Nigerian government’s withdrawal of the fuel subsidy on 1 January has seen oil prices rise to $1 a litre and triggered nationwide unrest. Photograph: Afolabi Sotunde/Reuters
None of the usual trappings of fame mark out Seun Kuti, son of the late Afrobeat pioneer and celebrated agitator against the Nigerian government, Fela Kuti.
Dressed in a T-shirt and jeans, he barely stands out from the thousands gathered to protest. No bodyguards, no entourage. But when he speaks, the crowds who have come together to make a stand against government corruption and soaring fuel prices cheer wildly.
„Our grandfathers had their chance. Our fathers had their chance. If we don’t take a stand for corruption in Nigeria now, then we too have lost,“ Kuti said, causing the crowd to break into song („Olodumare [Yoruba God] must punish them!“). The sudden removal of state fuel subsidies byAfrica’s largest oil producer on 1 January sent pump prices spiralling to $1 a litre in a country where the majority live on less than $2 a day, prompting an outpouring of protest.
Having performed with his father since the age of nine, Kuti is firmly established on the Afrobeat circuit. Now, he is fronting a nationwide strike intended to force the government to reinstate the subsidies. Nigeria’s president, Goodluck Jonathan, has said he is determined to push through the subsidy removal, which will raise the billions needed to invest in infrastructure for Nigeria’s 160 million inhabitants, but analysts say the huge anti-government turnout might force him to consider phasing them out instead.
After eight hours of rallying, Kuti was dismissive of accepting anything short of a full governmental U-turn as he settled down to a spliff in his home, a rambling two-storey affair down a potholed road. „We, the people, subsidise electricity for the government by buying generators. We subsidise water by digging boreholes in our homes. We subsidise telephones by owning three mobile phones because we’re not sure which network will be working on which day,“ he said, referring to the poor infrastructure that has dogged Nigeria’s attempts to lift 70% of the population out of extreme poverty despite exporting 2m barrels of oil daily.
„Fuel subsidy was our only welfare and it cannot be taken away,“ Kuti adds. Economists believe the subsidy, which the government says transfers $6bn annually from state coffers to a cartel of fuel importers, is unsustainable if Africa’s largest country is to attain middle-income status.
In a December visit, the International Monetary Fund praised the steps the government has taken to implement an economic agenda intended to „transform“ Nigeria. „Who praised the president? The International Motherfuckers?“ Kuti said. „Look, the IMF and international policy cannot work in Africa because they do not take the common man into consideration. Now that you can only afford half the fuel you could before, where do you think the rest of the fuel will go? It’s going to the west, where the price of fuel has been skyrocketing.“
In common with a growing number of Nigerians, most of Kuti’s ire is reserved for Nigeria’s elites, and President Jonathan in particular.
Elected in a wave of goodwill last May, one of the country’s few democratically elected presidents has spoken often of his humble background. Born in a remote village in the oil-producing Niger delta, his farming parents scraped to put their eldest son through university.
But Kuti remains unconvinced. „I didn’t fall for the trick of Jonathan, ‚I had no shoes, blah, blah,‘ all that stuff he was saying when he was campaigning,“ Kuti said. „He thinks we are stupid.“
Kuti, of course, has a family lore to match. Nigerians of a certain generation recall his grandmother, a feminist who was the first woman to gain a driving licence. His father „seceded“ from Nigeria and founded the Kalakuta Republic, a commune that was razed when his songs infuriated those in power.
„They’ve already removed the subsidy for the budget this year but how much is going to health, infrastructure and education?“ Kuti asked, through another pull on the spliff. „Africans today are more educated than ever before. There is no reason for us not have people in power who support our interests. The government with their propaganda machine can no longer kill or quell whatever movement was happening, although they’re still trying,“ he adds.