Thursday, 3 January 2013

The Curse of Missed Opportunities

"The most potent weapon in the hand of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed" Steve Biko.

Before January 1, 2012, I was a social recluse: I had never participated in any form of protest; had very few friends, my Twitter account had only 5 tweets, I was not on any chat group and visited Facebook sparingly. I devoted my time to work, family and church- I was completely at ease with the world. My reticence stemmed from the feeling that Nigerians were cursed to remain oppressed. A glaring example was the 2011 general elections where a unique opportunity to effect changes was lost to small mindedness and primordial sentiments.

The removal of fuel subsidy on New Year’s Day however became the catalyst needed to ignite my activism. Hence when I learned that some Nigerians had decided to ‘Occupy’ Eagle Square Abuja in protest, I immediately went there as well. The turnout was impressive considering the spontaneity of events. But Government was determined to not shift ground because shortly after we assembled, a detachment of soldiers and police descended on us, dispersed the crowd with tear gas and arrested a few people.

In the days that followed that incident, I attended meetings of Civil Society Groups planning street protests, engaged in public debate about my opposition to subsidy removal and became active on all forms of social media. I realised there were a number of Nigerians that did not know what or why we were against subsidy removal and I made it a sacred duty to inform them in every way possible.
 By the time the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) called for a nationwide strike, Occupy had been on the streets for a week and though I did not participate in the Abuja sit-ins at Eagle Square and eventually Ascon Petroleum, I supported the frontline troops through provision of drinking water, tea items and toiletries. For the period the strike lasted, I went out every single day, marching through the streets, united with other Nigerians. We had transcended religious, ethnic and regional fault lines and replaced them with a searing lava of anger against an arrogant, clueless and insensitive Government-the volcano was about to erupt! My excitement was palpable.

The unique thing about the Occupy movement was that unlike the NLC, which was merely responding to the fuel subsidy increase, we were simply taking advantage of subsidy removal to push home an agenda for reform and good governance. Thus we raised issues such as tackling the cabal, reducing the size of government, cutting needless spending etc. I was convinced that if the strike lasted for a month, Government would not only revert to N65 per litre but would also be more circumspect when taking decisions in the future. The signs were already beginning to appear: Hardly a day went by without one Government official or the other coming on air to address Nigerians. Indeed the President who only a few days earlier did not deem it necessary to personally announce the removal of subsidy, broadcast to the nation at least 3 times during the strike. He also had to cancel an overseas trip!

Consequently, when the NLC called off the strike on the basis that Government had reduced pump price to N97 per litre, I was gutted! What happened to ‘no retreat, no surrender?’ When did labour start speaking for all Nigerians? But at the end of the day, it was clear that all our effort was going to amount to nothing. It felt like I had been raped-Violently.

There are three things which I believe were responsible for the inability of OccupyNaija to carry on with our protest when the strike was called off. First, we did not have a critical mass. OccupyNaija was elitist; it consisted largely of educated, enlightened and intellectual Nigerians who, quite frankly, are an insignificant number when compared with a population of over 150 million. Thus the larger populations of Nigerians-the ones worse hit by the fuel subsidy removal- were nowhere near the protest grounds. Most of them, like traders and bus drivers, just stayed at home praying for the strike to end so they could come out and glean their daily peanuts! Had these set of Nigerians been on board, the role of NLC during the strike would have been insignificant.

Secondly, we were inexperienced. Most of the people that joined OccupyNaija were openly engaging Government for the first time, as such there was very little knowledge of how to coordinate, organise, mobilise and keep the overzealous in check.

Finally, the movement lacked leadership. OccupyNaija was a spontaneous response to a national problem. Nigerians were united in purpose but needed some kind of leadership that would have helped articulate the peoples grievances and engage the authorities if need be. It was this lack of leadership that led to opportunistic politicians attempting to steal the limelight and malicious insinuations by Government that the protests were sponsored by the opposition. These problems notwithstanding, the Occupy Movement has clearly demonstrated that all power derives from the people and the moment the people realise this fact, they can determine their future. Subsidy presented us with a better great opportunity for change but we were not prepared and as a result, our collective resolve was betrayed by Labour. It is my firm belief that the Occupy movement should establish a structure- a rallying point that would easily summon the troops. The Government needs to know we are still alive, we are watching them and most importantly, we are legion. Through OccupyNaija, I have made great friends and met some amazing people, we must not allow this network become yet another missed opportunity.

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