It’s been one year since Nigerians in their rarest of moments braved the odds to protest everything they felt was wrong with the Nigerian state.
President Jonathan in his usual habit of annoying Nigerians decided that the only appropriate gift for the country to celebrate the New Year was a fuel pump price increase on January 1, 2012. The turnout of Nigerians in staging those protests did have its impact on the government of the day. #OccupyNigeria visited and it occupied.
A few commentators continue to argue that it was a futile exercise. The movement had neither leadership nor representative at the bargaining table and thus it failed.
Others argue that a single movement does not expressly liberate a country; it’s a means to an end and therefore the road to glory is rather long.
And others would easily compare it with the Arab spring. Were Nigerians really ready for the Arab Spring type of protests, the unending ritual of protesting ignited by Friday prayers? What is the similarity between the North African countries and Nigeria?
About 90% of Egyptians, for instance, are Muslims and they speak one official language – Arabic. In contrast, Nigeria is a heterogeneous country where no single ethnic group represents 50% of the population and is divided along religious lines. From history, the Nigerian state continues to struggle with its internal diversity when it comes to collective actions in an effort to determine what is in the best interest of the state.
The principal actors and organizations behind the #OcupyNigeria protests faced a dilemma from day one. Despite the leverage they had, which was that the pump price affected every Nigerian, there was still the challenge of hoping that Nigerians would not turn on each other and go from being allies to enemies.
How was the protest going to march against Jonathan for leading a corrupt government without inducing uncontrolled sentiments?
Tunde Bakare was a candidate in the 2011 presidential elections, and it was easy to see his involvement in the protests as a way to get into office or hit back at the Presidency. Was this an opposition by the major ethnic groups against the first President from a minority ethnic group? Was Lagos state- the commercial capital of the country being used to score political points in the hands of the opposition party?
Some supporters of the protest also saw calls for the government to step down as too extreme. It was quite obvious that the joint forces behind #OccupyNigeria had the challenge of playing down their differences for a collective goal yet the issue of defining this goal was never broached.
What was the priority of the protests? To reverse the status quo on the price of petrol or to get corrupt officials tried in the court of law and jailed? Will the resignation of key ministers in the present regime be a fruitful demand? The lists of demands were endless.
The EiE coalition was the first to table a set of demands that were never adopted by any consensus thereafter. It is easy to forget that the announcement of the President to increase the pump price on New Year’s day was unexpected and what happened thereafter including the #OccupyNigeria movement was spontaneous.
The three basic questions of social movement theory come to play in these scenarios:
First, why should Nigerians not act collectively in the face of many reasons to, and why should they not march? This is the dilemma that pulled the fatigue on the protesters by the Friday when a break in the protests was announced. In the face of many reasons including basic survival and the need to feed their families, the protesters questioned why they should remain active.
Secondly, what did Nigerians see when they joined the movement? Was this an anti-establishment quest or one to put a smile on President Jonathan’s political opponents? Was it a march to liberate this generation by Nigerians for Nigerians?
Thirdly, what were the expected concrete outcomes of this collective action in joining the protests? Did people join the #occupyNigeria protest with a clear understanding of what they were meant to achieve? Unlike the Arab Spring, the expected outcome was clear- Hosni Mubarak had to go, Gadhafi had to go, and for this same reason, Syria is still locked in internal crisis till date because Assad must go. I doubt if that was the aim of the #OccupyNigeria movement but the government claimed it was orchestrated to overthrow the present regime.
Without defined leadership, the collective interests and good of the movement was in jeopardy. Unlike in small groups where such interests can be closely monitored and shared, a growing number of people came with its own challenges.
The onus of convincing the followers that their participation is worthwhile lies on the shoulder of the leaders. In the Nigerian parlance, the discussion goes thus “Abeg I no wan die ooo”, “Shey na you be defender of the universe” “abeg wey dem pickin” etc.
Yet the proportion of citizens who went on to participate in these protests is a critical measure of its relative success as movements usually have no defined membership but are formed on public grounds. Such is the rare bonding that happened in Ojota- the coming together of different classes of people in the same society.
One of the protesters at the #OccupyNigeria protest confessed that it was his first time of being surrounded by street boys smoking weed without the fear of being harmed or molested. This confirms Karl Marx’s position on collective action by people of different classes; it will only happen when their social class is in fully developed contradiction with its antagonists.
According to Sidney Tarrow, social movements are formed when ordinary citizens respond to opportunities that lower costs of calling for collective action over a long period of time. If nothing is gained, it reveals potential allies and shows where the elites and the government are vulnerable.
For those who judge #OccupyNigeria further with a significant regime change, do take note that regime change is never feasible unless the state agency with the monopoly of violence remains neutral, withdraws its support from the regime or there is a division within its ranks. From Tunisia to Egypt, Libya and now Syria, the position of the army has influenced the outcome of the protests.
In fact significant change and momentum in ousting the regime can be linked to the position of the army at every point in time. A regime change if necessitated by the #OccupyNigeria protests would never see the light of the day unless the Nigerian Army took sides with them or remained neutral until they gathered the momentum to overrun the state with the protests. It is for such reasons that the President in a shameless manner and with disregard for the right of the citizens to protest deployed the army onto the streets of Lagos against unarmed protesters in order to quell the momentum and maintain his status quo. Still, I am not implying that the ultimate interest of #OccupyNigeria was regime change.
The role of stakeholders during the era of #occupyNigeria protests can always be re-examined, from organized labour, who in their usual tradition succumbed to the whims and caprices of the government, the media which played the role of both friend and adversary and the many who sold their conscience for a pot of porridge. To the religious organizations who either stood by or opposed the movement, the private equity and interests who wanted to maintain the status quo, the lesson is all upon us.
One cannot take away the level of publicity and awareness achieved by the movement from civic consciousness, for once even though it did not last forever, a spectrum of Nigerians from all works of life forgot their defined differences to support a move that they believed in. How many hours of civic education would be required to achieve the desired results?
While the same cannot be said of the efforts of the government in reducing corruption, 2012 has been a revealing year about what transpired in Nigeria between 2007 and 2011, right under our noses. More citizens have become interested in the affairs of the state. It is indeed a period in our contemporary history that will remain with us forever, in the hope that if the spirit is ever awakened, Nigerians will once again fight for Nigeria. The die was cast this time last year, #OccupyNigeria was here and the verdict is out, you only have to follow your expectations beyond the movement.
As we remember the #OccupyNigeria events, let us not forget those who paid the ultimate price with their lives. May their souls rest in peace.
This piece was first published in The Scoop