January 10th, 2012
03:40 PM ET

Is a 'Nigerian Spring' next?

Editor's Note: Gordon Bottomley and Marina Grushin are Associates at Ergo, a global intelligence and advisory firm. Follow Ergo on Twitter.

By Gordon Bottomley and Marina Grushin  – Special to CNN

Is Nigeria headed for an Arab Spring-like uprising?

After a turbulent year that saw the collapse of regimes in Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya, fears are mounting that the government of Africa’s most populous nation is at risk of being the first to fall in 2012 - and the first outside the MENA region. Two issues are currently intensifying these fears: mounting civil unrest over the removal of a long-standing subsidy on petroleum products, and a sustained insurgency led by radical Islamist terrorists

Threats to Stability

Since mid-summer, Nigeria has struggled to counter the insurgency waged by Boko Haram, an Islamist sect that wants sharia law applied throughout the country. In August, Boko Haram shocked the international community with its successful suicide bombing (only the second ever in the country’s history) of the United Nations headquarters in Abuja, Nigeria’s capital, raising fears in the West that Nigeria is poised to become the next front of the global war on terror.

Despite a significant increase in security measures - including house-to-house searches for weapons in some cities - bomb blasts and gun battles persist in Nigeria’s north. The insurgency shows little signs of abating: since the U.N. bombing, the group has carried out near-daily operations, robbing banks, bombing government buildings and offices, and assassinating political elites. On Christmas Day, Boko Haram set off bombs in two churches, leading President Goodluck Jonathan to declare a state of emergency in the north of Nigeria, the group’s base of operations.

Against this already turbulent backdrop, Jonathan has done away with a long-standing subsidy that for decades kept fuel prices artificially low. The announcement - which came just days after Boko Haram’s Christmas Day attacks - sparked immediate backlash, only adding to the president’s security woes.

In a matter of days, fuel prices skyrocketed, increasing by as much as 116%. Nigerians, the majority of whom live on less than two dollars a day, are now unable to afford fuel for cooking or transportation. Thousands of demonstrators have already flooded the streets, and labor strikes have all but shut down economic activity in major cities.

A Nigerian Spring?

Will terrorism and civil unrest be catalysts that send Nigeria the way of Egypt, Libya, or Tunisia?

There is little reason to expect Boko Haram’s activity to bring down the government in Abuja. The sect lacks unified leadership and does not enjoy enough popular support to pose an existential threat to the Nigerian government.

Boko Haram’s regular bank robberies also suggest that they currently lack a steady stream of financing - a necessity for an effective, sustained insurgency. That is not to minimize the threat; Nigeria could fast become a country, like Yemen or Somalia, that is unable to deal with its insurgent elements. Nonetheless, the group’s tactics and radical ideology have alienated large swaths of Nigeria’s population, not only among the Christians and government entities they often target, but among prominent northern Muslims and political elites as well.

But if Boko Haram and its sympathizers represent only a subset of Nigeria’s population, the removal of the fuel subsidy has elicited outrage nationwide. Indeed, the civil unrest sparked by rising fuel prices now poses a substantial and immediate threat to Nigeria’s stability.

Few issues have as much power to unite Nigerians, largely because many view cheap fuel as their sole benefit from the country’s oil wealth, the majority of which is spent on government salaries and patronage politics, instead of infrastructure development and social services. In a country with hundreds of distinct ethnic groups and little sense of national identity, citizens rarely rally around a common cause. The sudden inability to procure fuel for basic needs such as transportation, however, has inspired Nigerians of all stripes to take to the streets en masse.

Protesters do not seek to overthrow the Goodluck Jonathan administration (not yet anyway), but they are aggressively calling for reinstatement of the fuel subsidy. For the time being, Jonathan is unlikely to acquiesce. He still enjoys the full support of Nigeria’s 36 highly influential governors, all of whom back the subsidy removal. Moreover, reinstating the subsidy would discredit the president’s administration, which has pledged to return fiscal discipline to the country.

There are indeed strong economic reasons for removing the subsidy, which cost the Nigerian government more than $8 billion last year. The government has pledged to put the money saved towards infrastructure projects and development programs. However, citizens worry that the subsidy removal will only line the pockets of Nigeria’s venal politicians, who have a history of using state funds for personal gain, rather than economic development. With labor strikes and demonstrations continuing nationwide, a standoff is emerging between frustrated citizens and the federal government.

If Jonathan is to retain control of the population without reneging on policy, he will need to demonstrate his commitment to improving the country’s dismal socio-economic conditions. The president’s announcement Saturday that he will cut the inflated pay of civil servants and create 370,000 jobs for Nigerian youths is a start - albeit a negligible one in a country with over 60 million unemployed young men and women (according to the country’s Youth Minister). Disillusioned Nigerians are rightly skeptical of the president’s promises. Additional tangible improvements are needed to ease the growing tensions and prevent sustained instability.

Nigerians suffer from many of the underlying socio-economic problems that helped to bring about regime change in the Middle East and North Africa. Thus far, Nigeria has escaped a similar fate. But the Nigerian government’s window of opportunity to deal with staggering socio-economic disparity and unemployment is growing smaller by the day. Jonathan is pinning his hopes on his administration’s ability to wait out the current storm. But if these underlying issues are left unaddressed, the removal of the fuel subsidy may prove to be a watershed event for the Nigerian state.


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