Ushering in the New Year with unbridled enthusiasm and hope, despite the bitter personal and national disappointments experienced in the preceding one, is a familiar but weird Nigerian character trait which years of serial economic hardship have inexplicably done little to dent.
But the country, described in a 2010 Gallup global poll as having the “happiest people on earth”, is having anything but a bright start to 2012, as it is currently going through what is undoubtedly its most difficult period since democratic rule returned 13 years ago.
The current tension prevailing in the polity is, without question, triggered by an extremely unpopular New Year’s day “gift” – a petrol price hike from N65 ($0.40) to N140 ($0.87) per litre, a 110% increase – sanctioned by President Goodluck Jonathan, which sent infuriated Nigerians onto the streets as they insisted on a reversal to the previous price.
The seven-day protest, which was largely peaceful, shut down economic activities throughout the country, with thousands of people expressing their fury with what they described as Jonathan’s insensitivity to the penury of most Nigerians. That the government went ahead with the price hike, whilst a highly-charged debate over the merits of such an increase – between them and labour, as well as various civil society groups – was ongoing, only fuelled public anger further. The one-week protest was “suspended” after the government partially backed down by reducing the price to N97 per litre ($0.60), which was done without entering into a negotiated settlement with the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) and the Trade Unions Congress (TUC).
Promising to tackle corruption in the petroleum downstream sector, and reduce the salaries of political office holders in the executive arm of government by 25%, President Jonathan claimed he was not unaware of the harsh economic difficulties faced by the majority of Nigerians.
“As your president,” he said in a televised address, “I have no intention to inflict pain on Nigerians.
“The deregulation of the petroleum sector is a necessary step that we had to take. Should we continue to do things the same way, and face more serious economic challenges?” Jonathan asks.
The furore raised over the arbitrary price hike provoked Nigerians to take an unusual and very critical look at the minutiae of the 2012 budget, where it was discovered, to the fury of many, that $6.25m ($18,750 per day) was earmarked for the feeding of the president, his entourage and his guests.
One of the world’s top ten oil exporters, Nigeria has, inexplicably, lacked the capacity to meet its domestic fuel consumption needs since the early 1990s.
With its existing four refineries operating at just 30% of their designed capacity, whilst spending billions of dollars on refining its own crude overseas, the patently absurd situation aptly reflects the astounding levels of government incompetence.
Finance Minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala and Central Bank Governor Sanusi Lamido Sanusi, who publicly defended the increase in fuel prices, said the removal of the fuel subsidy was the only way to stop the increasing amount of money spent on importing refined products. “We are spending far more than what we are making as a country,” Okonjo-Iweala told parliament. “We don’t want what has happened to Greece to happen to us… Subsidy removal is not a question of being broke; it is a question of saving for the future.”
But the fact that the government does not know the exact amount it has spent on the “subsidy” adds another scene to Nigeria’s economic tragicomedy. While Okonjo-Iweala told parliament that the sum of N1.4 trillion ($8.75bn) had been paid out in 2011, the Central Bank claimed the correct figure is N1.7 trillion (over $10bn).
And the 2011 figure is, at least, a 400% increase on the 2010 figure of just under N300bn ($2bn) spent on the subsidy. So, who is actually telling the truth?
The government argues, strangely, that as long as Nigeria is surrounded by non-oil producing countries, like Niger and Benin, who sell petrol at the “prevailing international rates”, Nigerian-refined petrol sold at lower rates locally will be smuggled across the borders, thereby creating shortages within the country.
That such a statement is a tacit admission that the federal government, charged with the primary responsibility of securing and policing the country’s borders, is incapable of discharging its duty, is clearly lost on the ministers making the argument.
As if current worries over fuel prices, which look set to rise further this year, are not enough, the northern city of Kano, Nigeria’s second most populous city, with nine million people, came under ferocious attack from Boko Haram, the Islamic extremist group, four days after the general strike ended. Using home-made bombs, armed members of the group destroyed several police stations in the city, as well as the headquarters of the State Security Service (SSS).
Abul Qaqa, Boko Haram’s spokesman, claimed their attack was in response to the refusal of the government to release members of their organisation who are in jail.
Residents of Kano, who were going about their daily activities, were given the fright of their lives as over 20 explosions were heard throughout the city.
“It was a terrible day for us. Imagine a city of Kano’s size being under siege,” a prominent resident of Kano told New African. “Everyone that was doing their legitimate business in the city on that Friday began to run for their lives, in the hope that they could get home and avoid being killed. In fact, my own brother had to abandon his car on the road and flee on foot, as he drove it into a ditch, whilst trying to escape the mayhem.”
Over 150 people died during the crisis, including Eneche Akogwu, a 31-year-old journalist with Channels Television. Akogwu had been filming a crowd gathered at the scene of one of the bombings, but little did he know that the “crowd” was full of armed Boko Haram members who shot him dead at close range.
Ado Bayero, the Emir (King) of Kano, shed bitter tears whilst speaking to President Jonathan, who subsequently flew to the city to have a first-hand view of the carnage. Jonathan vowed to “overcome the evil forces” behind the bombings. “Those who perpetrated this dastardly act are not spirits, they live freely among us in society and the security challenges they pose have now made it incumbent on us to be extra vigilant on what our next-door neighbour does,” he said.
