Nigeria has seen the first successful blow struck against neoliberalism in the New Year. After a week of massive nationwide protests met the removal of a key fuel subsidy for consumers, President Goodluck Jonathan backed down — a bit. He reinstated the subsidy partially. That, together with reportedly massive payoffs to union leaders, persuaded labor to cancel the strike.
The compromise was far from perfect. Dropping the subsidy initially more than doubled the price of gasoline, from (US) $0.40 to 0.88 per liter; now the price is teetering at around $0.66. The settlement outraged considerable parts of the protest coalition, including students, who remain committed to opposing neoliberal policies. There’s considerable suspicion in Nigeria that the IMF and World Bank were behind the attempt to scrap the subsidy; IMF head Christine Lagarde visited Abuja in December, allegedly to congratulate Jonathan on his “reform” and anti-corruption initiatives, but more likely to set the terms for allegedly-indigenous structural adjustment efforts. Few believe the government’s retreat means the proposal is in permanent abeyance. Still, a half-victory is a victory. Jonathan, who announced the subsidy removal in a speech declaring, “Let me seize this opportunity to assure all Nigerians that I feel the pains that you all feel,” was made to feel rather more pain than he had banked on. And even the Financial Times acknowledged that for the subsidy’s “removal to be tolerated” in future, “poverty must be alleviated in other ways.”
Attention immediately shifted to the horrific violence inflicted by the Islamist group Boko Haram on northern Nigeria, including coordinated bombings and shootings in Kano on January 20 that killed almost 200 people in one day. Zach Warner, in ThinkAfrica Press, has a fascinating analysis of the group’s rise. He admits that “Communal violence has been a constant for the last three decades, while the mobilisation of faith-based political identities has been a defining feature of Northern Nigeria for centuries.” But in recent decades, Nigeria’s central government has eviscerated traditional Islamic hierarchies and power structures in the North, thinking it was eliminating a base for separatism. At the same time, a shift from Northern-based military leadership to democratically elected governments with their roots in the South has starved the region of resource allocation. The result has been spreading poverty, particularly among the young:
Thus, by the time of … the restoration of civilian rule, centuries-old social and political hierarchies of Islamic power had been completely smashed. Olusegun Obasanjo emerged as the only viable leader of the Fourth Republic, engendering a massive power shift to the south after decades of predominantly northern military rule. Elite Muslims were sent reeling; the Sultan [of Sokoto, still the ostensible religious leader of Nigeria's Muslims] could hardly show his face throughout the region.
Amid such social confusion, young Muslim men again tried to assume their place at the helm of the north. From late 1999 to 2002, twelve states expanded Sharia (Islamic law). Reacting to what they perceived as endemic corruption and moral decay, this crop of younger politicians enunciated a wish to return to Islamic governance outside the strict confines of the emirate structures which they felt were complicit in failed governments and national decline. As John Paden wrote in 2002, the sum effect was a split in Islamic solidarity and “significant confrontations between anti-establishment groups and northern Muslim elites, which in turn, [sic] are causing these elites to reconsider how to strengthen their own politico-religious credentials”.
The resulting alienation is fertile ground for insurgencies.
John Campbell (a former US ambassador) argues that, religion aside, Boko Haram bears conspicuous similarities to the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, which sponsored campaigns of kidnapping and bombing that kept the country’s oil-producing areas on edge from 2006 to 2010. Both are symptoms of a disintegrating rentier state, which lives off the oil revenues it appropriates from a single region of the country, but has never tried to redistribute them evenly or fairly—either among the country’s geographic divisions, or among its social classes. The subsidy protests and the Kano bombings reveal the same rot.
The massive unrest has drawn the public’s eye away from the “Same Sex Marriage (Prohibition) Bill,” a sweeping proposal that would criminalize most aspects of lesbian and gay people’s lives. At some point soon, though, Goodluck Jonathan will have to decide whether to sign it. The recent tumult reveals the underlying motives behind the law—a classic distraction, to unify fissiparous sects and interests around a common bogeyman, and turn disputes away from raw social reality toward imaginary demons.
LGBT rights activists joined the popular protests to retain the fuel subsidy. They took heart from reports that Seun Kuti (popular musician and son of afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti) shouted at a Lagos rally against the move: “When two men fuck each other, it is better than one man fucking the Nation as a whole.” It’s hard for political commentary to top that (as it were). However, I also like the remark of my friend Dorothy Aken’Ova, of the International Centre for Reproductive Health and Sexual Rights, INCRESE: “Nigerians now know what is [really] evil.” One can hope.