Nigeria's President Goodluck Jonathan

Nigeria’s President Goodluck Jonathan

With his announcement on New Year’s Day that Nigeria would no longer subsidize oil for the population—subsidies on which the majority of Nigeria’s poor depend—President Goodluck Jonathan guaranteed a descent into chaos for his country. Nigerians immediately took to the streets and went on strike, effectively bringing business as usual to a grinding halt. In response, the government dispatched security services to quell the unrest, repressive measures that left some twenty people dead and hundreds more injured. Jonathan, facing mounting pressures from within Nigeria and outside, reversed himself this past week by reinstating a partial subsidy in return for an end to the strikes. Nevertheless, questions remain about how well the government in Abuja will manage public dissatisfaction, ethnic and religious divisions, and violent resistance from the Islamist Boko Haram movement in the north moving forward.

I discussed these issues and more with John Campbell, former US ambassador to Nigeria (2004-07) and currently the Ralph Bunche Senior Fellow for Africa Policy Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. Campbell’s recent book, Nigeria: Dancing on the Brink, offers a captivating account of the politics and society driving contemporary Nigeria, and his commentary on the subsidy debacle has distinguished itself with subtlety and fearlessness. Campbell warns that, while the protests offer some hope for Nigerian solidarity across traditional dividing lines, the government’s coercive response could mean spell more turbulence ahead.

It’s been a tumultuous couple of weeks in Nigeria as a result of the government’s announcement that fuel subsidies were coming to an end. I’d like to begin by asking that you give a sense of why these subsidies are such an important issue for ordinary Nigerians, and what the effects of ending the subsidies had on the population?

There are several different layers here. The first is that the profits from oil—about 95 percent—go overwhelmingly to the state which, for long, has been captured by a very small oligarchy. They are the primary beneficiaries from the oil revenue. The mass of the population benefits from oil mostly through the fuel subsidy. As the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Abuja put it, what the fuel subsidy amounted to was a very, very small resource transfer to the poorest part of the population.

There is also another dimension to it, one that may be hard to get our arms around. And that is the popular view that the oil was put in Nigeria by God for the benefit of the Nigerian people. Then, there is the more practical dimension to it, which is that when the fuel subsidy was ended not only did the price of oil and gas go up two or three times, the price of almost everything else did, too, because that’s how goods are moved in Nigeria—by road. The rail network has long since collapsed, though its restoration is now a government priority.

Now, why does all this matter? Essentially, what you had was an extraordinarily clumsy ending of the subsidy on New Year’s Day. Ordinary Nigerians all over the country tend to go back to their villages for the Christmas holidays, and a significant number of them apparently got stuck there because they literally didn’t have enough money for the increased bus fare to get back to where they worked. So they had to walk. It is very hard to quantify a factor such as this, and yet it is certainly in the equation.

What the removal of the fuel subsidy tended to do was to crystalize the widespread view that the government is essentially exploitative and corrupt. That’s why there were popular demonstrations as well as trade union demonstrations associated with the strike. Those popular demonstrations appear to be still going on, at least in Lagos and in Kano, though there is very little press coverage of it. The most recent I saw was on Wednesday when the police used tear gas against a demonstration in Lagos being led by Tunji Braithwaite. Braithwaite is celebrated human rights lawyer and activist.

The push to eliminate fuel subsidies is certainly not unprecedented, but the manner and timing of this latest effort were startling. Why now, and why was it carried out in the way it was?

That’s a good question. I have put that question to some Nigerians I know. A common answer was that the government is out of money, both at the federal level and in some of the states. To me, that answer isn’t satisfactory because governments don’t just run out of money. They can always borrow. And yet that does appear to be a large part of it, or at least the perception that the government is running out of money. Nigeria has very little international debt but there is huge domestic debt. That could account for it. Still, there are other peculiarities. For one, the fuel subsidy wasn’t ended, exactly. Rather, there was no provision for the fuel subsidy in the new budget which took effect January 1. So the subsidy ended, as it were, as opposed to being abolished. The interesting thing I’m hearing—but can’t prove—is that Jonathan didn’t consult widely about when to end the subsidy. Now, if true, that’s really weird.

But did the government really not expect the population to be outraged?

It’s awful hard to find that credible, given that all previous efforts to end the fuel subsidy were met with riots and demonstrations. It’s not exactly rocket science! To me it is utterly baffling.

The government and its supporters argue that it will redirect the savings to socioeconomic development projects like reinvigorating health services, infrastructure, and the like.

The trouble is that few believe it.

In your view, has the Jonathan administration put together a track record that indicates it can be trusted to carry out the reforms it promises? The government points to similar, successful efforts after the country won debt relief in 2005.

And there was some. I do know specific cases where money freed up from debt relief was actually used for education of Muslim females in the north. The trouble, of course, is that the whole system is so non-transparent. The concern and expectation among critics was that if you eliminate the subsidy, the money is that is saved would go to the federal government and the local governors, neither of whom are accountable for how it is used.

