Nigeria Reports

Nigeria Reports / Exploitation of Oil in Ogoni Land

The People of Nigeria resist the IMF

A - I N F O S N E W S S E R V I C E

From: Kwesi Owusu []

Welcome to Nigeria, Mr. Larry Summers

Lagos was literally a ghost town last weekend. The streets were empty, except burning tyres and smoking debris and the rhythmic hooting of a few okada (bike) riders. The atmosphere was tense if not highly charged and palpable. As I moved around observing the mass protests against the IMF induced fuel price hike, one sight was constant. Youths had turned many of the city's high ways into football pitches. I sat down to watch a match. Suddenly armed police in a station wagon pulled up. Rather than make way, the youths continued to play. The policemen hooted their horns frantically but they were ignored.

Then the ball went out of play. One of the youth strolled up to the police team. 'Wetin you dey do for road?' ('what are you doing on the road?'), he asked. One of the policemen grinned. Then another youth walked up to his mate and told him to let them pass. 'They are policemen' he said. The first youth replied, 'Yes, I can see that. Is that why they are on the road when NLC says everyone should be off the road?' The youths removed the temporary goal posts and allowed the policemen to pass.

The policemen's response was quite unprecedented in a city like Lagos where, not too long ago random violence was as predictable as missing a bus. But then some things can change and these are not the times of the brutal military dictatorships. The last few days have also been quite extraordinary as the people test the democratic mantle of President Obasanjo's government, particularly its capacity to accommodate mass political dissent.

The inept introduction of the price hike by the Nigeria National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) was a guaranteed trigger to popular outrage. A 50 per cent increase in petroleum products by any stretch of the imagination was bound to impact disproportionately on low income families, at the time when even the modest minimum wage increase announced by President Obasanjo on May Day had yet to be implemented by most employers. This increase incidentally affects only 18 per cent of the workforce. In a poor country like Nigeria, where the total per capita income averages $280, the government was frankly asking for trouble.

Oil arouses considerable passion here. For many Nigerians, it symbolises both the promise and perceived failure of their nation. Otherwise how does one explain why Africa's leading oil producer should import petroleum products whilst its refineries stand idle for want of basic repairs. Or the massive pollution of the Niger delta by petroleum companies and the displacement of local communities in order that the affluent west can continue to enjoy cheap fuel.

Popular outrage alone does not however change the minds of governments, especially this one, under such tremendous pressure from the IMF to implement stringent measures that are at odds with what this country and its people desperately need. And is it not ironic that whilst western creditors allowed Abacha and his corrupt gangster regime to default on debt repayments, they are now hell bent on squeezing the last drop of blood out of a new democratic government that is struggling to restore social and economic stability.

The Federal government has made known its intention to use the gains from oil revenues for poverty alleviation. The IMF has vetoed this strategy, demanding that the revenue be diverted instead to them. The last time the IMF pressed home this kind of dogmatic and politically illogical agenda by eliminating fuel subsidies in order to free resources for foreign debt servicing, the army stepped in when riots ensued. That was in 1993. This time, history has been kinder to Nigeria.

The national strike against the petroleum price increases has led to the rise of a new political power outside of the government and the opposition. The current impasse between Obasanjo and the National Assembly and an ineffective opposition partly explain this. Perhaps ore significantly, as the government edged nearer towards a standby deal with the IMF, a leadership vacuum was created at the centre of the state. The National Labour Congress stepped into the brief, having successful negotiated an increase in the minimum wage and campaigned for a broad range of urgent social and economic reforms.

What distinguished the national strike from even the celebrated 13 day strike that rocked the Tafawa Balewa administration in 1964 was the quality of its leadership - consistent, disciplined, non sectarian and critically, committed to the democratic ideals of the fifth Republic. Led by the charismatic Adams Oshiomhole, the NLC's masterstroke in the crisis was to transform what could have been an ineffective workers strike into a mass protest movement in which people, regardless of status, ethnicity and religion felt obliged to support and participate. In a country where the ruling elites have made sectarian politics a fine and deadly art, this was hugely significant.

Comrade Oshiomhole leads the people

The Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) ordered all fuel stations in Lagos to close before the start of the general strike last Thursday. Over 80 per cent shut down voluntarily. By Friday, not a single fuel station remained open. This pattern was repeated all over the country, despite the aggressive actions of the riot police. The protests grew. Roads were blocked by workers, students and radical youths, popularly known as 'area boys'. In this football crazy nation, they made sure that fuel station forecourts and the highways were only good for football.

The Vanguard newspaper (13/6/2000) commented that, ' the people are so unanimous on this issue that no party hacks, no cash and carry politician and no contractor was willing to stick out its neck for the government. Obasanjo could not even rely on God because God had spoken through the people.'

By Monday, contrary to what government strategists were possibly hoping, the strike was holding and in fact gaining more momentum. In Lagos, Abuja and other regional capitals, several deaths were reported. Then some activists reportedly started to organise counter violence, sending urgent signals to the government. In Abuja two police stations were reportedly burnt down. In Lagos, the situation in the slums of Agege, Osodi was also getting serious with 'area boys' on the offensive. The Vice President called all his security chiefs to an emergency meeting in Abuja. Elsewhere resistance was more passive.

Along the expressways of Lagos, long files of people, mainly women and children begun to form as they trekked on foot. The government offered to bring down the price from N30 to N25. Oshiomhole said no. N20 or the strike goes on. Nigeria was entering into serious political waters. The debacle of 1993 loomed but Monday 12 was also the anniversary of Abiola's presidential victory.

A holiday had been declared in Lagos and demonstrations were planned. If they go ahead without a resolution to the crisis, the city could boil over. Obasanjo acted. The news broke late Sunday, making sure that morning brought good news. The government had agreed to reduce the fuel price to N22. Further more, the president apologises for not consulting the nation. Comrade Oshiomhole praises Obasanjo for leadership and is in turn declared a peoples hero by the press. What all this means for Mr. Summers, who is not looking too happy this Monday morning is what we are all curious to find out. He persisted with his tough IMF talk but as his visit progressed it was clear that Africa's largest democracy may also be his most formidable opposition.Obasanjo moved quickly to recover lost ground. He signed the anti corruption bill, started making amends with the National Senate and fast tracking various popular initiatives.

Kwesi Owusu, Head, Jubilee 2000 Africa Initiative.

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