A nationwide strike and demonstrations have unleashed years of pent-up frustrations in Nigeria over its kleptocratic leaders, and the rage has grown even stronger across social media this week.
Twitter users shared pictures of dead protesters while others broke down the oil-rich nation’s 2012 budget figures, comparing funds allocated to the president and vice president’s offices with the cost of living of the average Nigerian. Hackers have targeted government websites, while others criticized local news coverage of demonstrations in nation where journalists often accept bribes from those they cover.
“I think the government has opened a can of worms and we are now picking each one at a time,” said Kola Oyeneyin, 31, an entrepreneur who uses Twitter to give protest updates.
Tens of thousands of people have taken to the streets across Africa’s most populous nation to protest the government’s removal on Jan. 1 of a subsidy that had kept gasoline prices low for more than two decades. Overnight, prices at the pump more than doubled, from $1.70 per gallon (45 cents per liter) to at least $3.50 per gallon (94 cents per liter). The costs of food and transportation also doubled in a nation where most live on less than $2 a day.
President Goodluck Jonathan insists the move was necessary to save the country an estimated $8 billion a year, which he promises will go toward badly needed roads and public projects. But the president, who used Facebook to announce he would run in the nation’s presidential elections last year, has faced increasingly angry comments on his own profile where most offered praise in the past.
Protesters — who joined the current nationwide labor strike under the hash-tagged slogan of “Occupy Nigeria” — say the government is in no position to ask people to sacrifice in a nation with extravagant government spending and a history of widespread theft of billions by military rulers and politicians.
Nigeria, an OPEC member nation producing about 2.4 million barrels of crude oil a day, is a top supplier to the U.S., but virtually all of its petroleum products are imported after years of graft, mismanagement and violence at its refineries.
“They (the government) are saying that they need to save. OK, but do you need to save by making us pay for your waste?” Oyeneyin asked.
The country only recently passed a Freedom of Information bill granting, in theory, public access to documents. But the nation’s budgeting remains opaque at best in a nation that operated for years under an official secrets act that made unauthorized release of government information an imprisonable offense.
“People are now more informed about what’s going on and it won’t be long before we have an open and transparent government,” said Ngozi Sulaiman, a businesswoman who was sending photos to her Blackberry contacts from a protest in a posh Lagos neighborhood.
However, social media also has spread false information about government resignations in recent days as well. Text messages circulating the country also fed a rumor that a radical Islamist sect planned to infiltrate and bomb demonstrations.
A group of hackers also have attacked a series of government websites over several days, including the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission on Friday.
Eager to calm public anger, government-aligned groups have published front-page newspaper advertisements for days trying to sell Nigeria’s more than 160 million people on the idea that money saved by removing fuel subsidies will go toward needed projects. While Nigeria has an unruly free press, underpaid journalists often accept so-called “brown envelope” bribes slipped into briefing documents at news conferences. And at least one private news channel in the country has gotten calls from government officials asking it not to broadcast live images of a daily demonstration in Lagos that drew more than 20,000 people on Friday alone.
Criticism of news on the state-run Nigerian Television Authority also sparked a protest outside its Lagos headquarters by more than a thousand people Thursday. The channel aired a short story on the protest 43 minutes into its nightly broadcast, after a host of pro-subsidy removal stories and commercials.
The protests will continue to be swayed by social media, despite low incomes, as Nigeria has the continent’s top mobile phone market and is estimated to have the largest online audience in Africa.