Nigeria's double trouble: nationwide fuel strike and 'ban' on Christians

Attacks by Islamist group Boko Haram are 'worse than civil war' of 1960s, Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan says, but a nationwide fuel strike sparked by a cut in subsidies presents him with his toughest challenge.

Sunday Alamba/AP
People protest following the removal of a fuel subsidy by the Nigerian government in Lagos, Jan. 9. Labor unions began a paralyzing national strike Monday in oil-rich Nigeria, angered by soaring fuel prices and decades of engrained government corruption in Africa's most populous nation.

With terrorist attacks against Christians in the north by an apparent Islamist militant group and the beginning of a nationwide protest against soaring fuel prices, Nigeria’s President Goodluck Jonathan is faced with a double challenge.

President Jonathan declared a state of emergency last week after the Islamist militant group Boko Haram killed some 29 people in the northern state of Adamawa (click for map). More than 500 people have been killed by Boko Haram – whose name means “Western education is a sin” – in the past year. But equally dangerous is the possibility of nationwide strikes called by labor unions and a nebulous “Occupy Nigeria” movement after Jonathan’s Jan. 1 decision to remove a government fuel subsidy paid to fuel importers.

Most of Nigeria’s 150 million citizens survive on less than $2 a day, and the removal of the subsidy will have the effect of instantly raising the cost of a liter of gasoline from 41 cents to 89 cents. Nigeria is Africa’s largest oil-producing nation, but because its refineries have not been well maintained, Nigeria imports more than 75 percent of its fuel from outside the country.

In a televised speech, quoted by Nigeria’s Vanguard newspaper, Jonathan said he understood the anger of citizens over the cut in the fuel subsidy, but said the step was necessary, since the subsidy absorbs nearly 25 percent of the country’s yearly budget.

“If I were not here to lead the process of national renewal, if I were in your shoes at this moment, I probably would have reacted in the same manner as some of our compatriots, or hold the same critical views about government…. My fellow Nigerians, the truth is … either we deregulate and survive economically, or we continue with a subsidy regime that will continue to undermine our economy and potential for growth, and face serious consequences,” Jonathan said.

As for the religious violence of Boko Haram, Jonathan told citizens in a televised address that the Boko Haram attacks are "worse than the civil war" of the 1960s. "During the civil war, we knew and we could even predict where the enemy was coming from," he said. "But the challenge we have today is more complicated."

Fuel-subsidy protests thus far have been mostly peaceful, but there are unconfirmed reports that the Lagos police department’s Rapid Response Force reportedly killed one protester in the Ogba area of Lagos. In Abuja, protesters pushed their way through a police cordon during a protest march.

In a declaration reputed to have been released by “Occupy Nigeria,” protesters asked why the government chose to cut the subsidy and impose hardship on ordinary Nigerians, rather than going after the corrupt Nigerian bureaucrats and political leaders who had allowed the oil-refining sector to become dilapidated in the first place.

“If the Federal Government honestly intended to raise funds for development, would it not have cut its own excessive spending? From the Legislative arm to the Executive, their salaries are even higher than that of developed countries, their allowances are ridiculous and looks like figures picked out from a science-fiction movie. Could they not have cut down on their own cost? From food allowances to travel, to clothing to even Newspapers? The only answer is that our Government is selfish and cares only for itself, the Government has failed in the implementation of the budget throughout its existence.”

Prominent Nigerian artists such as playwright Wole Soyinka and novelist Chinua Achebe threw their support behind the protesters with a signed statement, quoted by the Vanguard newspaper over the weekend.

President Jonathan’s decision to remove fuel subsidies in the country at this time was ill-advised. Coming at the advent of the New Year, and barely a week after the gruesome Christmas Day attacks on worshippers, the policy has forced many Nigerian citizens to perceive his leadership as one that is both insensitive and possibly contemptuous of the mood of its people.

We stand with the Nigerian people who are protesting the removal of oil subsidy which has placed an unbearable economic weight on their lives.

Meanwhile, up north, violence continued to take lives as gunmen thought to be from Boko Haram sprayed bullets into a crowd of Christians playing poker in the town of Biu, in the northern state of Borno.

Roman Catholic Cardinal Anthony Olobunmi Okogie in Lagos said in an interview with Vatican Insider website that the violence was not religious per se, but rather an attempt to break up the Nigerian federation for economic gain.

"There is no religious war in Nigeria, but fierce persecution driven by ambitions for power and economic causes," Cardinal Anthony Olobunmi Okogie said in an interview published on the Vatican Insider website. "With true Muslims there are no actual coexistence issues. The terrorists are exploiting religion for the sole purpose of power.  Unfortunately the authorities have obviously failed to  protect Christian citizens of the North.”

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