by Cheta Nwanze
We may have lost this battle, but the war for the soul of our country is still there to be won, and I dare say, we can win.
January 16, 2012 will certainly go down in history as an important day in the history of Nigeria though its ramifications are as yet unknown. Shall it be remembered as the day when the spirit of the people was finally broken forever, allowing successive governments the comfort of knowing that no matter how brainless, idiotic or outright criminally repressive their policies might be, they would be accepted hook, line, and fishing rod by the populace? Or shall it be remembered as the day when Nigerians finally understood the process by which their will is routinely subverted and began taking the necessary steps to ensure that it never happened again? Only time will tell. However, for the sake of my children and their children, I sincerely hope it is the latter.
On January 1, 2012, while most people were still digesting their New Year’s lunches (and wryly acknowledging that some resolutions just didn’t last beyond the aroma of a specially prepared meal) the federal agency responsible for the pricing of petrol announced an increase in the pump price of the ubiquitous product of about 131%, taking the price from ₦65 to ₦141. The immediate reaction was outrage, and it spread fast. A movement was born around the issue, and in homage to similar movements around the world, it took the name Occupy Nigeria. This spontaneous movement, not driven by any unions or labour leaders, organized protests and sit-ins around the country from north to south, and rapidly grew in strength.
The Occupy Movement was not only interested in the price of petrol, however. It made accountability and good governance its core demands. Government officials claimed that the subsidy on petroleum products was crippling the economy, that the bill had shot up astronomically in under a year. On the other hand, the same government officials also told of massive corruption and fraud in the subsidy system. They gave examples of sharp practices carried out by unscrupulous importers of petrol (who happened to be Nigerian citizens) and wailed about the fact that the vast sums of money to be made from the criminal act made it impossible to stop them other than by removing the subsidy.
They came out on TV with straight faces and told the entire world that a small group of people, a “cabal” was responsible for preventing the government from repairing its own refineries. Strangely, despite these jaw-dropping claims, none of them offered to resign. The heads of the various security agencies they had damned didn’t offer to resign, and the President they had just declared to be weak and incompetent, didn’t offer to resign.
Imagine the Home Secretary in Britain announcing that cocaine imports were crippling the UK economy and border security agents were taking bribes to let them through, and then saying that there was so much money involved in cocaine smuggling the government couldn’t do anything to prevent the criminals from having a field day and was therefore going to turn a blind eye to the practice. Not only would such an official no longer be a cabinet member roughly 5 seconds after making such disclosures, they would be hounded out of public service forever.
Naturally, people greeted these government statements with the incredulity they deserved. The people demanded that the government tackle the corruption in the subsidy regime and furthermore, if we were really looking for funds for development projects, the first place to start was within the Presidency itself with its many duplicate agencies and ministries and ministers. People queried the fact that a President who was asking for sacrifices from the people had the following items in his own budget:
- ₦1 billion for the feeding of the President and VP and their families;
- ₦300 million for “cutlery”;
- ₦400 million for “catering services”;
- ₦200 million for “snacks”;
- ₦200 million to water the Presidential garden;
- ₦48 million to buy newspapers for the VP;
- ₦2.5 billion for software;
- ₦27 billion for research and development; and so on and so forth.
The above items were in addition to the extraordinary salaries and allowances of members of the executive, which were far above and beyond what obtained in countries far wealthier than us. People demanded that the cuts should start from the government itself rather than the only thing the masses actually “enjoyed”.
The legislature wasn’t spared either. The salaries and allowances of federal legislators were coming under increased scrutiny and it was surely a matter of time before the loud demands for cuts were broadened to include our million dollar a year Senators and Honorables.
In the middle of the protests, the NLC announced that it would embark on an indefinite strike until the pump price of petrol was reversed to ₦65 per litre. The union also called for daily rallies and street protests until these demands were met. The President made a broadcast announcing that he and members of the executive would take a 25% cut in their basic pay, but that there would be no reduction in the price of petrol. This announcement was greeted with widespread derision. Basic salaries were not the problem, it was pointed out, the outrageous allowances were. The protests momentum of the protests began to grow, leading to international coverage. Some airlines cancelled international flights, and the union of oil workers threatened to join in the strike if the President refused to relent.
