NAIROBI, Kenya — When we talk about the “oil curse,” we talk about Nigeria.
Nigeria got very rich, very quickly from oil, but most of its people didn’t. Hundreds of billions of dollars worth of oil revenues have been stolen or squandered by politicians and the wealthy elite since the first crude was pumped out of the then unpolluted, fish-stocked swamps of the Niger Delta more than half a century ago.
Oil prices rocketed in the 1970s and Nigeria went shopping, buying up consumer goods on a massive scale, and on credit. Farming was abandoned, migration to the cities accelerated.
It was all spend and no investment so that when — inevitably — the oil boom went bust in the 1980s, Nigeria was woefully in debt and had little to show for the bumper years.
Today Nigeria produces more crude oil than any other country in Africa — around 2 million barrels per day at the moment — yet more than two-thirds of its 140 million people scrape by on a couple of dollars a day, or less.
There are only four oil refineries in the country, and all are in various states of disrepair.
The result is that for most Nigerians, the diesel that runs their generators, the kerosene that lights their lanterns, and the petrol that moves their cars are all imported.
The irony of this escapes nobody. It is a metaphor for Nigeria’s failings as a state that provides almost nothing to ordinary Nigerians.
Hospitals are ill-equipped, public schools are moribund, power cuts are as endless as the traffic jams that clog the potholed, rubbish-strewn roads. The Nigerian state doesn’t even provide security, as attested by the deadly attacks by Islamists in the north and militants in the south.
State-security services are feared more than respected. Their disdain for human rights is well documented, as is their willingness to shoot first, ask questions later, earning one paramilitary force the nickname “Kill ‘n' Go.”
Nor do the people give much to the state in return. Tax evasion — or simple nonpayment since so many scrape a living from the informal economy — is common, but that scarcely matters, because the government’s coffers are filled by the oil companies.
Nigeria’s flawed and corrupt democracy means that elected officials who purchase their power don’t have constituents so much as clients, and if you don’t owe your position to the people you don’t have to work for them.
The one thing successive governments have done is ensure that Nigerians get cheap fuel by subsidizing the cost of the imports they wouldn’t have to buy if oil money had been invested in refineries rather than siphoned off, stolen or misspent.
So when President Goodluck Jonathan removed fuel subsidies at the start of 2012, saying it would save the country $8 billion a year to be invested in neglected infrastructure, he took away the only thing the state provided to the people.
It was, as Nigerian commentators have pointed out in recent days, the sole social contract between government and people and its loss prompted widespread anger.
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A combination of traditional union-led strikes and a nascent social media-organized OccupyNigeria movement are challenging the government in an unprecedented way. With Nigeria’s oil workers threatening to join the days-long strike and shutdown oil production the pressure grew on Jonathan’s government. It is not yet clear if Jonathan's partial resumption of the oil subsidy will restore order.
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Amongst this roiling and potentially violent change there is also a positive force at work in the unity of purpose among protesters from different social, religious and ethnic backgrounds. Just as religious violence stoked by Islamist extremists threatens to tear Nigeria apart, the fuel price protests brought people together, albeit against a common adversary: the state.
Perhaps oil will make a positive contribution to Nigeria, after all, if it is the issue that brings Nigerians to hold their government accountable.
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