by Stanley Azuaokola
Lesson 1: On the image of the president
A few dozen men haggled in a room at the villa while a whole nation waited for the outcome of their negotiations with heightened expectations. President Jonathan knew that his decision to remove the subsidy on fuel on New Year’s Day was going to raise hell but he probably never expected the level of outrage it invited. Businesses and offices closed shop; enraged Nigerians were protesting on the streets in their numbers; the main union representing oil workers, PENGASSAN, was threatening a shut-down of the nation’s oil wells; and in the negotiation room another deadlock loomed in negotiations between the government and labour unions, mainly because of labour’s hard-line stance of N65 or nothing. Then President Jonathan popped the question which stunned everyone present in the room that evening: “Is it because I am simple that you are taking my simplicity for weakness?” he asked the labour leaders. But he could have been asking the entire nation.
Nigerians have never viewed strength as one of their president’s strong points. They view his steps as too shaky and unsure, his mien too deferential and his public utterances too gaffe-laden. Bearing that in mind, the president’s defiant refusal to accede to labour’s N65/litre demand is understandable. Despite the public agitation, most watchers of the fuel subsidy stand-off knew from the moment the price of fuel rose to N141/litre that there was no way it was ever going back to N65. That would have been political hara-kiri by the president. The psychological scar such an about-turn would have inflicted on the president, his party and supporters is unimaginable. Jonathan’s position as the weakest leader Nigeria has ever had would have been cemented for good. Only a victory the size of Obama killing Osama would have been able to improve his public perception.
Unfortunately for the president, even his stonewalling for over a week, his eventual price reduction on his own terms (at N97/litre) and his decision to invite the military to occupy the streets of Lagos did not help his image. People still think he is a weak leader. Only now, he’s also seen as a bully, picking his fights and going after the vulnerable while exhibiting helplessness against corruption, cabals and the terrorists running amok. The damage however, is not irreparable. If Jonathan decides today to get ballsy and take on some of the vested interests that have continued to hold Nigeria to ransom, he’ll not only regain his enormous goodwill but might also succeed in transforming the very negative mental-model which people have developed about his presidency.
Lesson 2: On the politics of subsidy
When Jonathan tried to rationalise the militarisation of Lagos following the protest, he channelled the cliché which is every politician’s standard alibi: The opposition is behind this. Notably, the only time cameras caught youths being paid for protesting, it was in a protest organised in support of the government. It would be nice to know how much Neighbour-to-Neighbour, the political action committee of the president, actually spent on those cover page adverts splashed across the dailies and those ubiquitous radio and TV jingles. Such was their effectiveness that immediately the polity stabilised, President Jonathan immediately ‘promoted’ the Co-initiator of Neighbour-to-Neighbour, making him DG of the National Orientation Agency. Yet the president and his aides kept pointing fingers in the direction of the opposition as though if the opposition had that much money to bribe such a crowd, the PDP would still be in power today.
That’s not to say the opposition didn’t try to milk the crisis. The statement by the A.C.N governors condemning the removal was sublime showmanship of course. Everyone knows those governors wanted the subsidy removed just as badly as the PDP governors did. After all, the Governors Forum, with the A.C.N governors in it, was the main pressure group pushing for subsidy removal. CPC chieftain, Mallam Nasir El-rufai certainly did his reputation much good by his intellectual vigour during the stand-off. In fact, never a day passes now without someone literally begging him to run for president in 2015.
So did the opposition try to ride on the pervading state of discontent in the land? Of course. Was it wrong that they did that? Of course not. They wouldn’t be an opposition otherwise. It says a lot about our collective aversion to ideological and intellectual jousts when government can assume that accusing the opposition of doing the job of an opposition is a ‘smart’ political strategy. We’ve always lamented about the docility of opposition parties, finally some of them are getting the idea. It’s something to be excited about.
Lesson 3: On Labour’s poor labour
There’s an important lesson to be gleaned from Labour’s role especially at the beginning and towards the end of the protests. Nigerians must learn to organise, propel and sustain any genuine agitation in the future independent of labour unions if need arises. It’s ironic that even though the protests began a week before labour decided to join in, they were the ones mandated to represent Nigerians during negotiations. They were the ones who limited the demands of the people to fuel price when the protests could have marked a golden opportunity for the tabling of some serious demands. And ultimately, they were the ones whose capitulation led to the end of that movement in less than satisfactory terms. The thing which makes labour so forceful and so impactful, is also what makes it costly if or when they decide to pull away or get compromised.
The good thing is that this time, it all happened in the open. Thanks to social media and progressive news networks like Channels, Nigerians followed it every step of the way. People are meeting formally and informally, they’ve taken notes of the actions of all actors, they are waiting, and all that’s left now is a trigger. The next time, it would be the people calling the shots, making the demands, and pulling the strings all by themselves.
To be continued.