by Tarila Marclint Ebiede
The activists lost the battle for change when they failed to build an enduring narrative around these struggles. I see this as a failure of imagination and ideas. The Nigerian activists saw these rare opportunities as one-time events, instead of a chance to build an enduring movement for change.
Growing up in Nigeria, I have experienced different phases of activism. My first conscious recognition of a citizen movement was NADECO’s response to the annulment of the June 12, 1993 elections. The second was the trial and murder of Ken Saro Wiwa and other Ogoni activists. I remember clearly how Ogonis and other Niger Delta activists campaigned against the trial of Ken Saro Wiwa and his comrades. There was an aching silence in Port Harcourt on the morning of the murder of the Ogoni 9, but the rest of Nigeria did not notice this silence. One year after the death of Ken Saro Wiwa, Ijaw youths began another movement that led to the historic Kaima Declaration. I was fully aware of the consequences of that declaration. I witnessed the deaths of young men who died along the Mbiama/Yenagoa road in Yenagoa while embarking on peaceful protests against the arrests of Ijaw youth leaders in December 1998. From 1999 to date, I have witnessed all forms of dissent, protests and activism in the Niger Delta; in fact, I have participated in some of them.
From NADECO’s campaign for democracy to the struggle for environmental and political rights in the Niger Delta, the response of the Nigerian citizens has been regional and sectional, even when involving issues of human rights violations and poor governance. Many activist campaigns have only been successful because of the narrative that they succeeded in promoting. For example, the campaign against Sani Abacha was mainly driven by South West activists and some few others from the core south. In the Niger Delta, Ken Saro Wiwa had successfully shaped his campaign for minority rights in Ogoni around internationally recognized environmental rights. Therefore, it was easier for international human rights organizations to connect to the issues Ken Saro Wiwa raised. However, many Nigerians still don’t have a clear understanding of the Ogoni question, nor do many even know that the Ogonis collectively boycotted the 1993 general elections.
Between 1999 and 2009, Ijaw villages in the Niger Delta were destroyed. Women were raped and unarmed youths murdered in the government’s quest to suppress dissent and ensure a continuous production of crude oil. While Niger Delta activists mounted the soap box of activism, fellow citizens from other parts of Nigeria did not lose a minute of sleep. Many Nigerians only became aware of the Niger Delta struggle after armed militants started making the headlines of the national dailies. Once I had a discussion with one such activist. I was trying to explain my position on the relationship between Islamic fundamentalism in northern Nigeria and militancy in the Niger Delta: that injustice and structural deficiency of the Nigerian state created the foundation for these problems. My good activist reminded me that Bayelsa, my home state, had the highest per capita income in the country, so we cannot justify the protests of the Niger Delta people. At that point, I realized that we had a fundamental problem of lack of understanding of the Nigerian question by emerging young “activists” from within the country.
This brings me to the question of what activism in Nigeria seeks to achieve. We can’t provide answers to this question without understanding the Nigerian question itself. This is the crux of the matter. A clear understanding of the problem facing a society should be the take-off point of every change movement. And this cannot be achieved without an unemotional thought system. Activism without thought cannot lead to any meaningful change. This is why we are yet to witness any form of fundamental transformation in Nigeria. We have not committed enough time to the proper framing of the Nigerian question, and as such we are not guided by perception and ideation in our demands for change.
Activists need a clear narrative, and they need to frame the Nigerian question in a way that all Nigerians, irrespective of ethnicity, will be able to connect to it. Nigerian activists need to spend more time organizing local communities than seeking funds to cover the overhead costs of their NGOs. The Nigerian activist should ask these questions: why do we have self-mobilized people protesting against fuel price increases, and yet it is so difficult to organize victims of a government-agency job-recruitment scam to protest against the government’s recruitment policy? why is it so difficult for unemployed Nigerian youths to stage protests against the government’s inability to provide effective policies to reduce unemployment? The reason for these difficulties is that there’s no shared narrative. The majority of Nigerians do not see these problems as national problems. Instead, they are seen as an outcome of group marginalization.
Change is constant. However, profound changes leading to positive transformation go beyond the recurring everyday changes within society. In societies with multiple identities and interests, such changes take a well thought-out and collectively shared narrative and movement. This is lacking in Nigeria. And I am not surprised. Many of the young and emerging activists in Nigeria grew up in socio-economic and political cocoons. Many have demonstrated this themselves by betraying a lack of understanding of issues that are not within their social circles. This is why I recommend that to be an activist, you should first educate yourself about those issues that are collectively shared by Nigerians irrespective of ethnicity and social groups.
Patriotic activists should not use an ethnic lens to view the action of public officials. Activists should not reduce an institutional problem to an individual problem. That’s why I do not see anyone who calls President Jonathan ‘an Ijaw president’ as an honest and sincere individual. Activists who truly want change should not engage in public debates from an ethnic premise. That is also why #TWAC, the Twitter hashtag for Chinua Achebe’s There Was a Country, has revealed that many young so-called activists are actually ethnic champions, often presenting themselves as nationalists but being driven by ethnic myths and symbolism. They are ready to engage in a diatribe to defend the myths behind their ethnic champions, and by so doing, they actually reinforce the accusations of tribalism. Even review essays disseminated through Twitter reinforce tribalism. Apart from the fantastic piece written by Mr. Tolu Ogunlesi and a few others, most articles on the subject from young activists available online and in print in Nigeria were either poorly researched, tribalistic or showed crass ignorance of the fundamental questions Achebe raises in the book.
In the last six years, activists and leading thinkers in Nigeria have had three opportunities to frame a national narrative shared by all Nigerians to drive transformation. The first was the transition of late President Umaru Musa Yar’adua. The second is the #OccupyNigeria protests against the removal of fuel subsidies. The third is the #Bringbackourgirls campaign demanding the release of the school girls kidnapped by Boko Haram in Chibok. The activists lost the battle for change when they failed to build an enduring narrative around these struggles. I see this as a failure of imagination and ideas. The Nigerian activists saw these rare opportunities as one-time events, instead of a chance to build an enduring movement for change. We failed to save ourselves with the first two opportunities. Already, we have lost the narrative for the third opportunity. We have reduced these unfortunate, but phenomenal events into a political struggle to challenge the government in power and not to challenge the system that led to the emergence of the government in power. Thus, we offer our services to those who are seeking to capture the oppressive system from the current government for their selfish gains.
Lately, activism in Nigeria has not been about the poor and powerless. Nor has it been a struggle for honest justice. It has not been a fight for a decent society where everyone has a fair chance, nor about inclusive democracy. It has not challenged the oligarchic power structure that is in charge of all levels of leadership in the Nigerian society. Instead, a close observation of the outcomes of activism will show that the struggle has been characterized by a passionate quest for power and recruitment into Nigeria’s political class. Simply put, it is activism by wannabes. Lately, the struggle has been superficial and lacks a basic understanding of the Nigerian question. For any form of activism to lead to credible change in Nigeria, activists should first articulate and provide answers to the national question: what is the trouble with Nigeria? This means that Nigerian activists need to devote more time to thinking.
Tarila Marclint Ebiede is a PhD candidate at the University of Leuven (KU Leuven), Belgium. He tweets from @ETMarclint
Op-ed pieces and contributions are the opinions of the writers only and do not represent the opinions of Y!/YNaija.