Nigerians woke to a new price regime on 1 January and our reaction was instantaneous.’ The president has betrayed us!’ we all cried. Mr President popularly called GEJ emerged as president by a wide margin in an election that remains difficult to discredit. He was not a popular candidate thus; nothing he had done in the 7 months he has been in power has been received well by Nigerians.
Following the conversations on and off social media, it was clear Nigerians felt short changed, and increasingly frustrated. The growing level of insecurity wasn’t helping the state of affairs either. With elections 3 years away, everybody was very impatient: “We can’t do this for another 3 years,” was the prevailing sentiment.
The removal of fuel subsidy was the perfect trigger we needed to push back and cry ‘enough is enough!’
Social media went into frenzy, rallies were organised in the first week of January. The Nigerian Labour Congress (NLC) in conjunction with the Trade Union Congress (TUC) announced an indefinite strike starting 9 January. Within 24 hours of the first rally, a protest was conceptualised and named OccupyNigeria. Utilizing the opportunity of NLC/TUC’s sit-at-home strike came naturally.
To clearly understand the reason why the protests failed within a week, it is important to put the fuel subsidy palaver and the role of each party into the right context. The NLC and TUC are industrial representatives of the Nigerian worker. They are the largest organised body who negotiates with the federal government on behalf when there are disputes that affect the general population. In 39 years, petrol prices have been adjusted 24 times from 6 kobo/Litre in 1973 to N139/Litre in 2012.
In 1993, Ernest Shonekan increased the price by a whopping 614%, in the same year; Abacha readjusted the price downwards by 35% and later adjusted it again upwards by another 340%. AbudulSalami further increased it by 107% and in 2012, Jonathan by 116%. At each of these 24 instances, has been the NLC negotiating across the table with the government.
The protests started peacefully on 9 January as planned. With each passing day, the number of people showing up at various OccupyNigeria locations across the country increased geometrically as well as the rhetoric. At the end of each day, it looked like ‘our time’ had indeed come. It was very easy to feel an emotional connection and misinterpreted it as determination and stamina.
Unfortunately, there were some foundational problems with the OccupyNigeria protests.
- GEJ was painted as bad as the anti-Christ…..’ how dare he increase fuel price by as much as 100%?’ It made sense to a lot of the more passionate young Nigerians that for sure the price hike was unreasonable and must be reviewed downwards. Those of us with access to information conveniently overlooked the fact that a 100% increase was not uncommon thus giving people false hope.
- There was absolutely no way OccupyNigeria was going to survive unless it came up with a very sustainable strategy to stand on its own if and when NLC/TUC called off their strike. In addition to this, a strategy on how to keep the protests peaceful was also absent. Hence as soon as NLC/TUC began negotiations with government (as it was their responsibility to do,) the days of OccupyNigeria were numbered. This slowly became apparent as the war cry started shifting from the previously dominant ‘On N65 we stand’ to ‘this protest is not just about subsidy’
- OccupyNigeria had no unified objective. Was it ‘N65 or nothing’? Or ‘GEJ must go’? Or maybe ‘Power must change hands’…….it was uber confusing. This lack of a unified objective created ‘a vacuum of intent’ Typically, ‘Intent’ is that source from which a protest draws motivation and stamina from regularly and most especially at points where motivation is lowest.
- There was no consensus on whom/what the common enemy was. Was it ‘GEJ’? ‘The cabal?’ ‘The National Assembly?’ or maybe ‘the entire government?’ The most recently successful revolt –June 12, had a common enemy –Babangida/The military and a common objective –the return of the military to the barracks.
- The lack of originality of the ‘Occupy’ ideology naturally gave the protest a ‘We too’ and a ‘feel good’ passion which didn’t have the kind of stamina required to remain defiant in the face of government pressure every day for as long as it took. The carnival atmosphere which helped to keep things peaceful also gave the protest a ‘jovial’ look. Nigerian artistes used it as an opportunity to connect with their fans. Everybody wanted to be seen ‘identifying’ with the masses.
- Their Occupiers had no stamina, after a mere 5 days, they took a break to ‘refresh’ and restock. A revolution is spontaneous and very serious business, there is no such thing as ‘time out, we need t rest’
On 15 January, Government and NLC/TUC reached an agreement, the new price for petrol, N97. NLC/TUC had no choice but to call off the strike, they had no right to do otherwise. GEJ drafted the army to the streets to maintain law and order like any president anywhere in the world would do. Once on the streets, the army didn’t hinder the movement of people but it was clear no protests would be tolerated. The Occupiers retreated beaten. Most murmured and grumbled from the comfort and safety of their houses calling GEJ a bully and a dictator.
Was GEJ wrong for bringing in the army? My opinion is no. As Commander in Chief, he used the army to return the country to normalcy and to the best of my knowledge; no life has been lost since the army was drafted to the streets. Twenty four hours later, the army is barely visible and things have returned to normal.
What could OccupyNigeria have done better? It could have formed an alliance with NLC/TUC, with both parties capitalizing on each other’s strengths. The strategy would have been-
- No negotiations with the government at all until 100% reversal of petrol price.
- Subsidy negotiations would only begin when government investigates and prosecute corruption in the Oil/Gas sector, cut the expenses of both the senate and executive by 40%.
NLC/TUC’s sit at home and OccupyNigeria’s civil disobedience would have kept the Nigerians motivated and left the government with no alternatives. Eventually, both government and the people would have won via compromise and collaboration.
In conclusion, David didn’t slay Goliath because he (David) was stronger but because he acknowledged his own weakness. And by acknowledging his weakness, he realised he needed a winning strategy and that strategy was his sling (catapult). War cries and chants only say we are passionate and desire a change, it doesn’t say we are ready to go the distance just yet.
Hope motivates but it does not win battles. Strategy is what battles are won with.