Friday, March 02, 2012

The 297th good thing about Lagos: Strikes in January were difficult for many, but gave us a little longer vacation

Hurray!  I've finally caught up to 2012 in my blog posting and very soon I will be up to date!  As I said in my last post, we had a great Christmas holiday and then we were busy getting ready for our return to Lagos when Nigeria erupted in unrest.  At the beginning of the year the country suddenly decided to stop the fuel subsidy that had been in place keeping the prices of gasoline artificially low.

I have a friend that writes a very interesting blog about Nigerian cultural issues and in her post on the strike she explained it very well.  I'll quote her here for those of you who won't bother to go to the link to read her entire blog post:
What happens is this. Nigeria produces crude oil, sells it on the international market, and then buys back, at international prices, refined products. Petrol is then sold nationally at a low price and the government takes the loss of the difference in price. As of January 1 of this year, the Government has removed this subsidy and the price of petrol has subsequently more than doubled.The government has decided to scrap the subsidy because they are expensive and were not allocated in the budget for this year. They have also been a source of corruption: for instance, cheap fuel is smuggled across the country’s borders and sold at large profits that benefit only a handful of people. And apart from the benefit of ensuring low petrol prices for Nigerians, the subsidies have hindered development and economic growth in the country. Nigerians understand this: they know that these funds would be better used to provide roads, sanitation, running water, and especially a steady source of electricity. So why three days of strikes with no end in sight?
I think it is in part a question of trust. Will the government really invest the money as they say they will? Nigerians have been bitterly disappointed in the past. Many people point to the fact that government overhead (things like salaries and equipment such as private jets, computers etc) is among the highest in the world. Senators are said to earn USD 1 million per year as a base salary. Had the government first announced (and shown) a programme of austerity at the top, Nigerians would possibly have stomached the rise in petrol prices. Like one friend said, ‘We are used to suffering’.
In other words, Nigerians have the impression that ordinary people are being asked to pay the price for improving Nigeria’s economy when there is room for savings and belt tightening at the top. Tackling corruption and improving efficiency should, they feel, come first. The large group of Nigerians at the bottom of the pyramid have no savings and no social welfare net to lean on. A significant portion of the population buys their dinner with what they earned that day. If they were already living hand-to-mouth, how will small businesses and petty traders afford to run their petrol-run generators for electricity and pay transport costs to get themselves or their produce to market? Many honest, hard-working people live on N10,000 (about Euro 50) a month. From this they send children to school and feed them. At my friend’s hospital one worker had to quit because she could no longer afford the transportation costs of getting to work – rental costs in Lagos are so high that many people live far from their workplace.
So the strikes go on. Some have described it as a blinking game – who will give in first: the government or the protestors? Can the government afford to back down and negotiate? Can people demonstrate rather than earn their daily living?
Well, the formal strike started just as Brent was due to return to Nigeria, so he was told to stay in Houston until things calmed down.  We really didn't have a choice as most international flights were cancelled.  During the strike which lasted about 1 1/2 weeks, most offices were closed and expats in Lagos were told to remain at home.  So we got a bit more vacation time in the States (though Brent did go into the office in Houston most days) and missed out on enforced house arrest in our Lagos apartment.  Brent ended up staying a couple of weeks longer than scheduled and I delayed my return by a week, so instead of a staggered return, we ended up coming back together.  The Nigerian government blinked and made some concessions -- they returned half of the fuel subsidy, so gasoline prices went down, but still up around 50% more than they had been last year.   Prices in the grocery store and the market are up to cover increased transportation costs.  But one pleasant thing is that since we've been back in Lagos it seems there are fewer cars on the road -- the traffic is sometimes less congested.  I do feel for the people who have been hit hard by the raise in fuel prices.  Most Nigerians don't have much cushion in their budgets, so I know there are many who are finding the increase very difficult to bear.  I know gas prices are up in the States right now as well.  One really nice perk we have here is that our car, driver and fuel costs are covered by the company.  So we have no personal impact (beyond increased food costs) with the increase in fuel prices.  Right now I'm thinking that's a very good thing!


Daniel said...

Hello, I work for Shell (petroleum engineer) and am currently living in Asia (originally from the states). We are LDS and have 6 children although our oldest two daughters attend boarding schools. I have always wanted to go work in Lagos but have dismissed it due to concerns of how the family would adapt. However, my old boss moved there last year and has told me that their family is enjoying the adventure, and we should consider it as a possible posting. He also mentioned that there was another LDS family with a number kids ( thought they worked for Chevron) living there as well.
I'd love to get your opinion on how families like / dislike Coupe.

Carolee said...

Hi Daniel,
I don't think I would summarily dismiss living here due to family concerns. I know many families who find life here enjoyable and very conducive to family togetherness. It depends on the family. I think it's more difficult for teenagers because they have fewer freedoms here and there are not so many activities in the community in general. But there seems to be a lot going on with the school to keep most kids satisfied. There is an LDS family with 6 kids here (with ExxonMobil) and our branch president has 4 daughters. Another family with 3 children will be leaving this summer. If you want to write a comment with your email address, I won't publish it so your email won't go public, but will email you directly so if you have more specific questions maybe I could help answer. Of course we would love to have your family here!