by Sokari Ekine, Pambazuka
On Monday 9 January, the first day of the Nigerian nationwide indefinite strike, my fellow blogger, Emmanuel Iduma, wrote a post ‘See, The Nigerian Revolution Has Begun’. Emmanuel is a young man, a writer, modest and maybe a little shy. Sometimes there is hesitancy about his writing, as if he is not quite sure whether the stone he steps on will bear his weight or if his foot slips he will maintain his balance. But the important thing is, he never fails to take that step.
‘See, The Nigerian Revolution Has Began’ is an eloquent, assured statement of a young Nigerian at the point of a new beginning. Behind him lies years of scorn, thievery, greed, opportunism, political thuggery, untold violence, scammers, the occasional great football team and some of the world’s most innovative and accomplished musicians.
‘The revolution has begun. I am part of it. Do not be fooled that it begins and ends with placards, strikes, Twitter hashtags. I am certainly wiser than that. Yes, I will keep hashtagging, placarding, striking, until I am convinced that I have been de-stereotyped. Until I am convinced that I am not a matterless blur in the narrative of my country.’
Yes, we can play football and we can make music and dance! But now we can also make revolutions, or can we?
For me, well I am older, though not necessarily wiser, and most definitely less optimistic. It’s day nine of Nigeria’s uprising and the sheer energy, rapidness and velocity of hundreds of voices seconds apart on Twitter is exhausting. So reading anything that is at least one paragraph or more is sheer relief. I have noted two types of writing on the uprising. Those that stick to the superficial and easy summations repeated from similar commentary on Tunisia and Egypt and those that try to look deeper and raise questions relevant to the geopolitical entity called Nigeria. I am not a historian of revolutions, but since when were revolutions not predominantly acted by young people with a few elders thrown in for good measure? Hardly an original observation. My intention here is to attempt to provide a summary of what has taken place to date and to raise questions by bringing together some of the facts and analysis.
The fuel subsidy is the spark that lit the fire but this was never simply about the fuel subsidy. The fuel subsidy is a vicious tax on Nigerians, the majority who are neither materially nor emotionally able to cope with this burden. The facts are Nigeria earns millions of dollars from the sale of crude oil. The oil is exported and then, because our refineries are in a constant state of disrepair, it is necessary for us to import refined petrol. A cabal of independent marketers has been given licenses to import this petrol. They lie, they cheat, they steal and for this they are subsidized and now we all have to pay the price of their actions. Added to this are the billions of dollars wasted and stolen by government officials and politicians leading a country for 50 years incapable of refining it’s own oil. Included in this wastage is the obscene personal expenditure of politicians who we learn do not even have to buy their own food! For a breakdown on the cost of maintaining political officers in 2010, $8.3 billion [against $7.4 billion allocated for capital projects of which only half was spent] see Sahara Reporters.
Going into the fourth day, the strike remains steadfast and so far to everyone’s relief and possibly surprise, the labour movement has not capitulated despite rumours of the offer of huge bribes. In what I consider to be one of the most encouraging and significant acts of the uprising, the oil workers union PENGASSAN has declared their support for the indefinite strike and ordered all production platforms to be on alert for a complete shutdown, adding that:
‘All Nigerians should please note that the fuel subsidy issue is only a tip of the iceberg amidst a plethora of issues needing urgent redress.
‘We hereby call on all Nigerians not to be weary, but keep faith in the collective will of the people to liberate us from this miss-rule.’
One of the main narratives around the protest is ‘unity’. Nigerians of all religions and ethnicities coming together. We have been repeatedly shown a photo [favoured by the international media] of a group of Muslims praying protected in the rear by their Christian comrades. Although Abuja and Lagos have been the epicenters, protests have taken place, throughout the South West and in some of the major northern states – Kano, Kaduna, Bauchi and Niger State and to a much lesser extent in isolated parts of the Niger Delta. Nigeria is a militarised state and has been for most of its existence. Militarisation creates a culture of violence as a solution whether by the state or by citizens. With the government employing it’s typical militarist response of ‘shoot on sight’ and some states declaring curfews, there is a real possibility of sustained violence. The next step will be for the government to declare a state of emergency across the country and use this as an excuse to deploy the army against Nigerian people. To date some 25 people have been killed by the police with hundreds injured, including in violent attacks by the police in Kano where Muslims and Christians had come together to protest. In Minna, Niger State protestors went on a rampage burning offices of the state governor and other buildings and one police officer has been killed. Stories are emerging of protestors being paid to support the government’s position, others being paid by anti-government elites and or ex-politicians to protest against the government.
