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. banki

    i told you Nigerian people not to vote for this thieves.

    January 12, 2012 at 9:33 am | Reply
  2. Bola

    You have not given an accurate description of what is really going on in Nigeria. The reason for the protests, is the Youth resistance to the unfeeling, uncaring policies of the Govt who literally over night on New Year Day to be precise, fresh on the heels of Christmas Day bombings, removed fuel subsidy (the only welfare we receive from the Govt) causing wide spread inflation and doubling prices of thgs evrywhere. Mind you this is a nation that is run on generators so fuel, petrol is literally the life's blood of the nation.. meanwhile the Govt Fat Cat most notable the Ministers Petroleum and Ministers of Finance, have Senators and House of Rep members have earn millions monthly at the expense of the average Nigerian who lives on less than two dollars a day!! Each lawmaker will cost Nigerians (N320million) $2.1million a year! Why can't they take pay cuts? Why expect us alone to do so? This standoff has got nothing to do with religious crisis as you guys will have people believe. It about justice, its about accountability its about transparency! Long live the Federal Republic of Nigeria (and rid it of its blood suckers!)

    January 12, 2012 at 11:28 am | Reply
  3. Ola

    I said it a while ago that when enough is enough Nigerians will fight back. Maybe it's time for us to be delivered from the thieves that put themselves in office through election rigging. While we blame the leadership, the majority of the problem is with the followers. Wise up o O you foolish Nigerians! Who has bewitched you? I pray that God will have mercy on us.

    January 12, 2012 at 6:35 pm | Reply
  4. fatai

    This is d time 4 nigerians 2 stand up and say no 2 all the mess the govt. Is doing.I appeal 2 all nigerians not 2 give up , and do the fight once and 4 all in order 2 save our generation and d generation yet on born. As 4 d govt. They should respect d voice of millions of nigerian people and revert back 2 65.

    January 12, 2012 at 10:50 pm | Reply
  5. desert voice (troubledgoodangel or Nathanael or Bohdan or Voiceinthedesert)

    The way I see it, good luck is quickly evaporating for Good Luck Jonathan. To govern, you need wise counselors, which he obviously is lacking. here is my counsel, for free this time: retain 4 billion in subsidies. Use the remaining 4 billions to create jobs! Get yourself endeared to the unions, by showering them with jobs. See how this works. If it does, make it parmanent.

    January 13, 2012 at 4:29 pm | Reply
  6. Nonso Smith

    How can Africas biggest oil producer be one of the poorest, this is the time for a revolution, this guys are taking us for a ride, they see us as idiots and cowards but we need to let them know that power must change hands, we need to arise and flush out this group of guys that are sinking this country to poverty. How i wish we can find a way of being armed like the Libyans we would march on the streets of Nigeria erradicating and flushing out this guys for good. JUST A STRIKE WILL NOT HELP US, WE ARE NOT BEGGING FOR OUR RIGHT, NIGERIA BELONGS TO ALL OF US. WE MUST DEMAND OUR RIGHTS

    January 14, 2012 at 5:00 pm | Reply
    • Mr Man

      Hello Nonso Smith

      It's true this corruption in Nigeria with the way funds are managed. We all have to be realistic and not compare Nigeria with other Oil prodcuing countries that seems to be "very rich". Nigeria has 150 million people. I do believe that if nigeria has 25 million, a lot of that wealth will get around. I am just saying.

      January 15, 2012 at 9:52 am | Reply
    • lar

      armed like d libyans? and d nigerian army are jst going 2 let u do dat? they may not jst pee on u lik d US m. or toss u in d ocean lik bin la. they can also do d mass grave tin u kno lik in d past or jst shred u wit bullets. I may not kno u dude, but i think yo mama still luvs u!

      January 16, 2012 at 8:26 pm | Reply

    Whether they call themselves Nigerians, Americans or Greeks, the members of the 1% seem to have only one "solution" for dealing with economic problems, initiate policies which protect their wealth at any cost while simultaneously initiating other policies which punish those who are already suffering, mainly those in the poor and the working classes. Nigerians are right to be skeptical of government claims that "it will be different this time". Successive Nigerian governments have had decades to in which to begin dealing with providing basic services. There is no excuse for the relative lack of infrastructure in a nation which has the human and natural resources that modern Nigeria has. A tropical nation which has as much oil and gas as Nigeria has should, at the very least, be totally energy indepedent with a modern energy grid backed up by individual solar power systems for businesses, schools and homes. An enlightened government would have taken the time to meet with regional leaders and local leaders to create long term plans to uplift all of the country, instead of unilaterally and instantaneously doubling peoples cost of living.

    January 15, 2012 at 6:11 pm | Reply
  8. Ade

    Kind of baffling when the writer compares any potential uprising in Nigeria to Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia. In case you don't know, Nigeria is a democratic country, unlike those countries where there had been uprising. They former presidents in Egypt, Libya,and Tunisia each ruled their countries for more than 30 years! Why would the Nigerian people demand a regime change when they just voted for the President less than a year ago? You can write about a potential breakaway of some Nigerian regions, but please don't compare Nigerian issues with those of the middle eastern countries. Stop misleading your readers with your shallow ideas of Nigerian problems.

    January 15, 2012 at 7:10 pm | Reply
  9. Lukman

    Jona satan badluck are killing our country god help us.

    January 16, 2012 at 1:48 am | Reply
  10. koolng

    To say your piece is annoying is just been polite. Nigeria should not be described by your libya,tunisia,Egypt.Only God knows the Future of Nigeria and its a gooood one so keep your shallow thoughts to yourself subsidy removal is one of the best. Things to happen in Nigeria and sooner than later my country men and women will accept it.a reduction in subdsidy just goes to show you that GEJ is not a dictator or tyrant

    January 16, 2012 at 3:47 am | Reply
  11. larry

    Is a'Nigerian Spring'next? regime change? Ha.. that's almost stupid. Nigerians have d opportunity 2 change their leaders in every 4 yrs & an 8yrs max. term in office. that, u will agree with me d arabs never had.

    January 16, 2012 at 7:45 pm | Reply
    • Osarenren Ihaza

      You are so right, Larry. The Arabs never had a chance for change.

      February 4, 2012 at 3:47 pm | Reply
  12. Stephen lonewolf makama

    Aw come on...this here script won't cut it.
    Thanx Larry.
    Sorry Gordon + Marina, next year's Pulitzer?

    January 17, 2012 at 12:31 pm | Reply
  13. Aristocles

    There is no way Boko Haram can win; one of its beliefs is that rain doesn't come from evaporated water, for crying out loud. They are little more than a street gang with bombs, most of their victims are Muslims living in the north of Nigeria, and they have been unable to stop Christians from gaining millions of converts and pressing the Christian-Muslim line ever farther north. A century ago, there were very few Christians in Nigeria, save for a few coastal enclaves; most of today's Nigerian Christians' families were either Muslims or followers of an indigenous African faith. Give it another few decades and Nigeria will be clearly a Christian-majority state, and the Sharia law in the northern states of Nigeria will be untenable.

    January 21, 2012 at 6:19 pm | Reply
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