Reyna with the kids in Fiamah, Monrovia, Liberia

Friday, January 13, 2012

Occupy Nigeria

If all goes as planned for the protesters in Nigeria, the whole world will be paying attention to their struggle soon. On Sunday to be exact. Saturday at midnight is the deadline that the nation's largest oil workers union, the Petroleum and Natural Gas Senior Staff Association,or PENGASSAN, has set for an agreement to be reached with the federal government on the fuel subsidy that was abruptly removed by President Goodluck Jonathan on New Years Day. If an agreement is not reached by then, oil workers will go on strike, effectively shutting down production of oil and gas in the country. This will in turn raise the price of oil, which, you guessed it, means another reason for gas prices to go higher. Maybe then attention will be drawn to the Nigerian crisis.

I say it's about time for the world to be made aware of the injustices suffered by the Nigerian people in what is the world's 8th largest exporter of oil. If you are talking about nation-states that are ruled by oil, Nigeria should be a main topic in that conversation. 80% of the government's revenue comes from oil sales. The most populous country in Africa, with an estimated 160 million people,is home to many multinational oil corporations, Shell being the largest, with Mobil, Chevron, and Texaco playing smaller roles. These corporations, Shell in particular, have exported the wealth of Nigeria's natural resources for years and rapaciously desecrated the Niger Delta in the southeast of the country to do so. Remember the BP oil spill in the Gulf Coast in April of 2010? At that time, BBC News released an article that went largely unnoticed that brought to light the fact that oil spills the size of the BP spill that sparked international outrage had been occurring yearly in the Niger Delta for 40 years. An estimated 13 million barrels of oil have spilled into the Delta, destroying the environmental vitality of the Delta region, not to mention greatly endangering the well-being and safety of the 31 million people who call the Delta region of Nigeria home.

There was once a man who became the voice of the people, specifically the Ogoni minority, to protest against the injustices perpetrated by Shell in that part of Nigeria,and he was eventually arrested and executed by the military government in power at the time. Ken Saro-Wiwa was the leader of a group called MOSOP, which stands for Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People, that led a non-violent campaign to protest environmental degradation of the Ogoni lands and rivers by Shell. He, along with 8 other leaders of MOSOP, who collectively came to be known as the Ogoni Nine, were tried, convicted, and then eventually executed under the military government of General Sani Abacha in November of 1995, sending a chilling message to the Nigerian people that you don't mess with an industry that is filling the government's coffers, regardless of its human and environmental rights abuses. Their deaths sparked international outrage and led to Nigeria's exclusion from the Commonwealth of Nations for 3 years. Yet the world, and definitely the countries that are the recipients of Nigeria's oil exports, the United States being one of them, seemed to forget the fact that Saro-Wiwa and his movement spoke for millions of people who were suffering at the hands of these corporations. And so the spills and the violence continued, as did the profits for the government.

How does all this relate to what the people in Nigeria are protesting about now? Well the chief complaint of the people, the jumping-off point for these protests, is the removal of the fuel subsidy by their President on New Years Day. With the fuel subsidy, the average Nigerian was paying N65, or 65 naira per litre for fuel, which is used for not just transportation but also cooking and generators in areas where electricity is scarce. This translates to about $1.66 a gallon in US terms. That sounds like an amazing deal to us, but you have to remember that the majority of Nigerians live on less than $2 a day.Most Nigerians felt that this was the only tangible benefit they received from living in one of the world's largest oil producing countries.Understand that almost all of the oil that is extracted by multinational companies is refined and sold somewhere else. A negligible amount is actually reserved for Nigerians, and the domestic refineries that do exist in the country are either inoperable or in grave disrepair. So the oil that Nigerians use is imported from other countries, yet was subsidized and therefore price-regulated by the government until January 1 of this year. When the fuel subsidy was removed without warning, the price of fuel immediately doubled to N120 a litre, or the equivalent of $3.52 a gallon here in the U.S. For someone who struggles to provide for their family on $2 a day, this is a very sudden and steep change to make in their necessary spending. President Jonathan claims that the $8 billion that the government will save by removal of the subsidy will be used to develop infrastructure in the country and support education and health care programs. The problem with that is that most Nigerians do not believe him. The government has a long track record of corruption, waste, and outright stealing from the people, and his tenure so far has proved to be no different. The Nigerian political blog Omojuwa took a critical look at the 2012 federal budget and pointed out such wasteful and unnecessary elements as: N 7.2 billion, or N20 million per day, is allotted for the overhead of the State House, the workplace for the President and Vice President. Their local travel budget is 2 million naira per day, and their international travel budget is 3 million naira per day. N265 million is budgeted to buy new computers for the President's office, N295 million for new furniture, and N 1.8 billion to "maintain existing furniture, office, and residential headquarters." Keep in mind that the average Nigerian lives on about N 330 a day.

This is the second central complaint of the unions and protesters who have now organized themselves as the Occupy Nigeria movement. They feel that this Jonathan-led government is continuing with the trend of wasteful and extravagant spending on itself, and forsaking equal and fair distribution of the government's resources to average Nigerian citizens. Goodluck Jonathan came to power because of the death of the President Umaru Yar'Adua in May 2010, under whom he served as Vice President. He was popularly selected in April of 2011, just 9 short months ago, in a controversial election complete with accusations of rigging and resulting violence in the mainly Muslim northern part of the country. Many people,though, especially residents of the Delta region where Jonathan hails from and the bedrock of the country's crude oil supply, hoped that he would be an agent of change and believed his campaign promises to tackle corruption and stand up to the oil companies. Yet, as Isaac Osuoka, an activist from the Niger Delta region, pointed out in an interview with a Nigerian journalist recently, they have have been gravely disappointed. When the Shell company had another huge oil spill this past summer, Jonathan and his government looked the other way. Even those within his system that used to work for environmental rights seem to have been infected with the poison of corruption and are willing to gloss over the aggregious acts of the multinational oil companies as long as the government is getting their revenue. Osuoka says that "People in the Niger Delta now realize that Jonathan is a waste of time." If the Occupy Nigeria movement is any indication, that seems to be the general consensus of the country. Their demands are clear. Apart from the very specific demand of a return of the fuel subsidy and regulation of the price at N65, they are also asking for the government to reduce its salaries by 70%. They want definitive change in the modus operandi, and if this president will not bring that change, they will not hesitate to seek another one. Given Nigeria's tumultuous history, that could be a very disastrous choice. One can only hope that President Jonathan will begin to listen to the people and their desire for change. Until he does, and acts in the best interests of the people of Nigeria, and not the government and the oil companies,there will be no way forward.

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