Against the backdrop of the protests and unity in ethnicity and religion are a series of more sinister and potentially destructive events taking place. The increasingly bold presence of Boko Haram, who after the despicable bombing of churches on Christmas day continue to kill and injure with impunity. Following a New Year ultimatum for all Christians to leave the north within three days, at least 12 people have been killed by the group. Two other significant Boko Haram related events have taken place in the past week. The first was a statement by President Goodluck Jonathan that his government and security forces had been infiltrated by Boko Haram. The second, a video broadcast on the 10th January by the leader of the sect, Imam Abubakar Shekau, dressed in the usual terrorist gear, fatigues, and surrounded by weaponry. He proceeded with a rant against the President and Christians blaming them for all the ills befallen to Muslims – a strange thing to say as they have probably killed as many Muslims as Christians. According to an AP report, Shekau was said to ‘hint at having far more support than the authorities believe’.
There has always been questions as to who Boko Haram really are and a belief that they do have support from some northern elite. If Jonathan’s statement is to be believed then it is within the realms of possibility to consider that the end game is to bring down his presidency. In short, a coup by any other name. Not necessarily a military coup but a coup nonetheless. However we cannot dismiss the fact that Jonathan chose the moment of an uprising to reveal this information. Is he trying to win sympathy or to warn us of more sinister possibilities? We know that northerners are leaving the southeast and southerners leaving the north. One cannot help but note the similarities to 1966/67 and the events which led to the civil war. Three esteemed Nigerian writers, Professor Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe and J P Clark issued a joint statement in which they warned Nigerians of the possibility of another civil war. In a BBC interview, Soyinka reiterated that scenario including a comment which supports Jonathan’s statement on Boko Haram infiltrators….
‘There are people in power in certain parts of the country, leaders, who quite genuinely and authoritatively hate and cannot tolerate any religion outside their own.
‘When you combine that with the ambitions of a number of people who believe they are divinely endowed to rule the country and who… believe that their religion is above whatever else binds the entire nation together, and somehow the power appears to slip from their hands, then they resort to the most extreme measures.’
Another question that has yet to be answered satisfactorily is why there have been relatively few protests and strike actions, apart from in Warri and Sapele, in the Niger Delta and Igbo states. Although Jonathan is from Baylesa State, it’s not as if the Niger Deltans are any more supportive of the fuel subsidy removal than the rest of the country. As of Wednesday, Port Harcourt was still on strike although there had been no rallies since day one. In other parts of Rivers State, namely Ogoniland, there have been rallies in support of the strike. In Yenagoa, the Baylesa state capital, workers had tried to march on the first day but police managed to disrupt and eventually prevent any meaningful presence. In other parts of the East there has been relatively little protest or strike action. One explanation given for the lack of participation was provided by environmental activist, Fidelis Allen. Quoting a fellow Ogoni activist, he writes:
‘Labour has been bought. They have compromised. As civil society in Rivers State we thought we could work with labour, but they have compromised in Rivers State. How can you be having a protest and you just sluggishly walk in? There is lack of seriousness. It is so glaring’. Cracks between the civil society and the Nigerian Labour Congress and the Trade Union Congress over strategies in current struggles against fuel price increase arising from the removal of oil subsidy are already being noticed. Lagos, Kaduna, Abuja and so on had huge a turn-out of protesters, but the same story cannot be told of Port Harcourt, Rivers State, where presently, the NLC and TUC are being accused of compromising.’
To summarise, the feeling is that at least in Bayelsa and Rivers State, the NLC and TUC had been bought off by the state and federal governments. Allen also makes the point that removal of fuel subsidy is not the same as a rise in prices and that if handled differently (as I mentioned earlier) then maybe these actions would not have been necessary.
Complicating the situation in the Niger Delta, the powerful and long established Ijaw Youth Council whose stronghold is in Bayelsa State has yet to make a formal statement on the removal of the fuel subsidy or the national strike. The IYC was formed in the town of Kaiama [Kaiama Delcaration] 1998 during Olusegun Obasanjo’s presidency in the post-Abacha period. It was a period of intense militarisation of the core Delta states which saw the destruction of Odi Town by the Nigerian Army, the ransacking of Kaiama and other attacks against civilians in Yenagoa, Warri, Isoko to name a few. The IYC action, however, conflicts with statements from other Delta youths such as The Niger Delta Youth Coalition who not only supported on strikes but threatened to disrupt oil production.