This wasn’t helped by Jonathan’s response to the protests, which has been astonishingly repressive. Why did the government react so harshly?

Actually, there are two questions here. First of all, I quite agree: the government’s response was quite repressive. I think it is altogether remarkable how little commentary there is on that point so far in the western press. And yet, what do we have: stationing of troops at protest sites; occupation, briefly, of the BBC and CNN; Jonathan’s call for the arrests of a whole string of human rights activists. But again, I don’t think those activists have actually been arrested, and so you end up with the worst of both possible worlds. You threaten to arrest people, and then you don’t. Not that any of them should be arrested! Rather, the government should not have threatened them in the first place.

You’ve been one of the few—at least in the western media landscape—who point out the troubling overlaps between the fuel subsidy crisis and the ongoing trouble with Boko Haram. Can you talk a bit about the intersections between the two, and the potentially explosive mix they present?

First, we should start by asking: what is Boko Haram? I have argued that Boko Haram is not an organization, but a movement with many different nodules and strands. What these nodules and strands tend to have in common is that they draw on a strong sense of northern alienation from the government in Abuja, as well as a sense that Nigeria’s political economy is corrupt and that it essentially exploits the poor. The way they believe that you achieve social justice is through sharia. In other words, they use a religious vocabulary. There are other elements in there that we certainly cannot ignore: there is a criminal element, and I don’t doubt that certain northern political figures are exploiting Boko Haram because they don’t see how they can ever regain hold power in Abuja with the end of presidential alternation between the predominately Christian south and the Muslim north. And, no matter what the motivation, parts of Boko Haram commit terrorist acts.

If we take something like what I have said as a definition of what Boko Haram, the next question is: how has the government responded? In a country that is half Muslim and half Christian, and in which all the Muslim states voted for President Jonathan’s opposition, one would expect that a new administration would be doing everything it could to reach out. Wrong. Jonathan has made few trips to the north. One, I believe, was to Kaduna for the inauguration of a Bible institute. He has surrounded himself with fellow Ijaws—not northern Muslims—and in fact the only northern Muslim in a prominent position within his immediate circle is the inspector general of police, who was his inspector general when he was governor of Bayelsa State.

Now, his apologists will say, “But wait a minute: the cabinet—which has more than seventy members—has a minister and a minister of state from each of the thirty-six states.” And that is perfectly true. The point, though, is that because the cabinet is so big, the cabinet doesn’t function like cabinets normally do. The people that really matter are those within Jonathan’s immediate circle. Some of them may be in the cabinet, some of them not, but cabinet membership in and of itself doesn’t really much matter. What matters is who is immediately around the president. What we have, then, is a failure politically to reach out to the north.

There have been troops and police stationed all over the north, particularly in Maiduguri. And some of them have been guilty of some extraordinarily bad behavior, according to human rights groups: burning down markets, and the like. What that tends to do is generate more support for Boko Haram, or at least acquiescence to what they’re doing, among the local population. So, you are dealing with the north through not very effective repression, which kind of recalls what the administration is doing right now in Lagos.

At the same time, the protests have featured a solidarity that transcends the traditional lines dividing Nigerian society. Are we witnessing the emergence of something new here, or are these allegiances simply short-term and tactical?

If it holds, we certainly are seeing something new. When you have the Hisba—the informal Muslim police in Kano—protecting Christian churches on Sundays, you have something that is really new and different. We have to be terribly careful about comparisons to the so-called Arab Spring. But at a particular point last week, it did look like a common opposition to government policy was pulling Nigerians together in a way that has never happened before.

Labor unions, despite their effectiveness, did not resort to shutting down oil exports all together but threatened that they might. Do you see this as a credible threat against the government, and if so, what would be the effect if the labor unions followed through on it?

Yes, but we have to make a couple of distinctions. The first is the mainline labor movement, which in fact did go on strike, and whose leadership has been historically bought off by the government. And there’s lots of talk on the street that again this time the Jonathan administration paid the leadership to end this strike. And then you have PENGASSAN, which are the actual oil production workers union. Again, it is being said on the streets that Jonathan engaged certain operatives from the Movement for the Emancipation for the Niger Delta, to deliver threats against the PENGASSAN leadership not to shut down the oil industry. Whether this street talk is true or not, plenty of people believe it. And it is perfectly true that the strike never had the depth of support in the Delta—which, after all, is where Jonathan comes from—that it had other parts of the country.

Finally, what do you see as the appropriate role for the United States in all this?

The question, of course, is: what do you do? There are a couple of different narratives. One is that we should cooperate very closely with the Nigerian government in any way we can. This makes me nervous because anything that associates us more closely with the military and security services in Nigeria is going to alienate from us the very people who are working for democracy and the rule of law. Nevertheless, it is what the Nigerian government is calling for.

There is another scenario where the U.S. government would expand its ties with civil society. This is what I advocate. It is what we did in South Africa in the late apartheid period and is the direction we are headed toward in Congo in the aftermath of elections there.