the 1 million Naira question,” he said laughing, “Who do we hold accountable for these new funds? We need transparency. We need to know where this money is going.”

The fuel subsidy protests, organized mostly by Nigeria’s socialist and labor movements, are just the latest hurdle for President’s Goodluck Jonathan’s administration. Over the weekend fresh new attacks by the Islamists group Boko Haram in northern Nigeria has him facing increasing criticism from local Christian leaders who are tired of random acts of terror occurring mostly in northern and central Nigeria.

More than 50 people, most of them Christians, have been killed since Jan. 5. That’s shortly after Boko Haram gave Christians in northern Nigeria a three-day ultimatum to leave or face attacks.

After taking what many consider to be a stance of inevitability about the attacks, President Jonathan has publicly condemned the attacks. Still, northern Nigerians feel he is not doing enough. Many are fleeing the north but domestic travel has been made difficult by the fuel strike.

“What have they done to curtail these activities of these extremists?” said a church leader, who declined to be identified, on his way to church on Jan. 8.  “They are trying to get us to leave, but we were born here, bred here, where else would we go? Nigeria is supposed to be a democratic nation, we should have the freedom to practice our faith with no hindrance, but these attacks keep on unabated. Christians are being attacked and killed innocently without doing any crime just because they are Christians, attacked anytime.”

Despite the recent spate of attacks, church-goers at one church in Jos seemed joyous and unafraid on Sunday. The only inclination that something was different was the metal detector wands that greeted them at the entrance to the church grounds.

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