“Let them eat cake,” were the famous words attributed to Marie- Antoinette, that arguably sparked the bloody French Revolution. This leadership was out of touch with its population and its own excesses at Versailles seemed a callous indication of looting of public funds, and indeed of economic oppression. A hungry and weary French populace, enraged by their inability to afford mere bread was in uproar that their leaders would recommend the more expensive ‘brioche’, or cake, as a solution to their hunger.
Fast forward a few hundred years to 2012, a few hundred miles south, to West Africa, to Nigeria, in the cities of Lagos and Abuja, and we have the same theme. Nigerians here are protesting en masse against an arguably Marie-Antoinette like directive.
For a week, the entire nation has been on strike, and millions have poured out of their homes to protest against the Government. Why?Seeds of discontent have blossomed; its dangerous fruits are ripe, and dangling from a precarious tree.
There is a systemic failure in the country, despite its considerable innate wealth- no constant electricity supply, lack of potable water throughout, lack of infrastructure, a low life expectancy, and a growing internal security threat: terrorist group Boko Haram.
‘Let them pay more for petrol’. This was the Federal Government’s solution to the Nigerian anxiety. On New Year’s Day, the Government issued that the fuel subsidy be removed and the price of fuel hiked overnight from 65 Naira to 141Naira.
Nigeria has a population of 160 million, with the vast majority living on less than 1 USD a day. Fuel costs rising so steeply would also increase the price of goods and services. The ‘Let them pay more for petrol’ stance of the Government by the removal of its fuel subsidy is seen as callous.
Nigeria produces about 10% of oil globally yet its own refineries are in bad condition. Its Government pays a fuel subsidy because it largely exports crude oil to the West, only to import the more expensive refined products afterwards. The government states that it has removed its subsidy in order to save the funds and redirect the money to building infrastructure.
But why was there a fuel subsidy in the first place in an oil rich nation capable of meeting its own internal demand? Why are the funds not being allocated to the restoration of Nigeria’s own refineries?
Like that historic French generation of revolutionaries, the Nigerian populace, demands accountability, answers to its questions, as well as a total systemic change. And for the first time in a generation previously silenced by decades of military dictatorship, it is not afraid to make demands on its leaders.
After the global uprisings of 2011, Nigerian people have seen that they can mobilize themselves through social media(#OccupyNigeria) and that democratic governments must engage in civic dialogue with their people. Opportunities for dialogue between the government and the National Labour Congress have descended into deadlock with the government refusing to acquiesce or shift their stance. The result of this deadlock, is the continuation of the national strike, and a dangerous disintegration of already depleted trust.
In the words of CNN and Al Jazeera Africa Political Analyst and Journalist, Terfa Tilley-Gyado (@234nextTerfaTG), “there is a critical ‘A Luta Continua’ vs ‘ A Looter Continues’ dichotomy”. To expand on Terfa Tilley-Gyado’s dichotomy, for the Nigerian protester the ongoing strike is a valid, unifying popular struggle against corruption. This is surmised by the Latin American revolutionary phrase, “A Luta Continua” or “the battle continues.”
While, as Tilley-Gyado coins it, the refusal of the historically corrupt Nigerian leadership to acquiesce to popular demand is merely perceived by the populace as symptoms that “A Looter Continues”.
Thus the situation in Nigeria is actually a price-haggling between the government and its people over the exchange of its most valuable commodities: Petrol and Trust. The government determines the price of petrol and the people determine the level of trust.
The higher the price of petrol remains, the lower the level of trust that the average Nigerian has for the government. The lower the price of petrol, the higher the level of trust that the Government has its own people’s welfare at heart. This is the Petrol-Trust index of the current #occupynigeria dialogue:
Nigerian leadership must act in collaboration with its people if it is to gain their trust, and if a corresponding ‘African Harmattan’ in the model of the 2011 Arab Spring is to be categorically ruled out of the volatile question.
The Nigerian leadership must also adopt policies of continuous dialogue, transparency and a curbing of its excesses,(Eg. the 6mil USD annual food budget for the president), if Nigeria is to learn any lessons from the French Revolution.