This is my translation from the original interview in Dutch by David Van Peteghem in Belgium:
January 17, 2012 1:50 p.m.
In oil-rich Nigeria unseen waves of protest are splashing. The people are tired of the poverty, corruption and exploitation by the government and Western oil companies. In Brussels, novelist Chika Unigwe organized a demonstration. An interview.
Since January 2, hundreds of thousands of Nigerians are beginning to protest. What is the reason?
Chika Unigwe: President Goodluck Jonathan on January 1, 2011 suddenly abolished the fuel subsidy. Therefore, the price of one liter of oil rose from 65 naira to 141 naira (0.68 euros, ed). The whole economy in Nigeria is largely oil-centered. Because of the many power cuts the families are dependent on diesel power generators.
Furthermore, people are angry because President Jonathan barely reacted to the Christmas bombings in Abuja, where more than 20 people were killed.
The government says that they want to divert funds to invest in social services. Is that not a good thing?
Chika Unigwe: Those are good promises, but in practice rarely anything happens. The government promised 1,600 transit buses as well. But in a country of 167 million inhabitants, that is a drop in the ocean! In Nigeria, they call that palliative measures.
The people do not trust the president anymore. He would do better to regain the trust of the people by starting big infrastructure projects. Only then can the government phase-out fuel subsidies.
The government also wants austerity in its own expenses.
Chika Unigwe: Indeed something must be done against the excesses of government. For 2012, a national budget of almost 24 billion euros. But only for the presidential catering service for 2012 there is a budget of nearly 4.8 million euros. A quarter of the national budget goes to the security of the government. The government really has no goodwill. Wages in Nigeria are already extremely low. You can now not reasonably ask the people to pay two or three times more for their oil.
The government has raised the minimum wage recently from 36.2 to 87 euros. Didn’t they?
Chika Unigwe: That was a campaign promise by Jonathan. After the elections, the unions fought for implementation. But raising the minimum wage in the formal economy has not been implemented yet. 87 euro is still too little. The minimum wage should be increased to 145 euros.
The increase of fuel prices means that ordinary Nigerians will have to be still more economical with their generators. Thus, they must necessarily choose between ironing, watching television or recharging the phone. The price of electricity like water and food, meat, manioc flour and bread has gone up. Wages are usually no more than 48 euros. Life will be even harder. In Nigeria, there is no proper water supply. People have to buy bags of water that now cost about 1 euro. But that’s too expensive, so people will extract water from the soil. For a family of three cassava flour costs 3.80 euros weekly. The prices of meat have also increased from 1.90 euros to 4.80 euros. A loaf of bread now costs 2 euros. In Nigeria, there is no welfare.
The big unions have not yet reached an agreement with the government. How do you expect the protests to evolve?
Chika Unigwe: Even if the unions will reach an agreement with the government, the protests will continue. The Nigerian people want more than just restoring the fuel subsidy. They also protested against the corruption of the government and the terror of Boko Haram. It is actually against everything that goes wrong in Nigeria. The demonstrators now demand the resignation of President Jonathan and his ministers of information, finance and petroleum affairs.
Are there other forces outside the unions that organize protests?
Chika Unigwe; The big unions like the National Labour Congress and the smaller social democratic Labour Party contribute only partially to the protests. Many human rights activists and religious movements also play a leading role. But the protests have mainly erupted in a spontaneous way. Trade unions in Nigeria have not been able to mobilize hundreds of thousands of people. In fact, the movement now is called “Occupy Nigeria” and it is supported by large masses. Abroad, Nigerians are also organizing Occupy demonstrations. These are mainly mobilized through Facebook. That way, I along with some Nigerian community leaders have organized a protest to the Nigerian embassy in Brussels.
Is there a chance for another Nigeria?
Chika Unigwe. There is much hope. But there are also threats. Former minister Mallam Nasir Ahmad El-Rufai (also known as the czar of privatization and accused of embezzling $ 250 million, ed) promotes himself on Nigerian television as an alternative.
If the unions will reach an agreement with the government, they may make the protest smaller. But as long as people want to protest Occupy Nigeria will go on. They have clear views for another Nigeria. But they are not accepted as participants in the negotiations. You can simply not send hundreds of thousands of people to Abuja to negotiate with President Jonathan.
Who’s Chika Unigwe?
Chika Unigwe (1974) is from Nigeria. She has lived for over ten years with her Belgian husband and her four children in Turnhout, where since 2007 she has been a local councillor for CD & V. She writes fiction, poetry and educational books. In 2003 she debuted with her first novel, The Phoenix. She has won several major literary prizes. With her second novel, On Black Sisters’ Street, she brings the compelling story of four Nigerian prostitutes in the red light district of Antwerp. Soon she will publish a novel about the life of former slave Olaudah Equiano who was active in the movement for the abolition of slavery.
As I read this interview, I wonder whether Ms Unigwe is not in the wrong political party.
The Flemish “Christian Democrat” CD & V party is a rather conservative party, preaching similar Thatcherite economic quackery as the present Nigerian government.
The CD & V is part of the present Belgian government coalition, whose pro-capitalist austerity policies generate strikes and other resistance among the people in Belgium. Resistance, similar to the resistance in Nigeria.
President Jonathan has been criticised for deploying soldiers to disperse fuel subsidy protesters.
Weeklong “Occupy Nigeria” strike wins victory: here.
The Communist Party of Swaziland (CPS) hailed Nigeria’s working people today for the “important mass actions” that led the government to partially restore a petrol subsidy: here.