Fuel on flames as Nigerians eye oil wealth
Decision to cut petrol subsidy imperils stability as prices rise, says Cameron Duodu
NIGERIA contains the largest concentration of Africans on the planet - about 160 million. It is also rich: it produces more than two million barrels of oil a day.
So it ought to be able to feed its people well and provide them with good education; look after them when they fall sick; and provide them with good roads, and good housing.
And yet the news that comes out of Nigeria is often not good. Over the past Christmas period of 2011, for instance, 40 people were killed when a church was bombed in northern Nigeria. A bomb was thrown into an Islamic school, in which six young children were injured. Another 50 people were killed in a land dispute in Ebonyi state, in southeastern Nigeria.
This week, petrol stations have been besieged by angry Nigerians determined to prevent the stations from selling petrol at a new price prescribed by the government, which has sheared off the government subsidy on fuel. This subsidy on petrol was the only direct benefit most ordinary people believe they receive from oil, income from which - they think - is "squandered" by the administration.
Add to this the government's inability to provide a reliable supply of power for industrial and home use; its "unconcern" over the rising cost of living, which makes wage increases an academic exercise, and you can see tension written all over the country.
And yet the gross domestic product is growing at the rate of 8% per annum. The question is, if Nigeria is doing so well on paper, why is the "economic growth" not being reflected in its people's lives?
The undeniable answer is the vast difference between the livelihoods of the rulers and the governed. The cost of administering Nigeria is huge - the administration consists of a federal government mirrored in each of the 36 states. Each stratum of administration possesses a "pork barrel", in the form of awards of contracts for supplies and services.
In particular, contracts for infrastructural projects gobble up a great deal of the revenue allocated to each level of government. And that is where corruption is rife: it is contractors who have "contacts" in government who get the contracts. And they share the proceeds with their friends in government. When they do shoddy work, they expect to be protected by their powerful friends. So the public sees very little to admire in the work of the governments it elects.
The populace resents the conspicuous consumption of the "top men" and their resentment has been building. The Sultan of Sokoto, one of the most powerful traditional rulers in the country, put a finger on what is wrong when he told an audience some months ago that there is so much poverty that people could be "bought" at a cheap price to carry out acts of violence.
Indeed, an extremist Islamic organisation called Boko Haram, which blames everything bad in Nigeria on "Western education", has managed to recruit malcontents in the northern part of Nigeria to employ terrorist methods to attack churches and state installations.
It wants to break up the country into two parts - Islamic and Christian - and place the Islamic part under a Taliban-type administration. But its objectives are impracticable, as there are many northerners who are Christians, as well as many southerners who are Muslims.
President Goodluck Jonathan has declared a state of emergency in the areas in the north that Boko Haram has been targeting.
But there is discontent elsewhere, too - especially in the oil-producing states, which want a bigger slice of the oil largesse than they receive.
Jonathan is therefore in a position akin to that of a man trying to toss about in his palm an egg whose shell has been smeared with a slithery liquid. He will certainly need more than just "good luck" to pull off the act.
Certainly, Jonathan has done himself no favours by choosing this moment to withdraw the petroleum subsidy, as it will provide a platform for his enemies to unite against him. For, as an African proverb has it, "You don't light your pipe whilst carrying a keg of gunpowder!"
There is a need for him to address rising prices, to repair the roads, to rehabilitate the hospitals and the schools and to make electricity more widely available. If he is able successfully to woo the "have-nots" with such measures, he can hang on. Otherwise, the future for his administration is bleak.
Make no mistake about it - the future stability of Nigeria is of interest to the rest of Africa.
But any country that has advice for Nigeria should approach the task with a great deal of tact, because its people are very proud and self-aware, and are quick to demonstrate that; they do not "suffer fools gladly".