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Unrest in Nigeria and the plight of the country’s north

The President of Nigeria, Goodluck Jonathan, today announced a change in policy over planned petrol price changes.

Previously, the Nigerian government had intended to scrap all subsidies on petrol. Now they will only be partially removed. The change comes as a response to a huge backlash over the move. A general strike called by Nigeria’s trade unions led to the closure of shops, banks and public offices. The paralysis of the country over the last few days was estimated to be costing millions of dollars and raised anxiety about further fresh terrorist attacks.

n a public broadcast, the President acknowledged the “hardships being suffered by Nigerians” and agreed to a new cap on petrol prices. This will still represent a 50% increase from January 1st. However the change is viewed as a large concession to public demands, though the complete removal of the cap is not ruled out for the future.

Critics say the ending of subsidies on petrol will affect Nigeria’s poorest most heavily. The average daily wage in the country is just 2 dollars. Strikers also voiced their resentment about government corruption and mismanagement, which is seen as responsible for the failure to tackle widespread poverty. 64% of the population live below the poverty line.

According to a recent article in the Economist, the situation is particularly dire in northern regions of the country. Whereas wealth is beginning to filter down in parts of the oil-rich south, three-quarters of northerners live on less than 200 dollars annually. This is well below the poverty line and there are fewer social programmes to support the neediest.

The country’s 80 million Muslims living in the north blame their situation on a loss of political influence since the ending of army rule 12 years ago. Resentment in the region is growing and bombings have recently occurred in a number of cities. Muslim extremists are blamed and much of the north has been put under a state of emergency, warranting the use of large-scale military operations. However, experts say the presence of the troops only serves to exacerbate local resentment.

The Economist report highlights how the Nigerian government managed to defuse unrest in the southern Niger delta, which until recently suffered from years of political violence. The people of the delta also felt they were victims of inequality and lack of development. But in 2009, a new deal was introduced in the region offering militants a pardon and cash payment. Education and vocational training programmes were also offered. Complete peace has yet to be established, but the amnesty deal has gone a long way to reducing unrest in the delta region. Some observers therefore wonder if the money going into military operations in the north – 20% of the federal budget on security – wouldn’t be better spent on development schemes or an amnesty fund for terrorist groups in the north.

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