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The Nigerian Crucible

LAGOS – Nigeria’s president, Goodluck Jonathan, who was elected only eight months ago, is already swimming in a sea of troubles. On January 1, New Year celebrations were abruptly cut short when Nigerians woke up to learn that the government gasoline subsidy had been withdrawn. The country’s poor immediately hit the streets, already angry because their corrupt and incompetent government has been unable to repair state-owned refineries, thereby forcing Africa’s largest oil producer to import petroleum products.

To ordinary Nigerians, the fuel subsidy was the only advantage that they derived from the petrodollars that pour into the national treasury. Suddenly, politicians, civil servants, and their cronies were embezzling even that benefit.

What began as sporadic protests quickly ballooned into a show of people power in Abuja (the national capital), Lagos (the commercial capital), and Kano (the most populous city in the north), led by the civil-society organizations Joint Action Front and Save Nigeria Group. Other towns and cities also joined in the protests, and Abdulwaheed Omar, President of the Nigeria Labour Congress, called on workers around the country to strike until the government rescinded its decision to remove the subsidy. Millions complied, paralyzing the economy.

The Jonathan government had calculated that eliminating the subsidy in the midst of the New Year festivities, a time when most Nigerians travel to their home villages, would impede coordinated resistance, so the speed, ferocity, and scope of the demonstrations caught the authorities completely by surprise. When the protest leaders’ grievances expanded to include the 2012 budget’s lavish provisions for the president and top civil servants, the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation’s shady deals, and government corruption, Jonathan realized that he had to back down.