Nigerian authorities voice worry as rising cost of living sparks protests

A man sells granulated sugar at his shop inside a market in Abuja, Nigeria, October 27, 2023. [AP photo]

Nigerian authorities say they are worried after hundreds of people took to the streets of central Niger state and northwest Kano state Monday to protest the rising cost of food.

Finance Minister Olawale Edun, speaking in Abuja on Monday during a meeting with a visiting German delegation, said the government is concerned about the surge in prices and working to fix the problem.

He blamed the recent increase in food prices on rising demand, saying the only way to address the situation is to boost agricultural production.

"The president has intervened in that sector to provide grain, fertilizers to farmers and to bring rice, wheat, maize, and cassava under additional acreage, additional production in order to increase the output and thereby bring down prices and that will help bring down the inflation," Edun said.

Police authorities in the Niger state capital, Minna, said they dispersed the protesters using "minimum force," but the demonstrators threatened to reconvene.

For months, Nigerians have complained over the state of the economy, which has remained sluggish amid the government's reform policies.

President Bola Tinubu announced bold economic reforms last May, including the scrapping of subsidies on fuel and the floating of the national currency, the naira.

Authorities say the policies will help restore Nigeria's economy in the long term, but acknowledged that there will be challenges.

Economic analyst Isaac Botti agreed.

"I feel that it will take some time, policies don't yield results immediately," he said. "When we look at some of the programs and policies that the government is rolling out, within the next six months, if they're truthful with their plans, Nigeria should see some changes. Within the next six months, if government is able to achieve its benchmark on local fuel production, it will bring down the cost of goods and services, transportation."

In December, inflation reached a 27-year high, triggered by the rising cost of food items, a side effect of the increase in fuel prices.

Nigeria's economy is heavily dependent on proceeds from oil sales. But for years, the country has struggled with massive crude oil theft. The country's four refineries are moribund, and so it also relies on imports of fuel and other petroleum products.

On Tuesday, Tinubu's ruling All Progressives Congress party said in a statement that the administration was "solidly committed to doing everything in its power to mitigate the transient pains of reforms that are crucial to economic recovery."

Felix Morka, the national publicity secretary of the APC, said: "This is a mono product economy for a population of over 200 million people. We can't simply put all of our eggs in the basket of crude oil sales, especially when we're not able to sustain the kind of productive levels that can support our economy and our naira. To come out of the situation we're in for a more sustainable future requires also some level of endurance. At the end of the day, the benefits of reforms will far outweigh the transient difficulties."

 Nigeria is working to resume local refining of fuel. In December, authorities announced that all four refineries will undergo rehabilitation to restart operations by the end of 2024.

Experts say if that happens, it will address Nigeria's problems significantly.