Are fuel riots the food riots of the 21st century?

Published on 13 June 2018

Naomi Hossain

Research Fellow

Modern life depends on fuel, even while tackling climate change means cutting subsidies for fossil fuels that mainly benefit the rich. Fuel riots are both common around the world and potentially politically potent, but it seems that we (researchers) are only just beginning to notice them.

One of many photos that I took at the Clean Energy March in Philadelphia on July 24, 2016. It was extremely hot that day, but I heard informally that over 7k people showed up! - Mark Dixon (CC-BY-2.0)
Credit: Photo July 24, 2016Mark Dixon, (CC-BY-2.0)

Every seasoned researcher knows this: if there is no research on an issue, it is probably obvious, and in no need of analysis; trivial, and therefore not worth studying; or too difficult to study, and so will do your academic career no good.

A recent PhD thesis confirmed my perception that research on fuel riots is currently non-existent.

So as I started writing this blog to alert you of a new IDS Working Paper on energy protests in fragile contexts, I had a moment of proper panic: had I just spent several months, some very precious research funding, and lots of many people’s time on something not worth studying?

So then I googled “fuel protest”…

Fuel protests happening around the world, every day

The top returns from the 3.2 million results included the following:

And this was just last week.

Today, I came across another example: truckers in China were protesting over the weekend about higher fuel costs, falling haulage and transportation apps which are squeezing their profits.

Clearly fuel riots / energy protests are something we should be sitting up and paying attention to.

Why has there been so little research on fuel riots and energy protests?

Well, there is some research, but it’s more focussed on environmental movements in the North – for example, struggles against nuclear energy, fracking, the Alberta tar sands, and around the location of energy plant (so-called ‘NIMBYism’).

Perhaps (typically ‘liberal’ / progressive / left-leaning) researchers of contentious politics are inevitably biased towards popular struggles for sustainability or social justice?

Yet people often protest about fuel because they can’t afford to burn the fossil fuels they depend on in everyday life, and not because they want to protect the planet. And this larger family of contention around energy gets short shrift in the literature.

We didn’t set out to study energy protests; in fact we weren’t even sure they were a ‘thing’ at first.

What we did want to do was to find out more about ‘unruly’ protests in fragile settings, that is, places where political authority is fragmented or weak and conflict common.

We wanted to understand how and why people who otherwise lack power or the space for political expression sometimes manage to come together to claim or complain.

Protests often triggered by governments failing to honour the terms of politics of provision

From our earlier work on food riots, it was clear that such protests were often triggered when governments failed to honour the terms of the ‘politics of provisions’, particularly when rises in the cost of living meant people felt unable to provide for their families.

But the briefest of surveys of the countries we were interested in, as part of the wider Action for Empowerment Accountability (A4EA) research programme – Egypt, Mozambique, Myanmar/Burma, Nigeria and Pakistan (and we added Zimbabwe, just because it is interesting) – showed each had had protests about energy in the past decade, and several had blown up into major political events.

Myanmar’s startling ‘Saffron Revolution’ of 2007 was triggered by fuel price rises, as were Nigeria’s two weeks of riots in 2012. Mozambique saw unprecedented urban uprisings linked to fuel prices in 2008 and 2010.

The run-up to Egypt’s 2011 Revolution saw protests about fuel prices, which later returned to presage political turmoil at several other points in the past decade.

Both Pakistan and Zimbabwe saw protests about energy shortages, which in both cases contributed to political transitions.

We clearly needed to look a bit closer, and our working paper attempts to do that.

Governments know that failing to feed citizens can mean protests and loss of legitimacy – how will this play out with fuel?

Throughout history and across the world, governments have known that failing to feed their citizens meant risking popular protests and a loss of legitimacy.

Will fuel riots have the same moral and political power?

We do not yet know.

But there are good reasons to believe they might.

There are definitely differences between protests over food compared to those over fuel: the poor suffer most from food price rises, while the rich use most energy, perhaps explaining why fuel riots display a cross-class character generally absent from food protests.

Yet people – and in particular urban low income people – depend on affordable transport to provide for their families, so that fuel prices are also seen as a moral issue.

And while most countries now leave food prices basically up to the market, fuel price subsidies remain important, particularly in authoritarian or hybrid polities of the kinds we were studying.

So while food riots kicked off all around the world when global food prices shot up in 2008 and 2010-11, fuel protests responded to distinctly national political events rather than international market prices – but typically because governments were cutting subsidies in line with international institutional (IMF) reforms.

Ahead of the G7, ODI recently published research which finds that – despite commitments from the G7 and teh G20 to phase out fossil fuel subsidies – G7 governments continue to provide at least $100 billion in subsidies to the production and use of coal, oil and gas.

So, perhaps these goverments are well aware of the political (and social) costs and consequences of potential rise in fuel prices – will the countries I mentioned above take note and pursue similar policies to stem the protests they are facing?

Images: Clean Energy March by Mark Dixon from Pittsburgh (CC BY 2.0)


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