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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Topics: Nigeria • Oil

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soundoff (79 Responses)
  1. john raymond

    24hrs curfew has been imposed in kaduna state in north-eastern nigeria till further notice.

    January 10, 2012 at 5:03 pm | Reply
    • 100% ETH

      They...will be unleashed soon for dinner.

      January 10, 2012 at 7:01 pm | Reply
  2. j. von hettlingen

    I doubt the unrest in the English speaking Nigeria would spread to its French speaking neighbours – Niger, Benin, Chad and Cameroon, which don't have much in common with Nigeria. Despite its vast resources, it ranks among the most unequal countries in the world, according to the UN. The poverty in the north is in stark contrast to the more developed south. The unrest comes at the same time as a surge in sectarian violence, involving the Islamist militant group Boko Haram.

    January 10, 2012 at 5:28 pm | Reply
  3. Hahahahahahahaha

    Muslim Blacks uprising? Say it ain't so. Hahahahahahahahahaha.

    January 10, 2012 at 10:26 pm | Reply
    • black muslim


      January 22, 2012 at 4:50 am | Reply
  4. Toyin

    The protest were sparked by the removal of fuel subsidy. but the masses now want remove the political subsidy. Kindly take a look @ the 2012 budget online -oops it been taking off by the Government but u can find a copy on http://el-rufai.org/primary-resources/. The government is corrupt imagine spending 1 billion naira on food for d president family. Actually there is no subsidy but petrol tax. what we want is for them to fix the refineries and to stop importing refined crude. fix the rails, fix power and fix the road and other basic infrastructure rather they spend 74% of the budget on allowances and salaries.

    January 11, 2012 at 8:19 am | Reply
  5. olaade

    Those whose life add up to nothing, the dregs of the society whose existence has been manipulated and destiny destroyed by the cabals are poised to destroy the worthy sons and daughters of our dear fatherland who have labored to build legacies , we won't fold our hand and see this happen, we shall seek help where-ever; divine intervention, Israelis technology, American drone. These faceless satanic agents will be destroyed by the Power of the Holy Ghost and the goodwill of the Nigerian people.

    January 11, 2012 at 8:43 am | Reply
  6. Toyin

    for a clear view see a the view of an informed analyst. Let us briefly examine the origins of the fuel subsidy, and the carnage of catastrophy that has followed. We discovered oil in the southern part of Nigeria and sited refineries in Warri, Port Harcourt and Kaduna. In typical Nigerian style, our refineries were left to deteriorate while Turn Around Maintenance contracts were constantly awarded to incompetent firms.

    January 11, 2012 at 8:44 am | Reply

    Which Way Nigeria? Is the labours of our heros becoming in vain. I personally support of the oil subsidy and please let Nigerians give it chance to work if as outlined by Fin. Minister. Let us focuss on the part of growth and sustable economy.

    It is clear that Mr. present had stepped on the toes of Dangerous Evils Doers in Nigeria whose aim is only to enrich themselve at the deterimrnt of the Nation.

    January 11, 2012 at 10:21 am | Reply
    • prince

      I also agree with the removal of the subsidy, however this is not the real issue.... the removal of the subsidy only happens to be the straw that broke the camels back! ... the government should have ensured certain core infrastructures were in place before the removal of the subsidy! the question Nigerians are asking is this: What happens to the money the government saves from the removal of the subsidy?.... we shouldn't even be in this mess in the first place..... we are here because the government squandered and embezzled public funds... who is to say they wont do the same with the money saved from the subsidy removal! that is the anger of the Nigerian people.

      January 12, 2012 at 11:21 am | Reply
  8. Peter62

    I leaving in Nigeria by years and I tell that Nigerian have full right for protesting. I suppose this was happen already time ago but, probably now is the right time. Unfortunately the President did the wrong thing in the wrong time. What next? No one can tell what will happen but Nigerian are tired of corruption and political class that not do nothing for this Country!

    January 11, 2012 at 11:11 am | Reply
  9. Adeboye Adekunle

    Nigeria is not going the path the western world thinks we are going, the U.S has predicted that our country would divide by 2015 and are working all possible means to achieve this but i can assure them that they ve failed from the scripts they ve written.

    January 11, 2012 at 11:26 am | Reply
  10. Tina Alouka

    The people have a unique opportunity to demand a change to how they are being governed! Profligacy in government is being challenged by the #occupynigeria movement! The same 8Bn Dollars being used to subsidize 150m people is being paid as allowances to the National Assembly! Who should then sacrifice most? The people or the elected few feeding fat at the expense of the average Nigerian! No More we say as this struggle is no more alone about fuel subsidy but a reduction on the drain on our resources by those we elected to serve us!

    January 11, 2012 at 2:45 pm | Reply
  11. Martin

    The Government took away a subsidy on already cheap fuel and this was the spark that will likely ignite a revolution?

    Nigeria's resources have been mismanaged for years, I wonder what makes this particular instance any different?

    January 11, 2012 at 5:32 pm | Reply
    • Sonate

      Please take note that the word 'cheap' was used here in context. In context to what other non oil-producing countries pay. The masses already can't afford much and the political elite have been raiding our coffers for a long time. Taking away the only thing that helps us manage our everyday life is like adding salt to injury. That, my friend, is what's so different about this particular instance.

      January 12, 2012 at 6:19 pm | Reply
  12. sam

    a country were the president budgeted $18000 for food a day for his family when many nigerian goea nite without food and no wellfare or foodstamp. senators get $135,000 a month while 70% live on $109 min wage a month shows how inhuman the problem is.. its not subsidy.. but poor been asked to subsidize the rich GOV officials....

    January 11, 2012 at 6:35 pm | Reply
  13. sdfgh


    Who cares what happens in Nigeria?