Then the President announced that instead of ₦141, petrol would instead be increased to ₦97, and he demanded that the strikes be called off. He also announced probes into the activities of fuel importers and that the government would act on an audit report into NNPC which had been gathering dust on his table for over a month. The NLC announced that street rallies would be suspended while it considered the President’s latest offer, and the President ordered the army to secure the streets of Lagos, Kano, and Abuja, where the protests were giving him the greatest headache. Officers of the SSS invaded the offices of international media organisations such as CNN and the BBC.
Despite these challenges, people still took to the streets to let it be known that they would not be cowed by the display of force against unarmed protesters which has been so glaringly absent against the Boko Haram terror organisation. It was reported that soldiers were firing live bullets over the heads of protesters in Lagos and using tear gas against them. The Governor of Lagos scheduled a press conference.
Then, around 1 pm on January 16, 2012, the NLC announced that the strike was over, and its leadership, bearing the looks of severely compromised men, refused to take any questions, instead singing that they had “victory”. What victory? Had the price increase been reversed? No. Had the growing demands for accountability from government officials been met? No. Instead, the union had snatched defeat from the jaws of resounding victory, while those jaws were closing swiftly on the prize.
The shocked reactions of many in the Occupy Movement were only intensified by the fact that shortly after the stunning capitulation of the NLC, Governor Fashola of Lagos at his scheduled press conference, demanded the immediate withdrawal of soldiers from his streets and defended the right of people to peaceful protest.
Tomorrow morning, people will still have to contend with a fuel price hike, increased transportation costs, and increased foodstuff costs. The prices of goods and services are still going to go up, and the minimum wage increase which took such a long battle to obtain, is still going to be grossly inadequate.
So, what lessons are we going to learn from the past few days? For starters, it is clear that the labour unions in this country are severely compromised and cannot be relied on the lead popular protest against the criminal ineptitude of government. Labour unions in Nigeria are made up, by and large, of government employees, and it is very difficult to break the master-slave dynamic. This protest demonstrated that labour unions are used by the government to truncate popular protest by inserting themselves into the argument, taking leadership of the process, and then engineering whatever outcome is desired by the government. It has been done over and over again, and I think it’s about time we learned from our past mistakes.
Popular protests should be organized and conducted independent of the reactions of organized labour. The Occupy Protests were begun without the input of labour unions. They were sustained without the labour unions, and given time, would have grown into a force to be reckoned with. In the countries where the Arab spring occurred/is occurring, events were not driven by labour unions. In fact, any unions would have had to key into the process and follow it instead of lead. Accordingly, the impact of any sellout by the labour leadership would have had a minimal impact on the protests.
Labour strikes can paralyse government activities, but at the end of the day, the members of these unions are part of the system, and the system is designed to look out for itself first and in general, tries not to feed on itself. The bottom line is, labour unions will always cast fearful glances at the unemployment market and comfort themselves with the knowledge that “something” is coming in every month, rather than risk being cast out into the cold. It is why unions will fight tooth and nail against anything that threatens the existence of the almighty pay slip. At the end of the day, the rationale is: be glad you have a salary you can “adjust” to cope with the increased prices of everything, rather than be one of the poor bastards for whom the concrete on which they used to scratch for a living has been replaced with granite.
As of this moment, if feels as though the air has been sucked out of Occupy Nigeria’s sails, and the sails and masts have been further carted off by pirates disguised as helpful friends. However, it is not all doom and gloom, there have been many positives which we can carry away from this experience.
Even though the government got what it wanted in the form of a fuel price hike, Nigerians were finally able to wring some accountability from it in return. By steadfastly refusing to buy the same old tired government lies about the fuel price regime, we have forced the government to admit its own deceptions and publicly announce investigations.
We have shown that it is possible to break down the historic divisions of tribe and religion which have been used by the ruling class to prevent a free and open exchange of ideas between the component parts of our great yet fragile union. In Kano, Christian and Muslim stood together, protected one another, chanted together, and waved the flag together. The seeds of true unity have been sown, and we must take care to water them and protect them against the selfish interests who know that our diversity is our greatest strength and seek to permanently divide us.
And though we may be licking our wounds, we can be proud of the fact that our corrupt system has been given a bloody nose, and will no longer view us as the easiest meat in the world.
We may have lost this battle, but the war for the soul of our country is still there to be won, and I dare say, we can win. Come on, let’s make them regret the day they pulled an old trick one time too many.