But the tough talk from the president has done little to encourage the citizens that the government is capable of confronting the growing menace. The overwhelming public view is that the government has no grand strategy to tackle the problem. Whilst some influential members of the security establishment, including the army and police, have vowed to defeat Boko Haram by force, several members of the political and intellectual elite, especially in the North, have asked the president to enter into a dialogue with the Islamic group, which he has now agreed to do.
“There is nothing wrong in the federal government talking with Boko Haram”, an attorney-general in one of the
northern states told New African.
“While there is no question that the government must confront all acts of criminality, the option for dialogue should not be closed. Those criticising President Jonathan must realise that he is dealing with a very difficult situation and no option that can restore peace and tranquility should be taken off the table”, he said.
But Jonathan has hardly instilled confidence in the capability of his administration to end the menace, after a shocking – some would say ill-advised – confession that Boko Haram sympathisers had infiltrated “all levels of government.”
The arrest and ongoing criminal trial of Ali Ndume, a serving senator from Borno State, who has been accused of aiding and abetting Boko Haram, has certainly set tongues wagging.
“Some [sympathisers of Boko Haram] are in the executive arm of government, some of them are in the parliamentary and legislative arms of government, while some of them are even in the judiciary,” the president unexpectedly said, during an Armed Forces Remembrance Day event in Abuja.
“Some are also in the armed forces, the police and other security agencies. Some continue to dip their hands and eat with you and you won’t even know the person who will point a gun at you or plant a bomb behind your house.
“That is how complex the situation is. Our security services are trying because as the president, I know what they are doing. Nigerians may not appreciate their efforts, especially when you know that we are under-policed. We have a police force that is about 300,000 in number. That would have been okay some years back but [it is] definitely not the number that can cope with the security challenges we have now.”
And it is not just about the number of policemen. The competence and even integrity of the top men in the force is also being questioned, following the escape of Kabiru Sokoto, an alleged high-profile Boko Haram operative, from police custody in Abuja.
His escape, which infuriated Jonathan, led to the removal of Hafiz Ringim as the country’s police boss (regular readers of NA will recall that Ringim himself came close to being assassinated by Boko Haram in an Abuja car bomb attack last year), as well as the house arrest of Zakari Biu, the commissioner of police directly in charge of the case. Thankfully, Kabiru Sokoto was recaptured on 10 January in the village of Motumbiu in Taraba State and flown to the capital, Abuja, where he was paraded in front of TV cameras.
Threatening to launch another “spectacular” attack in the northeastern city of Sokoto if their jailed members are not freed, another series of bombings and shootings recently took place in Kaduna, Maiduguri and Kano, which increased calls for the federal government not to delay dialogue with the group.
But many people wonder how the government engages a group that has not emerged from the shadows, as its leaders have not made any open demands, other than the full implementation of Sharia (Islamic) law in Northern Nigeria, which goes against constitutional provisions guaranteeing the secular, multi-religious nature of the country.
“Boko Haram is said to have no clear agenda – that is not true,” argues Shehu Sani, a respected human rights activist, who has spoken with members of the group. “Before 2009, Boko Haram was not a violent organisation – it was a sect just like all other sects in northern Nigeria, dreaming of a country that is under Sharia law and also under the rule of Islam.
“Its philosophy, ideas and views are rooted in the beliefs of Sheikh al-Islam Ibn Taymiyah from Turkey, who died in 1328. His views and ideas are about an Islamic society, about the Sunni viewpoint, the Hanbali school of Islamic jurisprudence – to know more about Boko Haram you need to read about Taymiyah.”
Sani says the 2009 extra-judicial killing of Boko Haram leader Mohammed Yusuf in Maiduguri, the Borno State capital, played a role in intensifying the attacks launched by the organisation.
“After many years of mistrust and suspicion and violence, there must be an intercessor that will guarantee to both sides that whatever is agreed is going to be executed... What I know is possible is that there should be an intercession by a third country. Perhaps Turkey or Qatar or Saudi Arabia should offer to mediate between the government and Boko Haram.
“If that option is not taken, then the next option is that certain individuals in the north, who have the respect of Boko Haram, should be brought in,” Sani advises. But the extremely worrying trend of various groups across the country taking up arms against the government is indicative, in the opinion of Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka, of the need for a sovereign national conference that will resolve pressing constitutional, economic and other political injustices, the mixture of which has produced a dangerous cocktail of dysfunction, which threatens the continued existence of Africa’s most populous and ethnically diverse country as a single state.
“We can even remove the word ‘sovereign’, but a national dialogue there has to be,” Soyinka warns. “If you don’t have a dialogue, you will have a monologue, a series of monologues that is deadly. Right now, we are undergoing a particularly destabilising and disorientating form of monologue... This is one of the most horrendous aspects of monologue that we have encountered in our history...
“So, it is either a dialogue or a serial monologue in which people would use their own methods. In dialogue, there is only one language; in monologue, you would have the language of Kalashnikovs, detonators and AK-47s.”
The country’s political elite, which, until now, has been reluctant to permit such a gathering, would be well advised to heed Soyinka’s warning.
Without a sustainable peace, with justice for all, Nigeria’s transformation into a global economic powerhouse, which is not an unrealistic aspiration, will remain a mirage.