“Occupy Nigeria was a test-run to a revolution”
– Kayode Ogundamisi. Citizen journalist
So it was that in the wee hours of Monday 16th January 2012, the series of strikes and mass protests called Occupy Nigeria for the most part came to a grinding and anticlimactic end. Just when the mass protests were reaching an unprecedented crescendo, the Labour Unions (NLC/TUC), which formed only a sub-set of the #OccupyNigeria movement entered into an agreement behind closed doors with government… and the rest as they say is history. While this was incredibly disappointing to to those who had high hopes for its potential as it signalled a growing democratic deficit, others are of the opinion that some gains have been made in terms of political participation and mobilization for our nascent democracy.
An obvious gain is the rise of youth movements both online and offline, their influence and their strength. #OccupyNigeria movement, a loose coalition of various individuals and civil society groups was a spontaneous movement that began on the 1st of January 2012 in response to the arbitrary fuel price increase by the executive arm of the Nigerian government. For the most part #OccupyNigeria started online, with Facebook, Twitter and other social media used as outlets for people to express their outrage and as platforms for organizing and mobilizing people for street protests. It was individuals and coalition of youth groups such as the Enough is Enough (EIE) from all over Nigeria: from Lagos to Abuja, Kano to Kwara, Kaduna to Ibadan and in the Diaspora who discussed, mobilized, organized protests, shared information with one another mostly online and offline as well. This served as an opportunity for youths (who constitute over 70% of the population) who had hitherto been alienated and marginalized from political discourse, discussion and participation in the Nigerian public sphere to register their relevance and make their voices heard.
Furthermore, the spontaneity of the Occupy Movement as an embodiment of collective outrage felt by Nigerians meant it was representative of the feelings of ordinary Nigerian youths at home and in the diaspora. The movement cut across the country’s mainstream divisions and fault lines: Muslims and Christians; Northerners and Southerners; Hausa, Yorubas and Igbos; Nigerians at home and abroad; Men and women; students, graduates and workers etc. By collectively expressing our outrage, Nigerian youths realized that the labels we have been tagged with are superficial as we all have the same needs; we are all demanding better governance and transparency from our leaders and are all troubled by the rising insecurity in the country. By far the most symbolic and powerful personification of this unified collective outrage lies in the unbelievable images of Christians protecting Muslim faithful whilst they prayed in the cities of Kano and Kaduna, the covenant of peace entered by Muslim and Christian faithful and the solidarity visit to churches in Kano by Muslim faithful. These served to shatter the long-held myth of the irreconcilable differences amongst Nigerians. It also served to rekindle a sense of nationalism, patriotism and belief in the viability of Nigeria amongst many who were fast losing hope in the Nigerian project.
This is about where the gains end.
As much as ordinary Nigerians were for the first time able to make their voices heard, those unified voices were apparently not loud enough as the government did not yield to any of the movement’s immediate demands (and that of the lower chamber of the Legislature, the House of Representatives) of reverting fuel price back to N65 per litre and drastically cutting government’s bloated recurrent expenditure. The labour unions who joined the mass protests spearheaded by the OccupyNigeria movement after it had gone on for a week are now regarded with suspicion and resentment for what many perceive to be their hijacking of the movement and acting arbitrarily, negotiating with and reaching an agreement with government to peg fuel price at N97 without consultation with the rest of the Occupy movement. While government has since then, at least the the House of Representatives has commenced committee hearings and unearthed a ton of fraud and opaqueness in the oil sector and the operations of agencies like the Petroleum Products Pricing Regulatory Agency (PPPRA) and the state-owned oil coy Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC), the basic demands of the movement were not met and the deal brokered was not in tandem with the basic demands of #OccupyNigeria.
Directly related to the above is that the perceived lack of disregard for the voice of the ordinary Nigerian by those in government. This has fed a growing lack of trust, disillusionment and cynicism on the activities of government officials who are widely regarded to be alienated from the public. The decision to “remove” fuel subsidy and increase petrol pump price was taken unilaterally by the executive while consultations with the public and civil society were supposed to be ongoing; the unified front presented by government officials in vehemently defending the policy and the non-resignation or breaking of ranks by even one government official adds fuel to this distrust and disillusionment by Nigerians. The strikes may have been called off, the movement might have lost its vigour but the distrust in government has only persisted and perhaps even worsened. A recent gallup poll conducted revealed that 94% of Nigerians do not trust the government.
Lastly the brutal repression of peaceful protesters by security forces at the behest of government portends the greatest danger to our democracy. Over 20 protesters were reported to have been shot and killed by police in Lagos, Kano, Ilorin and other cities while many more sustained injuries. A very disturbing aspect of it all is the deployment of the army to Lagos and to a lesser extent in Kaduna allegedly to quell protests. There were reports of use of tear gas and other acts of repression on those who had continued with the protesters beyond 9th January when strikes were called off by Labour Unions.This was perceived by many civil society groups and activists as a breach of fundamental rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly.
Thus, despite the very modest gains of the OccupyNigeria movement, the underlying issues and contradictions that brought about the movement in the first place have not been addressed. Fuel prices are still high, soaring inflation still persists, and the disconnect between government and ordinary Nigerians has only increased. In addition, there is seething resentment amongst Nigerians for government officials over the way the movement was hijacked, stifled, suffocated and rendered irrelevant by labour unions and the government. There is obviously a need to address these issues; bridges of political communication need to be rapidly built in order to restore trust and confidence in the government. Otherwise, this seeming democratic deficit has the risk of boiling over one day, perhaps in the not too distant future.