The Pains and Gains of #OccupyNigeria

Occupy Nigeria Logo designed by Zakari Ahmadu

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.

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Fuel Subsidy Removal: Messing With the Middle Class

ANNOUNCING A CALLOUS POLICY WITH IMPUNITY

A liberalization move by the government to deregulate the downstream sector of the oil industy by removing subsidy on petrol was announced on Sunday 1st January, New Year’s Day just when Nigerians were reeling from the shock of deadly bomb attacks on Christmas day and a spate of sectarian killings in Ebonyi state, the South-East of Nigeria. This unilateral decision by the Executive arm of government took Nigerians by surprise as it was meant to take immediate effect, and as government was supposed to be conducting “wide consultations” with stakeholders on the controversial and highly unpopular policy decision, and even as the National Assembly was yet conclude deliberations on the issue.

NIGERIANS TAKE TO THE INTERNET… AND TO THE STREETS

Despite our renowned resilience and almost legendary perseverance in any situation, the removal of subsidy seems to have been the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. We took to the internet, especially Facebook and Twitter to express our vehement disapproval of this insensitive policy and its callous and untimely implementation on New Year’s Day. That same afternoon, people started mobilizing on social media for mass protests the next day in Abuja, Lagos, Kaduna and other cities across the country. Even the leading opposition parties and professional associations like the Nigerian Bar Association and the Nigerian Medical Association issued strongly worded statements condemning this move in its entirety and threatening mass action.

Most Nigerians are particularly incensed because this policy is not only highly unpopular, but also because the government has had little consultation with the public. After the last (public) meeting it had with the media and some stakeholders in Lagos in December where people expressed their extreme disapproval, government promised to continue consultations before fuel subsidy would be removed from either January 20th 2012 or April 2012. The government’s unilateral decision on New Year’s Day which appears to be a stealthily well-planned siege on Nigerians has further heightened Nigerians’ extreme distrust for the government and vindicated our view of government officials as highly duplicitous. Most importantly, Nigerians are infuriated by the immediate effect of this policy which has resulted in inflation in transport fares, food stuff and basic commodities by as much as 200% as fuel prices have increased from N65 ($0.48) to over N140 (almost $1) per litre. In some places like Calabar, fuel is reportedly sold for over N200 per litre.

In Lagos the commercial capital, mass protests began on Monday which were largely peaceful:

In Abuja the capital city, scores of youths led by a former Federal Legislator, Dino Melaye on Monday marched to Eagle square carrying placards and signed a protest register. The police tried to foil the protest and to confiscate the protest register but they later returned it. Several protesters including Melaye were arrested by the police and taken to the Anti-robbery Squad but were later released.

In Kaduna on Monday, scores of protesters gathered at Murtala Square to peacefully sign a protest register but were later dispersed by anti-riot policemen.

In Kano, the turn out, just like in Lagos was huge. Hundreds of protesters turned out en masse on Wednesday 4th January and even spent the night at Silver Jubilee round about which was christened Kano “Liberation” Square.

In several other cities across the country, scores and even hundreds of protesters have been pouring out onto the streets as the pictures below show: from Kebbi, Katsina and Bauchi in the North, to Ibadan, Akure and Benin in the South. Nigerians are angry and are not hiding it.

The two images above are from the Northern city of Katsina.

These two images above are from Benin city, the capital of Edo state, one of the states in the President’s home region, the Niger-Delta.

The image above is a picture taken of Ijaw youths (from the President’s ethnic group) protesting the removal of Subsidy on Wednesday 4th January.

Protesters in Bauchi in the North East, at the Emir’s palace. Unconfirmed reports later stated that the Emir joined the protesters in marching through the city.

Abeokuta, Ogun state.

Ibadan, Oyo state.

WHAT ARE THE DEMANDS?

The demands of Nigerians basically centre on the reversal of this decision: mainly restoring fuel subsidy, cutting government waste, tackling corruption, provision of infrastructure, repairing the ailing refineries and building new ones. While many protesters have been calling for the President’s resignation and indeed the popular use of the term #OccupyNigeria by protesters could mistakenly give that impression, there are really no explicit political goals from protesters. The protests are simply an expression of indignation at a policy which will and is already bringing untold hardship on Nigerians. The labour unions – the Nigerian Labour Conress (NLC) and Trade Union Congress (TUC) have given the government an ultimatum to reverse the decision by Monday 9th January or face nation-wide protests which would shut banks, schools, offices, oil installations, airports etc and effectively cripple the economy.

This video below sufficiently captures and encapsulates the demands of many Nigerians:

TECH-SAVVY YOUTH MOBILIZE… AND BROADCAST TO THE WORLD

With a population well over 150 million people, Nigeria is reported to have over 43 million Nigerians (educated middle to upper class) on social media sites like Facebook and Twitter and connected to the internet. Nigerian youths have mobilized to take to the streets and challenge the government’s unpopular decision. In the face of scant media coverage and even blackout towards the protests by government owned television and radio stations like the Nigeria Television Authority (NTA) and some government friendly newspapers, it is social media savvy youth who have broadcasted images and updates to both local and international media. Citizen reporters on ground tweet pictures, videos and live updates of events and use Facebook, Youtube and blogs. These updates are sent to local and international media like Channels TV, BBC Africa, CCN i-report, Al-Jazeera stream and others using the hashtags #FuelSubsidy and #OccupyNigeria. Notable citizen journalists and activists include Sahara Reporters, Japeth Omojuwa, Kayode Ogundamisi, Gbenga Sesan and scores of others.

