What a week it has been in Africa. In Nigeria, nationwide strikes against the Jonathan Goodluck government decision to scrap fuel subsidies today entered their fifth day.
In Uganda, traders who closed their business in anger at sky-high interest rates, failed to reach agreement in a meeting with President Yoweri Museveni and representatives of the banking industry. Their strike seems set to continue.
I expect many things from unpredictable Africa, but I never thought a protest against high interest rates would be one of them. And, least of all, from Uganda!
If Nigerian protestors and Uganda traders burnt down their cities, it would be worth it because it is delightful seeing Africans fighting for something other than religion, tribe, pasture, women, or ancestral land. In fact, in Nigeria, while we now have an enlightened over fuel prices, the Boko Haram extremist Islamic militia has been on a murderous rampage in northern Nigeria, where it has killed nearly 100 people, most of them Christians, in a wave of bombings and shootings this year alone.
In 2011, Boko Haram is estimated to have killed 500-600 people.
The next few years will tell us whether the rise of these issues-based political actions will result into the election of better governments than the venal and incompetent ones that govern in most of Africa.
There is reason to be cautious, though. Jonathan didn’t swindle last year’s election. He was elected with a comfortable majority.
In Uganda, Museveni hadn’t dried out from his addiction to election fiddling, and was re-elected last year in polls his opponents allege that he again stole. Museveni’s supporters say their man won clean.
The Kampala City Traders Association (KACITA), the umbrella organisation championing the traders’ protest, used to function as the city business wing of Museveni’s ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM). Opposition parties accused it of being involved in fraudulent electoral activities on behalf of the Museveni campaign.
Last year, during the opposition-led “Walk-to-Work” (W2W) campaigns to protest the high cost of living and corruption, KACITA opposed the protestors. It argued that W2W was disrupting their businesses, and destroying and looting their property (the latter complaint perhaps justified).
KACITA will probably not find sufficient national sympathy, because having just climbed out of Museveni’s bed, it is likely to be viewed with distrust and as opportunistic. Still, though it might lack the credibility to lead a national movement for economic reform, it can at least take credit for having sowed the seeds for it.
The Nigerian fuel protests, on the other hand, present a different kind of opportunity – and problem.
I hate subsidies because they mostly benefit the rich, not the poor. Therefore, I think Jonathan’s decision to scrap Nigeria’s 1.2 trillion Naira ($7.4 billion) fuel subsidy is good policy. As a result, fuel prices have risen from 45 US cents per litre to at least 94 US cents per litre.
I don’t know when I last bought a litre of gas for 94 US Cents. In Kenya and Uganda, countries that are not as rich as Nigeria, a litre of is about $1.5.
Fuel prices in countries like Nigeria, Angola, and others in Africa are given as part of the grand “authoritarian/corruption bargain”. In other words, the public allows the political class to loot and oppress them, in exchange for cheap fuel, cheap housing, and a range of other cheap groceries. Or as in the case of Uganda, the government turns a blind eye and allows KACITA members to cheat on paying their taxes, and to flout municipal building laws.
Anything that that disrupts the authoritarian/corruption compromise, can only lead to better and more democratic politics. The Nigerian protestors should pay the market price for fuel and, and demand that the Naira 1.2 trillion “savings” the government will make should not be siphoned off by the corrupt, but invested in modernising schools, cities, providing safe water, and improving the lot of the poor.
KACITA should review its co-habitation with the Kampala regime, pay its taxes and observe City Council rules, and demand an end to Kampala’s pot-holed roads, persistent power outages, and the runaway thieving by politicians and their cronies. Maybe, we shall then enter an era in Africa where the leaders “fear” the wrath of the people, and seek to win their support with good meaningful public work, not on the basis of tribal and clan kinship.
© Charles Onyango-Obbo / twitter@cobbo3