by Ayo Obe
In 2011, around the April elections, famed civil rights activist Ayo Obe wrote an article in NEXT newspaper questioning the value of growing youth activism vis a vis a sense of entitlement. In response, the editor-in-chief of Y!/YNaija Chude Jideonwo wrote a rejoinder. Many months after, she’s now impressed! See both pieces here and here – and see her latest piece below.
I nearly got my head bitten off last year, when I remarked on how some spokespersons for Nigerian ‘yoot’ were “loud about entitlement (but short on everything else)”, and suggested that candidates talking about ‘de yoot’ were giving the appearance of concern, rather than the actuality.
While some disagreed with the National Population Commission’s definition of ‘youths’ as those between the ages of 18-24, insisting that the seven or eight years many spent passing through Nigerian universities meant that the definition should be stretched to the age of 30, or even 35, others were sure that it was mere jealousy because youths in my days had not achieved the recognition that those being wooed by 2011’s political aspirants were now getting.
One can hardly blame them. After all, President Goodluck Jonathan didn’t open a Facebook page so that my generation could ‘friend’ him, did he? No, all that ICT-friendly stuff was to capture the youth vote, to show that he was down with the guys and even, that despite the position adopted by his former Minister of Information or his current Special Adviser on Media Affairs, he was cool with ‘Naija’, ‘9ja’, hip hop and all the other manifestations of youthfulness in this great country of good people.
Well, that was then. Youths duly ‘friended’ Jonathan and many voted for him: at least, going by the numbers who have since then taken to the self-same Facebook, Twitter and numerous internet discussion fora to tell him that they did indeed vote for him. And how much they now regret doing so.
The cause of this regret is not only the arbitrary and perfidious way that the price of petrol was hiked by as much as three times: youth disappointment at the Jonathan administration was setting in long before January 1st, a disillusionment that stretched back to all that had happened (or had not happened) since they – having adopted the ‘Enough Is Enough’ slogan that the Save Nigeria Group used to protest a government by an invisible and comatose President Umaru Yar’Adua, as the title of their own youth-based organisation – had also done their bit to get the reins of power into Jonathan’s hands.
It hasn’t been just a matter of expressing cyber-outrage. While the Nigeria Labour Congress and the Trade Union Congress were going about things the old-fashioned way, fixing meetings that led to the calling of the nationwide strike that started on Monday the 9th, the younger part of the population’s reaction was more immediate. Even Monday the 2nd saw sporadic protests by Nigeria’s outraged youths as suggestions that there should be no return to work on the 3rd vied with arrangements for marches and sit-ins across the country.
The shorthand used by those who took up the challenge and staged sit-ins from Kano, to Kaduna, to Owerri, Lagos, Ibadan – in fact, all across the country – namely ‘’Occupy Nigeria’’, should not disguise the fact that it is the crystallization of an idea voiced by some of the protesters back in January 2010, long before Egyptians made Tahrir Square the focal point of their own protests, or outraged Madrileños started the ‘’Occupy’’ movement that spread to the United States and cities across the developed world.
Many of the marchers protesting the dead-hand government by the cabal surrounding Yar’Adua, sensing that betrayal might lie ahead if it was not made clear that the mastery and ownership of the country lay in her people, floated the idea of occupying the space in front of the National Assembly until its members responded to the demands of those whom they claimed to be representing.
With their characteristic knack of defusing the people’s anger, in 2010 the National Assembly rose to the occasion by adopting the ‘Doctrine of Necessity’ to install then Vice President Jonathan as Acting President. In 2012, the House of Representatives has tried to get ahead of popular outrage with a resolution calling on Jonathan to revert to the N65 per litre price for petrol, and on the NLC to suspend its strike.
But mere resolutions are unlikely to be enough. We will see the genuineness of our Representatives’ concern when they tackle the profligate Jonathan budget, since Mr. President seems to have remained deaf to advice that he should withdraw it.
Right down to declarations of ‘No turning back on subsidy withdrawal’, rent-a-mob, use of political thugs to disrupt demonstrations and police brutality that has killed peaceful protesters in parts of the country, and some piffling ‘palliative’ measures: the Jonathan administration has been unable to come up with any new way to play the script. There are even reports that they secured an emergency injunction against the NLC. Plus ça change, plus c’est la meme chose.
But one thing that those playing out the same old moves seem slow to realise is that they are not facing the same old opponents. Labour is in the wake of the spontaneous uprising by young Nigerians and ‘’Occupy Nigeria’’, not the vanguard. Protests have been varied, all-comers affairs. Thus the genteel march by the Lagos branch of the Nigerian Bar Association on Monday (gentlemanly enough for lawyerly coat and skirt with heeled shoes, rather than the recommended jeans and trainers) was only one of several protests declared and organised all across the country.
The Lagos NBA was fortunate to meet its member, Governor Babatunde Fashola, at home at State House, Marina, where he received protest letters for himself and President Jonathan. Responding, he asked for solutions to the economic problems that Nigeria faces. Fortunately, the national body of the NBA has already done exactly that. But like the discussions that Jonathan was supposed to be having with labour and civil society leaders, that was when we believed assurances that the 2011 budget would run until March 31st, and that any adjustment in the fuel price regime would only take effect after then.
Now however, Nigerians have seen the worth of Federal Government promises. That is why the President’s advisers have struggled to rebut rumours that he is not on a junket to mark the African National Congress’ 100th anniversary in South Africa. As noted last week: there is a cost “to be paid by rulers whose people now know that if they greet you ‘Good Morning’, you need to look at your watch and check the weather outside.”
Even less value is placed on the ‘palliative measures’ promise. A pensioner who joined Monday’s NBA Lagos march, asked what Jonathan expected him to do with his N5,000 monthly pension (when he was lucky enough to get it!) now that fuel price-rise-led inflation has kicked in. That is another sign that it is not only youths who are taking up the gauntlet thrown down by Jonathan on the 1st of January.
The issue now is whether those in authority will understand that the boneheaded, brutal responses of some Arab rulers will not yield fruit here, and whether they are big enough to revert to the situation that existed on 31st December 2011, and see what they can do to regain the trust of Nigerians – old and young – to effect economic reforms that all agree are necessary. Nigerians may be slow to anger, but our national history of resistance to oppression means that coming generations do not need the inspiration of the ‘Arab Spring’ to demonstrate their courage once they are roused. We need not worry whether coming generations will live up to the heritage of struggle, or whether they have the heart to press on to genuine victory. The kids, they’re alright.