In an ironic, but not surprising twist of fate, President Jonathan’s Facebook page which he and his advisers have severally used to brag about his social media savvy-ness and popularity has been bombarded with tens of thousands of highly critical messages by his Facebook fans expressing raw fury and emotion, with some comments bordering on downright insults and curses. President Jonathan seems to have set the record as the “most cursed person on Facebook

THE GOVERNMENT’S OBSTINACY, HALF-TRUTHS AND MANIPULATION 

Knowing the Nigerian government’s antecedents of its brazen disregard for the feelings of ordinary Nigerians, its actions, statements and responses to the mass opposition and protests against its deregulation policy since New Year’s Day did not disappoint in the least bit. It only served to vindicate Nigerians’ massive distrust and growing disdain for government officials. Here are some instances:

The Minister of Labour, Chief Chukwuemeka Wogu in his reaction, on Channels TV, to the threat by Labour Unions to embark on massive strikes said: “As a government, you don’t succumb to threats or pandering… from the people you rule…” You can watch the video clip HERE.

Ahmed Ali Gulak, a Special Adviser to the President on Political Affairs, in an interview with the BBC World Have Your Say programme on Wednesday 4th January claimed that “majority of Nigerians are in support of the removal of subsidy” to which a Nigerian, Nicolas Adikwe, present at the BBC studio countered and said it was an “insult” to Nigerians out on the streets, and that it was misleading.

The Central Bank Governor, Sanusi Lamido Sanusi and the Minister of Finance and Coordinating Minster of the Economy Dr. Ngozi Okonjo Iweala (believed to be the arrowhead of this allegedly IMF-backed policy) have rehashed the same well worn-out economic arguments to justify subsidy removal, albeit with complete detachment from the reality of the Nigerian socio-political environment.

The government in an emergency cabinet meeting on Wednesday has stated that it remains firm and resolute on this decision and will not reverse it.

GOVERNMENT BRUTALITY AND REPRESSION

While protests have been largely peaceful, the government has in some cases used violence to brutally repress peaceful protests.

In Lagos, this video shows a protester being beaten and brutalized by the police:

In Ilorin, witnesses say an unarmed protester; Muyideen Mustafa was brutally shot by the Police on Tuesday, while Police Officials claim he was stabbed by protesters. He was the first casualty of the protest and his remains have been laid to rest.

In Kano, though the police behaved well on Wednesday towards the protesters, they waited until the early hours of Thursday from around 02.00am local time to lay a cowardly late night ambush on protesters, beating them and firing tear gas cannisters. It was a hair-raising moment for social media users keeping tabs on the events in Kano as most liaisons and citizen reporters giving live updates from the Silver Jubilee roundabout (Liberation Square) in Kano were unreachable for several minutes. An estimated 40 people were reported to have been injured.

In Ibadan, protesters, mostly students were tear-gassed by security forces.

UNITY IN DIVERSITY: A SERENDIPITY

One of the most remarkable serendipity of sorts to have occurred so far is a growing sense of unity amongst Nigerians hitherto known to be deeply divided along ethno-religious lines. Perhaps the shared sense of frustration, anger and oppression by a ruling class cutting across most ethnic and religious groups is finally uniting Nigerians and achieving what political scientists, sociologists, historians, religious leaders, donor agencies, countless government committees and integration policies have failed to achieve.

This bond and unity was most evident in the city of Kano, hitherto a hotbed of inter-religious squabble, where Christians on Wednesday 4th January stood guard to protect Muslims as they prayed. A mutual agreement for peace was said to have been reached between Muslims and Christians where Muslim would protect all non-Muslims and escort them to their places of worship and vice-versa. They vowed to resist any attempt to use religion to divide them with a register opened to that effect.

Similarly in Kaduna, an agreement is reported to have been reached between Christians and Muslims today (Thursday 5th January). The photo below shows Christians surrounding and protecting Muslims as they pray.

It is too early to tell whether this bond would grow stronger and whether it would be replicated in other parts of the country, but it certainly is a welcome development

“EMINENT” AND “RESPECTED” RELIGIOUS LEADERS: MUM IS THE WORD

As some Nigerians are gradually uniting over their shared sense of frustration, virtually nothing has been heard from most of the prominent Islamic and Christian leaders, neither on the fuel subsidy removal, nor the mass protests enveloping the entire country. With the exception of local imams, pastors and some catholic bishops, “eminent” leaders such as the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) President Ayo Ortisejafor, the Sultan of Sokoto, the Jama’atul Nasril Islam (JNI) and others who are usually very vocal towards many national and political issues have surprisingly maintained a deafening silence on this. You tend to wonder…

A SENSE OF HUMOUR, AGAINST ALL ODDS

Trust us Nigerians. Our resilience always unleashes bursts of creativity and even humour, as these pictures and video show:

“Praying”  that water turns to  fuel?

FINALLY, A NIGERIAN “ARAB SPRING”?

So is this the start of a Nigerian “Arab Spring”? There are certainly a number of similarities with the uprisings in the Arab world: a shared sense of anger and frustration; a growing unity amongst hitherto divided people; protests mobilized by an educated, sophisticated and tech-savvy youth; wide use of social networking and growing support for the protests and so on. However, as mentioned earlier, there are no overt political goals yet as most Nigerians simply want a reversal of this policy. Therefore, the labour unions could reach a compromise with the government as is usually the case with unpopular government policies. What seems to be different this time around though, is the widespread anger and disenchantment by the public and also that Nigerians poured out onto the streets without waiting for the go ahead from the NLC/TUC. Nigerian youths also for the first time in a long time feel as if they are really part of something, by expressing their displeasure and protesting. It remains to be seen how things pan out in the next few days.