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Nigerian protests

January 10, 2012

Many shops and businesses have remained closed in Nigeria and demonstrators are continuing to protest against the removal of a fuel subsidy by the government of President Goodluck Jonathan.

Protesters march through a street in Port Harcourt
Demonstrators are hoping to force the government to back downImage: Reuters

Thomas Mättig is the head of the Friedrich Ebert Foundation's Nigeria office, based in the capital Abuja. Deutsche Welle asked him for his assessment of the situation and of the government's decision to remove the fuel subsidy, thereby doubling the price.

Deutsche Welle: Mr Mättig, how is the mood in Nigeria at the moment and how long do you think the strike will continue?

Thomas Mättig
Thomas Mättig heads the Friedrich Ebert Foundation in AbujaImage: privat

Thomas Mättig: The mood today (Tuesday) is more tense than it was yesterday because there have been killings by the police of protesters, and because there has been no sign the government will relent in any way. As for the question how long the strike will continue, that is quite difficult to say. The problem is that many Nigerians have spent a lot of money over the holidays and many are self-employed and simply cannot afford, as taxi drivers or people selling credit for mobile phones, to stay off work for very long. On the other hand, airports are shut down and shops are closed so also the government will not be able to stay in this situation for very long. I would estimate maybe one or two days, maximum.

You said that people won't strike for a long time because they need money. Won't that defeat the purpose of striking?

That's the danger. It's really an arm-wrestle between the government and I think you can really say not only the unions but the population as a whole. The anger is very high and the situation is quite volatile. It's not certain what will happen, but yes, those who are on strike are weakened by their own economic deprivation, by the fact that at some point they have to re-engage into work and try to undertake some economic activity. No matter what will happen, the anger is very, very strong and if it's not the strike it will come out in other ways.

You work together with the Nigerian Labor Congress, the organisation which called the nationwide strike. In your opinion, is the removal of the fuel subsidy the real reason for this strike or does the NLC have a hidden agenda?

The removal of the fuel subsidy is more the spark that really set this fire going. And I think it's important to emphasize that it's not just the Nigerian unions which are striking, it's really an alliance of unions and civil society, and also a movement that calls itself 'Occupy Nigeria' which orients itself on the various occupy movements globally and even, maybe, on the Arab Spring. There is a lot of anger and frustration with the amount of corruption, the violence in the country, the non-functioning economy, the completely rundown infrastructure and the poverty.

So this removal of the fuel subsidy is more of a symbol because it has been the only social benefit which the government has handed on to the people. There is no social protection net whatsoever. Cheap fuel was the only way that people could reap some of the benefits of the oil wealth. So abolishing the fuel subsidy is actually much more than just scrapping a subsidy, it's really taking away from the people what they feel is legitimately theirs.

Unlike the unions, which are demanding that improvements to the infrastructure and other social services must be implemented before the removal of the fuel subsidy, the government says it wants to collect the money first by lifting the subsidy in order to use it to build up the country's infrastructure. What do you make of this argument?

Demonstrators gather at a burning barricade outside Abuja
Clashes between protesters and police have turned violentImage: Reuters

Nigeria is a nation that produces more than two million barrels of petroleum every day and sells it on the markets. That is a lot of money and most of that money just disappears. The president recently submitted a budget in which about three-quarters of the money spent is spent on recurrent expenditure. His own feeding for example, that is the feeding allowance for himself and the vice-president, amounts to more than 13,000 euros ($16,600) every day, whereas the large part of the population lives in poverty.

I think there's some justification to the argument that a lot of this money that disappears, and which is being stolen by Nigeria's political elite, should be made to work in the infrastructure first before taking it away from the poor. Because that is what's happening when you scrap the fuel subsidy. Those people who still somewhat benefit from it through cheaper transportation will have to pay more and there's no guarantee that this money will really be put to work in the infrastructure. There have been numerous lies and broken promises by various Nigerian governments and the people remember that and that is why they protest.

Interview: Asumpta Lattus
Editor: Mark Caldwell / rm