Last Updated: Mon Jan 16, 2012 14:13 pm (KSA) 11:13 am (GMT)

Fears that fractured Nigeria could again push the nation to civil war

Tens of thousands of Nigerians have been protesting up and down Africa's most populous nation for four straight days in protest against the axing of the petrol subsidy, which more than doubled the price to around 150 naira ($0.93) per liter. (Reuters)
Tens of thousands of Nigerians have been protesting up and down Africa's most populous nation for four straight days in protest against the axing of the petrol subsidy, which more than doubled the price to around 150 naira ($0.93) per liter. (Reuters)

“Nigeria is not Animal Farm!” read one placard brandished during days of furious fuel price protests by Nigerians which have combined with a violent Islamist insurgency to move Africa’s top oil producer closer to what many fear may be a breaking point.

The same political vices of corrupt leadership and abuse of power which George Orwell skewered in his 1945 novella “Animal Farm” have corroded Nigeria's politics since independence from Britain in 1960. Angry popular backlash against these is fuelling the latest violence and unrest in the African continent's most populous state.

This anti-establishment fury brought Africa’s second largest economy to a standstill last week. Citizens from all walks of life have taken to the streets after President Goodluck Jonathan’s government announced on January 1 it would scrap a motor fuel subsidy, more than doubling fuel prices.

The volcano of public rage has erupted at the same time that a spate of bombings and shootings by a shadowy Islamist sect is threatening to fracture the country's sensitive north-south, Muslim-Christian divide. This religious faultline has caused sectarian conflict claiming thousands of lives in the past.

Some are now asking whether this dynamic but troubled country of 160 million, carved by colonial rulers out of a jigsaw of ethnic and religious groups, can still hold together or risks plunging again into all-out conflict and even break-up.

Many still remember the divisive 1967-1970 civil war over secessionist Biafra that killed over a million people and caused mass starvation, dislocation and suffering.

“As the ripples of incessant bombings and massacres resonate ... fear, anger and hatred have been woven into the very fabric of the nation's life,” Soni Daniel, deputy editor of Nigerian daily Leadership wrote in an editorial on Saturday.

“Nigeria has never come as close to the brink of civil war,” he added.

The nationwide fuel protests have become an outlet for thousands to vent their grievances against what they see as a venal ruling political class and incompetent government, which is struggling to tackle an insurgency by the Boko Haram Islamist sect based in the largely Muslim north.

“The bottom line is we don’t trust the government to do what they say anymore,” said student Remi Sonaiya, sitting on a car blaring out Afrobeat music in the heaving Nigerian metropolis of Lagos, while protesters thrashed an effigy of President Jonathan across the face with leafy branches.

Unions launched strikes against the fuel subsidy removal and these are estimated to be costing the country $600 million a day. They have also threatened to shut down Nigeria's 2 million barrel-per-day oil industry, rattling global energy markets.

Talks between Jonathan and labor unions on Saturday failed to reach a compromise, and the unions said the crippling strikes would resume on Monday. But the main oil union said it was not joining the walkouts for the time being.

Jennifer Giroux, senior researcher for the Center for Security Studies (CSS) at ETH Zurich University, says the fuel prices issue is “a common rallying point ... A unifying issue that has had an immediate impact on the majority of Nigerians, most of whom are making $2 a day or less.”

The crisis mood is a far cry from the cautious optimism that greeted Jonathan last April, when he won Nigeria’s cleanest ever election on a pledge to fight graft, fix a crumbling power sector and attract investment into its huge oil reserves.

Then, foreign analysts saw a potential take-off for the economy if the former zoology lecturer could push through key reforms and take steps towards healing the north-south rift.

One such recommended reform was ending the fuel subsidy but the president’s Jan. 1 decision to remove it convulsed a country already shaken by a wave of Christmas attacks claimed by Boko Haram, including church bombings that killed dozens and stoked sectarian tensions.

Attacks have continued during the fuel protests. Targeting of minority Christians triggered reprisals by Christians on Muslims in the south, even though the majority of the two communities have shown in the past they can live in peace.

During fuel price protests in southwestern Benin City on Tuesday, five people were killed when a mob attacked a mosque, and 3,000 Muslims of northern origin fled.

Fears that the unrest and violence could degenerate into something even bigger seem to be gaining some traction.

“The situation we have in our hands is even worse than the civil war that we fought,” Jonathan said in recent comments about the Boko Haram insurgency.

“During the civil war, we knew where the enemy was coming from. (Now) you won't even know the person who will point a gun at you or plant a bomb behind your house,” he said, warning that Boko Haram members were in “all levels of government.”

And in a recent interview with the BBC, Nobel prize-winning Nigerian author Wole Soyinka said the comparison with the traumatic Biafra war was “not unrealistic.”

“We see the nation heading towards a civil war, we know that the (Biafra) civil war was preceded by serious killings by both sides of the regional divide, we've seen reprisals,” he said.

“It is going that way, we no longer can pretend it’s not. When you get a situation where a bunch of people can go into a place of worship and open fire through the windows, you've reached a certain dismal watershed.”

Some question whether civilian Jonathan, who as vice president first took power in May 2010 when his predecessor Umaru Yar’Adua died, has the capacity to lead Nigeria out of its multi-headed crisis.

They worry that his miscalculation of the public mood over the fuel subsidy removal, and his slow reaction to the escalating Boko Haram insurgency suggest he may struggle.

“There are serious questions about how in control the president is, with some really poor decision making. Is Goodluck Jonathan really able to provide visionary leadership?” asked Alex Vines, senior fellow and Africa specialist at London think tank Chatham House.

“There seems to be just drift and indecisiveness.”

A civil servant who works with Jonathan says privately that his style differs from the many military rulers that have often run Nigeria in the past. He listens, even lets people interrupt, which some in Nigeria's macho politics may see as a weakness.

The son of a canoe carver in the oil-rich Niger Delta, Jonathan studied zoology, in which he earned a doctorate, and worked as an education inspector, lecturer and environmental protection officer before going into politics in 1998.

He was northerner Yar’Adua’s running mate in a shambolic election in 2007, but his campaign to run himself after Yar’Adua’s death was controversial because of an informal pact within the ruling PDP party that the presidency should rotate between the north and the south.

As a southeast Christian, by running for the leadership he upset that rotation deal in the eyes of many northerners.

The early signs that Jonathan’s first elected term as president would not be smooth came hours after he was sworn in on May 30. A series of bombings killed at least 14 people in a drinking spot inside a barracks in the northern city of Bauchi.

Most observers see a political element to the recurrent violence in the north, which analysts say is also rooted in anger -- as with the fuel price protests -- against the lack of economic opportunities caused by decades of poor governance.

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