It was announced today that the two largest trade unions in Nigeria are set to call indefinite nationwide strikes in response to a government decision to remove a fuel subsidy that has effectively doubled the price of petrol at the pump. The move seems set to increase conflict and violence in the already unstable Niger Delta region and has already claimed its first victim following the death of student Muyideen Mustafa at the hands of police at a protest in the town of Ilorin on Tuesday.
British readers are likely to recall the fuel disputes in Britain early in the '00s that saw blockaded motorways, protests and empty pumps. While there is a world of difference between the respective situations in the UK and Nigeria, there are still parallels that can be drawn with regard to the value that each nation places on the car and the desirability of cheap fuel.
The marvellously-named Nigerian President, Goodluck Jonathan, has told the nation via his Facebook page that the current subsidy, worth a reported £1.5bn annually, was no longer sustainable. Instead, he claims that the money saved will be spent on infrastructure projects.
Nigeria is one of an increasing number of African countries who are set to exploit their natural oil reserves in the coming years. Those reserves are estimated by the IMF to be worth in excess of $20bn, a valuation that should be enough of an incentive for government to improve the country's farcical refinement facilities. As it currently stands, Nigeria is in the ridiculous position of being forced to import petrol and other refined fuels despite being Africa's largest producer of crude oil.
Such is the level of poverty in the oil-rich nation that some young Nigerians try to make a living by stealing oil from standpipes via a process known as 'Bunkering', and then refining the stolen product into diesel for use or resale. The Nigerian military is occupied with breaking up illegal refineries, which can be as simple as small pairs of water-filled cooling drums linked by pipes just a few yards long. Should the oil thieves escape military attention, the process itself is highly dangerous, with barrels of semi-refined fuel close to the open flames that heat the crude oil at the start of the process.
Nigerian Labour Congress (NLC) spokesman Chris Uyot told the BBC, "We have the total backing of all Nigerian workers on this strike and mass protest." The expectation by the NLC and the Nigerian Trade Union Congress is that the country will be brought to a standstill unless the government reinstates the subsidy by the beginning of next week. If the strike does begin as planned, there are likely to be many others worldwide who will feel solidarity with the striking drivers of Nigeria.