Since democratic transition in 1999, there has rarely been a more appropriate time for the opposition in Nigeria to assert itself. The anger surrounding the abrupt removal of the fuel subsidy, causing petrol prices to skyrocket, has only been intensified by the violent manner in which police have dealt with protestors. Reportshave warned of widespread discontent and even revolutionary rhetoric. Yet just how precarious is the position of the ruling People's Democratic Party (PDP)?

A parody of democracy?

In July 2011, Ahmed Bola Tinubu, the leader of the Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN), Nigeria's largest opposition party, delivered a lecture at London's Royal Institute of International Affairs on "Democracy and the Rebirth of the Opposition in Nigeria". Citing the brazen electoral malpractices carried out by the ruling People's Democratic Party (PDP) in the 2003 and 2007 elections, Tinubu delivered a dour warning, "Our country's democracy remains a parody of true democracies. Ours has mimicked some essential aspects of military and authoritarian rule".

Tinubu's views are not isolated. The Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC), an umbrella organisation for Nigerian trade unions, operates along similar lines. Founded in 1978, it subsequently subsumed four different organisations - Nigeria Trade Union Congress (NTUC), Labour Unity Front (LUF), United Labour Congress (ULC) and Nigeria Workers Council (NWC).

And the evolution of the NLC serves as an important litmus test. It had frequently clashed with military governments and at the height of its troubles, was dissolved twice, in 1988 and in 1995. Under Nigeria's military governments, it had long been the norm to disrupt union meetings and arrest members in order to silence political dissent. However, since anti-union regulations were abolished in 1999, union activities have enjoyed relative freedom. This points to the existence of a democratic foundation, but how have recent political controversies been able to build upon this? Three issues - the removal of the fuel subsidy, the implementation of the minimum wage and the Petroleum Industry Bill - have proven to be good indications.

The removal of the subsidy

The fuel subsidy cost $8 billion in 2011. Its aim was to make refined petroleum more accessible for its citizens. However, some, such as Kwara Central Senator Bukola Saraki, and Senate President David Mark, have argued that the money being spent does not in fact benefit the average Nigerian. Instead, through uneven distribution, it goes into the hands of oil cartels and importers. Prices at fuel pumps remained much higher than the subsidised N65-per-litre ($0.41) limit set by the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC). However, to the outcry of many citizens, even this help is being retracted.

Promises have been made to channel the money saved from the subsidy removal into broader infrastructural and socio-economic projects that would benefit the populace. However, the president of the NLC, Abdulwahed Omar, recently spoke out against the subsidy removal, arguing that the "removal would translate into an astronomical increase in fuel prices, and would further put Nigerian citizens and workers in more hardship". And in the face of the related protests, in which two people in Kwara state were killed, the NLC have not cowered away. In a statement released yesterday, the NLC claimed it had "cautioned the Goodluck Jonathan administration against the use of brute force and arms against unarmed Nigerians who protest publicly their rejection of its murderous policy of hiking fuel prices by between 120 and 200%". It went on to hold President Jonathan personally liable for the deaths and called for the agents responsible to be brought to justice.

How will the demand for wider consultation and inclusiveness in government policies be accommodated?

A demanding minimum wage

The rising cost of living, viewed in tandem with a meagre minimum wage of N9,500 ($59) proved the stimulus behind Section 2 (1) of the National Minimum Wage Act, signed into law by President Jonathan in March of this year. After the signing, Jonathan announced, "from the commencement of this act, it shall be the duty of every employer to pay a wage not less than the national minimum wage of N18,000 ($117) per month to every worker in his establishment". But the haphazard implementation of the national minimum wage has unified many oppositional voices.

Rotimi Amaechi, the chairman of the Nigerian Governors' Forum and governor of Rivers State, stressed that unless the revenue-sharing formula was altered to favour states, the new minimum pay rise would be impossible to effect. He argued that, without further funding, it would be difficult for states to fulfil other important functions and pursue capital projects.

And by July this year, the deputy president of the NLC, Kiri Mohammed, threatened that unless the government issued a signed guarantee that the minimum wage would be implemented, "all airports, seaports, filling stations and roads will be shut down and deserted; even the erratic Power Holdings Company of Nigeria (PHCN) will not work".

The leaders of congress were summoned to a meeting with the president, which led to the end of the strikes. While this consultation is positive, the rapid acceptance of demands should lead to questions about the effectiveness.

Internal cohesion lacking

The Petroleum Industry Bill (PIB), charged with the transformation of Nigeria's hydrocarbon industry, seeks to combine 30 different petroleum laws into a single and coherent document. A new framework is under discussion which would increase good governance in the industry and increase profits from oil production. Quite crucially, it also encourages local participation to avoid reliance on major international oil corporations.

A variety of issues have stalled the discussions for the past three years and led to the bill being shelved. Last month, the chairman of the Senate Committee on Rules and Business, Senator Solomon engaged with this issue in an interview. He said: "there is no Petroleum Industry Bill in the National Assembly or the Senate because that bill was introduced during the Sixth National Assembly and it lapsed with the Sixth Assembly."

The bill has been brought to the senate for debate on two occasions and both times it was dismissed due to what some senators perceived as "lack of consultation". A wikileaks cable revealed that members of the House of Representatives had colluded with international oil companies to not only stall the bill, but also to tweak it in their favour. The real reason for the bill's reluctant process is not clear, but on this occasion, the problems seem to be coming from within.

Voicing dissent is different to driving real, positive change. With the minimum wage still to be fully implemented and the fuel subsidy under scrutiny, it is not clear how far opposing voices can make a difference. Amidst allegations of corruption and vested interests, concrete actions and how legislation is passed will be prove telling. Can the NLC be influenced on certain issues? Will lawmakers stall a motion of national importance? And can the presidency force groups into submission with promises or threats?

The two main opposition political parties that it is possible to make a stand against heavy-handed tactics and perceived injustices through the Nigerian courts. And at the very least, the climate for change seems much more amenable than in previous years - something that can only be a positive sign for Nigeria.

Lagun Akinloye

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