Massive protests and a general strike that began on Monday in Nigeria have left at least 16 dead. The protests initially focused on a cut in government fuel subsidies. But as we've seen with the Arab spring, one issue can get a host of injustices onto the agenda. Yesterday, President Goodluck Jonathan announced that the situation was worse now than during Nigeria's civil war.
Jonathan has every reason to worry – not least about his own position. The protests have gripped the entire nation, even the Lagos middle class, and the complaints voiced go far beyond the issue of subsidies. Jonathan's plans to reform the economy and privatise the energy sector are under fire – as is his honesty and legitimacy. The unions are now threatening to close down the country's oil platforms unless the President backs down.
Fuel started the fire
Until 1 January, government subsidies of $8bn a year paid more than half the price of petrol for Nigerians. Now it costs nearly $1 a litre. The majority of the vast population (160 million people) live on less than $2 per day, so the cuts have hit hard, especially since food prices have rocketed due to the increased cost of delivery.
A Nigerian Occupy movement sees the fuel issue as a way to address the deeper problems of poverty and bad governance in the west African country. But there's no doubt that ordinary Nigerians are much worse off this week. "Fuel subsidy was our only welfare," says musician Seun Kuti (Fela's son), who's become a prominent voice in the protests.
But President Jonathan says he's determined to push through the subsidy removal and is showing no signs of backing down – after all, the battle is the first big test of his plans to reform Nigeria's economy. He's said that $8bn would henceforth be spent on infrastructure and poverty reduction.
Goodluck, no credit
Few Nigerians, in a country notorious for high-level corruption, believe him. Jonathan has made lots of noise since he was elected about his "transformation agenda" for the impoverished country, yet the most tangible effect for Nigerians – until this week – was a rise in terrorist attacks as the Nigerian army cracked down on activists in the Muslim north.
But he has had plenty of support from western businesses and the IMF. They see privatising Nigeria's notoriously corrupt state energy sector as crucial to development – and, of course, a huge business opportunity.
The next few days' events could be crucial. "If the strikers prevail, the administration's credibility is massively damaged," frets one London-based economist. "People are now advocating violence. The government has to tread carefully. More than 80% of the people don't support subsidy removal," a Lagos businessman told CNN.
Further reading:Analysis from Nigerian newspaper This Day on Goodluck, the energy industry and the removal of the fuel subsidy.