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Nigeria’s Arab Spring? - Fuel Subsidy Cuts Spur Protests

Posted: Jan 12, 2012

WASHINGTON – As Occupy protests continue across the country, members of the Nigerian-American community rallied Monday in front of the World Bank headquarters to voice opposition to the Nigerian government’s cuts to domestic fuel subsidies. The repeal of subsidies to oil companies that went into effect on Jan. 1 has caused the price of fuel at the pump to more than double to $3.50 a gallon, placing a disproportionate burden on the poor.

Massive protests have rocked Nigeria since the subsidy cuts, with thousands of people demonstrating, an outpouring reminiscent of popular protests in Tunisia and Egypt. Thousands of miles away, fellow countrymen and allies in America are also supporting the protestors back home.

Shouts of “enough is enough” and “solidarity” by protesters punctuated the moments between speakers at the World Bank entrance in Washington D.C., where a contingent of security officers was hastily deployed to contain the small but very vocal crowd of approximately 75 participants.

Victoria Tairu, related on her mother’s side to Babatunde Raji Fashole, the governor of Lagos State, was unabashed to be part of the demonstration. Born in America to Nigerian parents and now living in Prince George’s County, MD, neighboring the nation’s capital, she said she was participating in the protest because “I really want to help directly my cousins and family back in Nigeria.”

Holding a sign, “No Fuel Price Hikes in Nigeria,” Tairu said she hoped her message would reach “the right seats and the right political positions” and lead to the reinstatement of the subsidy, as well as letting the Nigeria people know they are not alone. “That’s my family; that’s my blood.”

Tairu said members of her Nigerian church in Prince George’s County “stay well connected” to friends and relatives in Nigeria through frequent visits to the country and Facebook. Through her informal monitoring of Facebook posts, she has concluded that any popularity the Nigerian president enjoyed has eroded.

Attendees and speakers at the Occupy Nigeria protest accused and Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan of following World Bank and International Monetary Fund recommendations on allowing fuel subsidies to lapse.

The Nigerian ambassador’s office in the United States referred inquiries about subsidies to a news article on the embassy website. “The Minister of Petroleum Resources, Mrs. Diezani Alison-Madueke,” the article reads, “has enumerated the benefits of subsidy removal to Nigerians and the economy. The minister said the discontinuation of fuel subsidy is because it poses a huge financial burden on the government, disproportionately benefits the wealthy, encourages inefficiency, corruption and diversion of scarce public resources away from investment in critical infrastructure.”

The repeal of the fuel subsidies is expected to save the government an estimated $8 billion annually.
Folabi Olagbaju, of Amnesty International, a speaker at the protest, said the subsidy cut was, “a very rude New Year present for Nigerians,” particularly, as he and others noted that the majority of the country’s over 155 million people live on less than two dollars a day.

He urged the Nigerian government to restrain from using violence on protestors. Already there have been reports in the Nigerian press of the deaths of and injuries to protesters as police seek aggressively to quell demonstrations numbering in the thousands in some cities, bringing normal day-to-day activities to a standstill.

The Washington protest was timed to coincide with the beginning of a general strike in Nigeria called for last week by the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) and the Trade Union Congress (TUC) -- if the Nigerian government left the subsidy cuts in place.

A NLC statement read at the rally said, “This action was [taken] without adequate consultation and without regard for the well being of the Nigerian people and will adversely affect the working class in our country. It is precisely because the policy prescriptions of the World Bank and IMF are swallowed whole by our government without regard for the socio-economic impacts on our people that we find ourselves in this situation today.”

A statement by a World Bank spokesman did not address policy recommendations. “We strongly support people's right to make their voices heard. Ultimately, the Nigerian government and its citizens must determine how Nigeria's resources are spent to achieve significantly less poverty and more opportunity for all.”

Since Monday, the major oil workers union in Nigeria also has threatened to initiate a work slowdown on Jan. 15 in order to force the government to reinstate the subsidy. As Nigeria, the fifth largest supplier of crude oil to the United States, depends on oil exports for an estimated 80 percent of its revenue, any major curtailment of oil production would most likely have adverse consequences for its economy.
Despite the oil wealth, most Nigerians typically experience an unreliable electrical power supply, with most people and businesses relying on gas-powered generators.

Michael Leslie, of the AFL-CIO’s American Center for International Labor Solidarity, who attended the Washington protest, explained that the removal of subsidies dips not only into the pockets of the poor for transportation, but across class lines and into the operating costs of entrepreneurs as well as small and large businesses which rely on gas-powered generators when, with regularity, blackouts occur. Leslie said data would likely show that Nigerians purchase more gas-powered generators than any other country in Africa.

Though Nigeria’s government says it plans to reinvest the savings from the fuel subsidy cuts into infrastructure improvements, Leslie said few Nigerians have confidence that revenue saved will be used for that purpose, because of rampant corruption.

“Nigerians have heard this before; nothing has happened. They’re angry,” Leslie said.
Omoyele Sowore, of Sahara Reporters, an online news source of Nigerian-American perspectives, agreed, but cautioned against miscasting the protests as “merely a demand for a welfare state.” He noted, for example, that U.S. oil companies receive similar subsidies from Washington that help cushion fuel costs for consumers.

Alafaka Opuiyo, a Nigerian-American and a former journalist who donated her public relation skills to promote the rally, said she also plans to attend Friday’s march at the International Monetary Fund. Eyeing the crowd gathered at the World Bank, Opuiyo said, “I expect there will be a larger protest at the IMF. We’re just beginning.”

Photo courtesy of Sahara Reporters

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