Other than this report from a few days ago (H/T commenter Hopper), little has been said about the reaction to Nigeria’s removal of the fuel subsidies on New Year’s Day. Therefore, most of you probably don’t know that a General Strike has been called for tomorrow, involving pretty much all organised labour across the country, in a protest which is scheduled to go on indefinitely. Quite how much of the country’s operations will be closed nobody knows, but it is quite possible that roads will be blocked, airspace closed, and access to our offices denied. Which will be nothing short of a disaster for us expats who are either stuck in France (accommodated in a Paris hotel) or confined to the compound (with its swimming pool) as we ride out the storm. Each of us to a man is devastated if we cannot go into the office for any reason, such is our dedication.
Last week, instead of holding my usual morning engineering meeting, I decided to canvas the opinion of my lads on the subject. I also discussed it with my driver, who – like all drivers in Lagos – has his finger on the pulse. You want to know how many votes Goodluck Jonathan really got in the last general election? Ask a driver. Want to know the price of a cow as it crosses the border from Chad? Ask a driver. Anyway, from what I understand, most Nigerians agree (now there’s a phrase you rarely hear!) that the fuel subsidies did need to be phased out, but scrapping them entirely overnight was monumentally stupid and is hitting the poorest Nigerians the hardest. Unusually, most expats agree with them.
Since New Year’s Day, the prices of pretty much everything have increased significantly. Obviously petrol, which has jumped 100%-150% at the pump, assuming the stations know enough to actually open for business, which some did not for the first couple of days. Anything related to petrol consumption has gone up, usually by 100%. In Lagos, this not only includes transport but also things as unlikely as haircuts: the barbers’ clippers run off small generators. Food prices are fluctuating wildly. At the moment everything is very unstable, with people telling stories of bus conductors (or what passes for them) making up fares on the spot. Of course, there are also a lot of people taking advantage of the uncertainty to raise prices arbitrarily and gouge customers. The management of the bus company which doubled its fares, citing the doubling of fuel costs as the reason, are probably not stupid enough to think fuel is their only operating cost, but as they found out, nor were its passengers. Until things settle down, nobody really knows what even the short term price of anything will be.
It is those who rely on transport who will be most affected, which is everyone. There is practically no public transport system in Lagos, and everyone either has their own car, piles into a bus filled to three times its rated capacity, or jumps on the back of an okada and hopes his life insurer doesn’t find out. In short, everyone relies on the internal combustion engine to get around. This state of affairs seems to have been a deliberate policy implemented some time back in order to win votes (dishing out free motorbikes and pandering to the powerful transport unions do help you get elected), hence no alternative has ever been realistically considered (leaving aside the obvious problem of any money earmarked for infrastructure development being pilfered).
So even though the Nigerians probably agree that the fuel subsidy system was abused beyond belief, costing the government billions, and clogging the streets of every major city, phasing it out over a period was an absolute must. But the government never made this case, and although there was talk of the subsidy being removed, I think everyone was taken by surprise when it actually happened. And it is the anger over this, rather than the actual removal of the subsidy, which has got everyone so angry and out on the streets tomorrow. And funny though it may seem, most expats kind of agree with them (well, we’re being hit too).
So how will this pan out? I have no idea, and nor does anybody. One point to consider is that elections have only recently taken place and thus another chance to boot out the government is a long way off. Are the Nigerians content to wait that long if things continue as they are? History doesn’t look kindly on that subject. And there has been little more than silence on the issue from the government, few attempts to explain or justify why the decision was made and what steps will be taken to address the concerns of the people affected. This is a serious shortcoming, putting it mildly.
I guess we’ll find out this week. For may part, I have enough supplies, knowledge of student recipes, and Stolichnaya vodka to survive for a few weeks at least. How the French will cope when they’re down to their last slice of fois gras and penultimate crate of Dom Perignon is anyone’s guess!
This, on the other hand, may prove to be a shrewd prediction.