Thursday, January 26, 2012

The Meaning of Occupy Nigeria

When Nigerians stormed the streets protesting the federal government’s removal of the subsidy on petrol, they detonated the myth that Nigerians are docile. In reality, the subsidy removal only served to ignite pent-up frustrations with a derelict government into a campaign against the reigning kleptocracy. Nigerians’ tolerance of governmental abuse has long been mistaken for cowardly passivity. In fact, the plain truth is that government is irrelevant to most Nigerians – whether to those who live in what Stanley Macebuh called “categorical poverty” whose material conditions have not changed in decades and will almost certainly not change for their children’s children; or to the embattled Nigerian middle class who have become micro-municipalities providing their own social services; and matters only slightly more to the rich who have fashioned their exit strategies to foreign lands in the event of a long overdue uprising.

In the absence of government, Nigerians have embraced the chore of survival while leaving the reigning kleptocrats to otherworldly judgment, their only caveat being that ‘if the government will not work for us, it shouldn’t impede us.’ The thieves may carry on thieving so long as their thievery does not appear on our front door demanding tribute. This is the understanding that has informed the much cited Nigerian “docility.” By eliminating the subsidy, and effectively imposing higher taxes on Nigerians, the government broke this accord, and provoked the citizens into protest.

In a larger sense, the Occupy Nigeria protests were about a generation which has long been characterized by apathy finally snapping into an awareness of its citizenship. Suddenly, Nigerians were asking serious questions and demanding answers. The awakening started in 2010 when protesters marched on Abuja demonstrating against the government’s hijack by a “cabal” in President Umar Yar’Adua’s absence through ill-health. They demanded compliance with the constitution and the transference of power to the then Vice President Goodluck Jonathan. The momentum was sustained for the 2011 polls which starred an unprecedented level of youth involvement and sparked off talk of a “youth vote.”

The spirit of activism that recently gripped young Nigerians, as well as the volcanic rumbling of dissent on the streets and in cyberspace all signify the coming of age of a generation. This generation, born between 1975 and 1990, has no memory of a Nigeria that once worked; no rosy recollection of an oil boom-fuelled era of prosperity. Its experience of Nigeria has been one of misery and disillusionment conditioned by economic recession and political repression. It is the first generation that has had to consider exile as a path to self-actualization. Raised during the era of military dictatorship, it understood Nigerian existence as a condition of servitude, of recourse to the heavens in the face of oppression and of gratitude to “benign” authoritarians for the small crumbs of their inheritance grudgingly delivered as privileges. That generation has finally decided to snap off the psychic bonds of subjection and fully assume their mantle as citizens.

For the first time in a very long time, Nigerians microscopically scrutinized a government policy to its entrails, traded obscure policy data on social media and debated the fine points of deregulation. We became emergency technocrats and cyber-parliamentarians, but it is really more accurate to say that we became “active citizens” invigilating political conduct and demanding accountability from our leaders.

To be sure, a week of protests, of cathartic expressions of rage online and on the streets, will not dislodge an entrenched culture of dysfunctional governance. But it can begin to lay the foundations of an authentic citizen-led democracy. Going forward, we can take stock of what we have learned and gained.

Occupy Nigeria showed us glimpses of what our generation can achieve. In Kano, Minna and elsewhere, Muslim and Christian protesters protected each other – a powerful gesture at a time that sectarian violence poses serious questions of our union – showing that it is entirely possible to rise above religious differences. Across the land, Nigerians of different ethnicities, classes and creeds assembled in the name of their nation. Such transcendent solidarity genuinely frightens Nigerian elites who have traditionally used “divide and rule” to sow discord and subvert the emergence of a pan-Nigerian movement. Their panic was evident in the Jonathan’s administration’s shameful frenzied efforts to ethnicize the protest movement, indicating that in almost a hundred years, from the colonial masters to military dictators to the current kleptocrats, the establishment has not changed its tactics and indeed, is incapable of developing new ones.   

The perceived failure of organized labour to be steadfast is symptomatic of the absence of an intelligent principled opposition. In the end, labour was being asked to drive a revolution for which it has neither the moral nor intellectual vision. The muffled protestations of the nominal opposition, indeed, their complicity in the kleptocracy in Abuja suggests strongly that the great divide in Nigeria today is between the powerful and the powerless. The powerful have the means to portray their lusts in sectarian colours as the interests of some religious or ethnic group. The powerless are anonymous and voiceless. Being the voice of the powerless and restoring to them both their voices and their power is the great political task of our time.   

It is easier to be united against something than to be united for something. We must balance our unified opposition to bad government with an equally unanimous proposition of an alternative ethic to govern the Nigeria that we want. This is a harder, though achievable, task but it is not executed in the streets. It is conducted in hidden sanctums where thinkers harness rage into ideology, tears into theology and radical energy into political strategy.

Perhaps, this generation which was born after the civil war will be less susceptible to the spirit of sectarian discord than its forebears. And if we can overcome the burden of inherited prejudice and bigotry, and transform our chains of subjection into bonds of solidarity, we can renew this nation.

Nigeria has experienced civic awakenings before. In the 1930s and 1940s, nationalists rode on such tides of discontent to mount the campaign for independence. Among the nationalist avatars are names that have passed into heroic legend – Azikiwe, Aminu Kano, Raji Abdallah, Sa’ad Zungur, and Mokwugo Okoye among others. During the 1980s and 1990s, pro-democracy groups used the growing disenchantment with the failed economic policies of the military to champion democracy. We remember Ken Saro-Wiwa, Bala Usman, Beko Ransome-Kuti, Gani Fawehinmi etc as icons of this struggle and honour their still living cohorts such as Soyinka, Shehu Sani and Femi Falana. Because nation-building is a generational endeavour, these movements achieved only partial fulfillment. Occupy Nigeria is a link in the chain of a democratic tradition seeking to extend the work of the patriarchs. The living icons of the struggle against militarism are lions in winter. Even as we drink of their wisdom, a new generation must call forth its own prophets and revolutionaries to interpret its possibilities. The consummation of this nascent movement will come not in the form of a few exalted paragons but of heroic multitudes, a critical mass of active citizens who bring to bear upon small and great tasks, a consciousness of their responsibility to God and posterity. The journey of national redemption is long and arduous but if we can overcome our chronic pessimism about ourselves, we can inherit a new dawn.

It would be a mistake to see Occupy Nigeria as a fluke. To do so is to miss the dynamics at work. Nigeria’s most globalized generation has been inspired by the televised revolutions of the Arab world and the “Occupy” protests in the west against capitalism’s inequities. Following the contraction of western economies, many of Nigeria’s exiles are coming back home from the diaspora with the righteous ire of heirs returning to reclaim their inheritance from usurpers. There is a realization that Nigeria is the only country that we have. Their return will not be without incident. Thirdly, there is new and gratifying desire to question authority, whether those of sleazy politicians, irresolute labour leaders or corruptible clergy. This is especially positive given our history of paternalistic authoritarianism.  Every revolution requires some iconoclasm; the destruction of the old idols and symbols of the status quo.  

Simply because the streets have fallen silent does not mean that the spirit of protest has been bound. For now, our placards are in our hearts. The genie of discontent is well and truly out of the lamp. Radical energies have been released and are crackling about us. Energy can neither be created nor destroyed; it can only be converted from one form to another. Similarly, the energy that animated those protests has simply shifted phase, and remains intangibly in the ether, proclaiming the inevitability of change.  

(All Pictures Sourced From Google Images).

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