‘What we are saying is no to fuel subsidy removal. The reason why we are saying no to fuel subsidy is that Nigerians were not part of this decision. The economy is bad. We were paying N1,000.00 for transportation from Warri to our villages in the creek but now we are paying N10,000.00. You cannot say removal of fuel subsidy is to help the poor and it is the poor people that are suffering it………..We are giving President Jonathan a 24 hours ultimatum to reverse the pump price to N65 and failure to do so, we will go back to our communities and when we go back to our communities, we will ensure that all the oil installations in the creek are made not to work.’
Interestingly, one of the founding IYC members and director of Social Action Nigeria, Issac Osukoa expressed what he believed to be the disappointment and disgust Niger Deltans have for Jonathan. However, other activists I have spoken to recently have not been willing to be this critical.
‘Many Nigerians believed that Goodluck Jonathan was a different breed from the backward cabal that has held Nigeria hostage for the better part of the last 51 years. They thought that because he is a native of the Niger Delta with very minimal historical ties to what was referred to as the Hausa-Fulani oligarchy, he represents a refreshing change from the past. They saw a meek-looking and educated man and felt that maybe he is the change that Nigeria needs. Well, Goodluck Jonathan has proven to Nigeria that he is not the change the country needs. In fact, Jonathan is the worst President that the ruling class has ever foisted on Nigeria.
‘Exactly! The man has shown that he is clueless. He has shown that he lacks the capacity to address the very serious challenges confronting the country. And what is even worse is that he does not care. He does not care for the people of Nigeria. He does not care for the progress of Nigeria. He has the mentality of a Local Government caretaker committee chairman.’
Another group which has so far failed to enter the equation are the ex-militants from the various branches of MEND and the NVF many of whom are closely aligned to President Jonathan, the state governors and influential oil marketers. The hierarchy within the militants is itself at odds with the rank and file, many of who feel abandoned and betrayed. Unable to return to their homes where they are either feared or seen as outcasts and unable to find jobs despite the training they have been given, they remain disillusioned young men and women.
To summarise, what is becoming clear is that the Occupy Movement as it stands lacks any real socioeconomic or gender analysis (not surprising in what are essentially male spaces). There has been no discussion on the impact of massive rise in prices on women and children; the protests themselves in as much as what happens beyond gatherings and placards, there are issues such as sexism, homophobia and witch hunting of women and girls. It is not clear whether any women’s organisations are formally taking part in the protests or have representatives within the unions though a few prominent women have joined the protests and/or spoken out in support, but hardly a movement of women! Lesley Agams raised a number of these points on Twitter including the question as to whether women ‘involved are merely supporting a male agenda’.
It is worth remembering that Nigeria has a rich history of protests. Much of that history has come from women and there is much to learn in terms of bringing together protest and education. Interestingly, it has been in the east where large groups of women are visibly protesting. Women in Enugu and Edo took separate but very different actions. The former by gathering to pray in a church and the latter, elderly Edo women bearing their breasts as a sign of protest.
Nor has there been any discussion on the massive disparities between the rich and the poor. The new young aspiring upper class entrepreneurs, NGOs executives, celebrities and artistes have been at the forefront of organisng the Occupy Movement and the working and unemployed masses have joined together. In Lagos tensions are already beginning to appear between on the one hand local ‘area boys’, Lagosians and ‘their’ musicians and on the other, ‘Occupy’ protestors many from more affluent parts of the city. Will the elites of the movement be able to maintain control? What happens if the fuel subsidy decision is reversed, will they be able to move towards a more coherent debate around issues such as corruption, governance, social and economic justice and will social media activism be sufficient to make this happen?
The question of unity is complex. I believe the majority of the country is behind not just the strikes but the Occupy Nigeria movement which seeks to seriously challenge the status quo and once and for all end the rule by kleptocracy. However there are other small but extremely powerful interest groups working for and against the government: Boko Haram and whoever is behind them; Jonathan and possibly some of the ex-Niger Delta militants; Senators and Governors who fear loss of their power and wealth; the trade union movement particularly the oil workers – how trustworthy are they? – the independent oil marketers or cabal. And of course there is the religious factor, the cozy relationship between an all-powerful state and a powerful highly influential set of religious institutions.
Nigeria is about oil and nothing but oil. Let us not forget the multinational oil companies already facing huge losses and a complete shutdown of the sector has yet to happen. Finally at the end of this oil trajectory, the US and other importers of Nigerian crude?