    January 11, 2012 at 6:48 pm | Reply
    • prince

      sdfgh.... oh you should care what happens in the worlds 8th largest exporter of oil.... because civil unrest would lead to a decline or even a halt in oil production in nigeria... the world price of oil would shoot through the roof, and you will NOT be able to afford petrol or "gas" for your cars..... your govt may have to come in to help subsidise. thats more expenditure that could go towards healthcare or education in your country! ... bottom line!! you should care because i know your government does!

      January 12, 2012 at 11:01 am | Reply
      • sdfgh

        When my email boxes are not filled with Nigerian 419 scams every day, then I might care what happens in Nigeria. Personally, I hope that country starves to death. But if they have oil. the US will kiss their a$$. Not me.

        January 12, 2012 at 6:33 pm |
    • Mr Man

      The world is filled con men. The house market collapse, the financial meltdown that nealy crippled the west . I am sure you have heard maddof. Finally, its two crooks to make it happen. Please go hide your face.

      January 15, 2012 at 9:48 am | Reply
    • charles

      Nigeria and Nigerians do not need pinheads like you to care about them, those that matters do. If you are taken in by such foolish and idiotic requests, then, you deserve it and you got it coming to you anyway 'cos you must have been a bigger fool than the scammers ...

      January 16, 2012 at 2:32 am | Reply
    • OKpa

      Please stop showing the world your ignorance, it will help you a lot. If the world doesn't care about the 8th largest crude oil exporter then I doubt if you will be able to pay for gas by next winter.

      January 23, 2012 at 7:58 am | Reply
  14. Dr pepper

    Damn, and I just shipped off that computer that I was selling on Craigslist. That nice Nigerian man actually paid more then I was asking for it. I kindly sent him the difference though western union.

    January 11, 2012 at 9:03 pm | Reply
  15. Day Lay

    The claim by the authors of the articles that the 36 governors "backed" the removal of the fuel subsidy underscores a grievous lack of understanding of the Nigeria political system. "Acquiesce" is not even an accurate word to describe the governors' position. They are victims of blackmail (and greed, to some extent). The political system in Nigeria allows the Federal Government to starve states of funds. Thus, it will be a political suicide for any governor to openly and boldy oppose the Federal Government after the President has been clear that he is staking a lot on his unwise and stubborn determinatinon to swiftly and suddenly remove the fuel subsidy.

    There is ample evidence that the Governors have not out of their own volition backed this charade. Granted that some of the fuel subsidy money could have been dangled before their eyes, which many will find irresistible, most of them are also smart enough to know that the people will be opposed: even a half dumb governor knows enough to avoid an eager friendship with an unpopular government stubborn and suicidal enough to make the people mad.

    Win or lose this battle, Jonathan is mortally wounded and will at best lame through his tenure; from its inception this government has shown little vision, courage or resolve. Now, some of his closest political associates would have smell blood, and will only keep in him power in a weakened state which will allow them to do whatever they want. In effect, Nigerian is already in the same position it found itself when Yar Adua was flown back to Nigeria, moribund and the state machinery in the hands of a few sinister individuals. Corruption will get worse, and there will now be common and potent trigger for the people to get back to the street in protest. Here lies the promised transformation. Dead!

    January 11, 2012 at 10:00 pm | Reply
    • prince

      very well said Day Lay

      January 12, 2012 at 11:14 am | Reply
  16. Sanjay

    Are you guys just completely stupid? Could the authors of this article even point to Nigeria on a Map?? Do you have any idea about anything Nigerian? Ridiculous that you can even dream this stuff.

    January 12, 2012 at 12:17 am | Reply
  17. Wazobia 1776

    President Goodluck and his advisors should be ashamed of themselves. The removal of the ANY subsidy should start with the President and legislature's food allowance. Minister Okonjo-Iwuala should not put her personal interest before country, by threatening to resign if the fuel subsidy is removed . Who does she think she is? Good is a weak President. The poor masses of Nigeria should NEVER ! NEVER !! NEVER !!! GIVE UP.

    January 12, 2012 at 12:27 am | Reply
  18. Aryan

    A "Nigerian Spring"? What would that entail, endless Western aid?

    January 12, 2012 at 12:45 am | Reply
    • prince

      not necessarily.... what it will entail is a sky rocketing of oil prices.... Nigeria is the 8Th largest oil producing country... it is unfortunate that due to corruption the vast wealth has been mismanaged.... truth is foreign oil companies make a lot more money off the wealth of Nigeria than your government could dream of giving in 'aid' ...... you may rest easy... NIGERIA DOES NOT NEED YOUR MONEY...... however your economy would take a serious hit if The Nigerian economy collapses!

      January 12, 2012 at 11:11 am | Reply
  19. ditto

    My Nigerian friends always seem sad when they talk about the way it is at home. The oil companies didn't introduce bribery and corruption to Nigeria, they just took it to a whole new level. Once a politician/businessman goes down that road he isn't likely to look back. It's not that the individual problems can't be solved, there are just so many, and good intentions aren't much without strong resolve.

    January 12, 2012 at 2:05 am | Reply
  20. Don Little

    My wife is an American citizen that can not get out of Nigeria, because DELTA is canceling flights on a daily basis. Why can't the United States help me get my wife back to her family?

    January 12, 2012 at 6:52 am | Reply
  21. Nneka Chichi

    An arab spring is possible if Goodluck does not come out to address us by Friday. We are tired of corruption in this country.If the government is sincere about this subsidy issue, she should have put things in place (such as the mass transit scheme,ensure the refineries are working,railwaysystem etc) atleast 1 year before removing the subsidy.

    January 12, 2012 at 9:08 am | Reply
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