When on New Year’s Day, the Federal Government announced the decision to implement full withdrawal of petrol subsidies, the backlash was as enormous as expected. For the next couple of weeks, all that filled the airwaves, the social media space and discussions was the fuel subsidy matter and all the politics and economics surrounding it. But as people waited for the traditional opposition to the government in such matters, the organized labour, to take action, a new force came to the fore. This force, powered entirely by young people and using tools they were very comfortable with, was the Occupy Nigeria Movement.
Inspired by the Occupy movements of America and Europe, the Occupy Nigeria movement was like them, a leaderless movement. You could not point to a specific person and say that he or she was the top leader. It was just composed of individuals who had long bottled up their anger and frustration with the state of affairs in the country. They used social media to organize themselves, bridged ethnic and religious divides in a way like never imagined and braved the odds to even stage sit-ins that lasted the whole cold harmattan nights. They also broadened the struggle from being about just fuel prices to being about the size and cost of the government to corruption.
One characteristic of the Occupy Nigeria movement was within the larger movement, there were different opinion groups and smaller movements especially with regards to what was the best approach to solving the fuel subsidy crisis. It ranged from those who insisted it was a reversal to N65 or nothing else; to those who felt the new fuel prices should be kept constant, but government start trimming its size and cost immediately. Some other groups even turned to the budget and started discovering inflations and duplication of expenditure, and promptly declared it the real devil.
In this January article I wrote during the fuel subsidy crisis, I mentioned that the fuel subsidy crisis and the public response could be a turning point in Nigerian politics and push us towards having more intellectualism in our politics. I came to this conclusion by observing the various arguments about solving the crisis and the coalescing of those of similar views into groups and small movements. I remember receiving a BBM broadcast from a group called ‘Socialist Watch League’, with a link to a website which actually had some content, even if hurriedly put together. All these got me really excited.
However, to my dismay, all that energy and excitement surrounding Occupy Nigeria has dissipated. They are nowhere to be found; not they and the smaller groups that were part of the movement. Infact, some commentators have gone as far as to say that the movement died even before the fuel subsidy crisis was over; a few more have posited reasons for their failure. I understand that for a movement that was put together in practically hours, they surpassed expectations on how long it could hold out. I also knew that once the strikes were over, these protesters would have had to go back to work. After all, Man must wack.
All being said still, my minimum expectation for the movement and its other groups is that they continue the discussions about those problems that are most pressing, such as the size and cost of government and corruption. I expected to see continued agitation for those pressing problems to be solved, either through the media (print, electronic, online), or through organizing for a where ideas will be exchanged about these issues. None, however, is happening.
So what exactly is the problem? For one, it starts with the belief that organized labour ‘sold out’ in the struggle when they agreed to a new fuel price that was N65. This is in part due to naiveté on the side of the Occupy Nigeria movement, and in part, due to promises the organized labour made that they themselves knew were impossible to fulfil. Negotiations demand that both parties shift ground, and the organized labour in Nigeria is no stranger to such negotiations. To expect them to enter the negotiating room and remain adamant on N65 or nothing else is unrealistic.
Once the belief that the organized labour had sold out set into the minds of Nigerians, everybody went back to hitherto state of mind: where we will just scream and rant in the papers and online, but when it came to take action, no one was willing to step forward. Even worse, we will just complain and end with the words: God dey! The immense energy that had been whipped up disappeared immediately, and the struggle to live continued.
Additionally, our rudderless and unambitious opposition political parties did not even seize the crisis as a chance for their own revival. As soon as the strikes and protests were over, they also crept back into their shells, forgetting that the primary reason for their existence is to point to the electorate that they were a better alternative to the ruling party, something which they have never looked up to.
If we truly want to change Nigeria, we cannot keep complaining only on the sidelines: from the media to beer parlours and informal discussions. We must start acting and continue persistently in that direction where we continually insist that change happens. There might never be another opportunity for such mass, unified reaction to a government policy or national situation. But we can and should use this time to build up pressure and apply it at the right places to force change.
Ideas are needed. Men and women of conviction, persistence and integrity are needed. The right strategies are needed. These three must come to a convergence point so that we can push for the kind of country we want to live in and bequeath to our children.
Remember, the race to change Nigeria is not a sprint, but a marathon.