Pay Close Attention to Nigeria

Two major concurrent crises are bringing  Africa’s most populous country to its knees.

Crisis 1: Nationwide protests over a massive hike in fuel prices

Nigeria is a major oil exporter. But unlike many other oil-exporting countries, the Nigerian government did a somewhat better job of spreading the wealth. This was partly achieved  through a huge government subsidy on the price of consumer petrol. Gas was very cheap.

President Goodluck Jonathan ended the two-decade old fuel subsidy on January 1, saying the government needed the revenue to invest in infrastructure projects. Overnight, the price of gas jumped from $1.70 gallon to $3.50/gallon.  #OccupyNigeria was born.

Today, Nigeria enters its third straight day of strikes and protests across the country. At least 10 people have been killed. In one part of the country a gang of youths sacked the governors office, forcing him to flee by helicopter. Banks, ports, and businesses are pretty much shut down in Lagos.  The country is paralyzed. And, so far, President Jonathan and union leaders leading the protest have not been able to come to any sort of agreement.

So that’s crisis 1.

Crisis 2:  Sectarian and Communal Violence Between Christians and Muslims

On Christmas morning the West woke up to news that a militant radical Muslim group called Boko Haram carried out a series of attacks on Christians and Christian targets. About 70 people were killed. For those paying attention, though, the attacks should not have come as a surprise. Boko Haram had been targeting government, international, and also low-level civilian establishments (like bars, restaurants, stores) that catered to Christian clientele for several months prior.

In recent weeks, the violence has taken on a more communal feel.  Boko Haram still carries out attacks. But on top of that you have collections of Muslims attacking Christians and collections of Christians attacking Muslims. Just this week, a group of Christian youths in Benin City (majority christian) attack mosques and madrassas, killing several people. The Red Cross says 10,000 people are displaced from the violence and fear of further attacks.

The government can’t seem to get a handle on the situation. (Goodluck Jonathan even said the other day that Boko Haram has infiltrated his government.) Meanwhile, the violence is spiraling out of control. Once these simmering ethnic tensions turn violent, it can be very hard to put the lion back in the cage.

So why should we care?

As Laura Seay pithily pointed out: 1 out of 6 Africans live in Nigeria. It is the seventh largest country in the world and a democracy (though a messy one.) It is also an important regional and international player and a major oil exporter.

Other countries in Africa look up to Nigeria. It is the regional powerhouse. What happens in Nigeria matters immensely to the entire region.  If Nigeria becomes overwhelmed at home, other countries might look at Nigeria’s experiment with democracy and think twice.

So, pay close attention to news from Nigeria in the coming days and weeks.