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  • Published in International

Nigeria's poor have risen up to demand their share of the country's vast riches - denied to them by politicians and global elites. As the people pursue change, the government clings to power.

The spark for this wave of protest was the removal of a subsidy on oil prices. Overnight, as 2011 turned into 2012, the cost of oil in Nigeria jumped from 65 naira to 150 naira ($0.93) per litre. This in turn massively raised the cost of transport and basic commodities like food. In a country where over two thirds of people live on less than $2 per day, such a hike in costs is untenable.

It was pressure from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) that caused the government to remove the subsidy in the first place. President Goodluck Jonathan tried to justify its removal by saying it would save Nigeria $8 billion a year, money he promised would be spent on public projects.

But few believed him and the demonstrations that followed have been huge and unprecedented. Last week saw five straight days of strikes, which Nigeria's Central Bank said cost the country $600 million a day.

Occupy Nigeria was born and listed its demands as an end to political corruption, poverty, police intimidation, wealth inequality and joblessness. Campaigners point out that government has no right to ask its desperately poor citizens to sacrifice even more, when it is known for extravagant spending and corruption.

In the crackdown against the protests and strikes, police violence has killed at least 10 people. The Red Cross reports that its volunteers have treated more than 600 injured people.

Unions halted the strikes this weekend, as union officials were supposed to meet with the president to try and get the subsidy reinstated. However, the president did not show up for the meetings. Negotiations with lower-ranked officials were declared unsuccessful, so strikes are set to begin again on Monday.

Nigeria remains a divided country with a predominantly Muslim north and Christian south. Sectarian violence killed 1500 people in 2011. Concerns have been raised that the instability and chaos caused by the protests will exacerbate religious conflict between different communities.

However, protests have occurred across the country and have united different communal groups. As in Egypt there is widespread footage of Christians protecting Muslims as they pray and vice versa. Anger at the Government seems to have superseded religious, ethnic, and tribal conflicts even in the most notoriously violent areas.

Oil, corporate power and pollution

One trump card that the unions have yet to play, but which now looks likely, is a strike by workers in the oil industry. Even though much of the industry is machine-based, any disruption in this area will be devastating for a government which gets 80% of its revenue and 90% of foreign exchange earnings from oil.

Nigeria produces 2 million barrels of crude oil per a day, accounting for 8 percent of all US oil imports, yet the country is forced to import refined oil (apparently linked to decades of violence). Most Nigerians believe that billions of dollars has disappeared into the offshore accounts of officials rather than being used to properly manage the country's abundant natural resources. Experts believe that refined domestic oil would cost Nigerians 65 naira per litre - half the cost of imported refined.

It is not difficult to see why people are so angry with their politicians. The Nigerian government is grossly overpaid. Astonishingly, a Nigerian Senator earns $1.4million per year - this is eight times as much as a US Senator and three times more than President Obama. But overshadowing the corrupt and greedy politicians are the blood soaked spectres of the international oil companies that suck the life out of Nigeria with impunity.

In 2010 the BP Gulf of Mexico oil spill gripped the world as 20 million gallons of oil caused the worst environmental catastrophe in US history. But this is familiar to people living in Nigeria's oil-producing Niger Delta - home to over 30 million people and one of the world's most important ecosystems. According to a report by Amnesty International: "Oil spills, waste dumping and gas flaring are notorious and endemic in the Niger Delta."

Residents of the Niger Delta "have to drink, cook with and wash in polluted water, and eat fish contaminated with oil and other toxins." Shell and other companies do as they please in these areas and Shell is widely accused of causing 'environmental atrocities' as well as human rights abuses. In December 2011 Shell caused Nigeria's worst oil spill in a decade when up to 40,000 barrels of crude oil was spilled as it was transferred from a floating oil platform to a tanker.

People in Nigeria have the right to control their own natural resources, to protect themselves from the claws of oil companies and their homes from devastation, to grow prosperous from the resources beneath their feet and to live in peace. The fight for these rights has been long and arduous and is far from over.

In its latest manifestation it is strong and united - and will hopefully grow. As murdered human rights activist Ken Saro-Wiwa stated with his last breath: "Lord take my soul but the struggle continues."

Tansy Hoskins

Tansy Hoskins

Tansy Hoskins is the activist author of Stitched Up: The Anti-Capitalist Book of Fashion. She has worked for Stop the War Coalition, Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, and the Islam Channel. As a political commentator she has discussed fashion, politics and change on Woman's Hour, BBC Breakfast and Channel 4's Ten O'Clock Live.