On the 1st of January 2012, the Nigerian government removed fuel subsidy that had kept petroleum prices in Nigeria low. The removal led to petrol prices doubling overnight and triggered a spate of protests that seem to be gathering momentum. The demonstrations are being led and organised by Occupy Nigeria under the globally recognised “Occupy Movement”.
At least one person, 23 year old student and protester Muyideen Mustafa has died. He was hit by a police bullet in Ilorin, Kwara State. Many arrests have also been made by the police and teargas reportedly used in Nigeria’s Kano state to disperse crowds.
The protests are, however, not confined to Nigeria. We interviewed one of the main organisers, Nicholas Ibekwe, of Occupy Nigeria in London (UK), who shed more light on the protests in both London and in Nigeria.
The Occupy movement is now synonymous with protests that relate to social and economic injustice worldwide. The “Occupy” tag, however, especially for a distinctly Nigerian or African movement seems unoriginal. Were there discussions amongst organisers to come up with a more African name or slogan?
Like you acknowledge in one of your questions, the Occupy movement is synonymous with protests around the world. So, it was only normal for the popular revolt in Nigeria to be christened after the Occupy trend. This inevitably has helped to attract attention to the protest back home even as the government is doing everything to silent the Nigerian media (electronic) from broadcasting it to the world. But with the help of social media and the Occupy tag attached to the struggle young Nigerians who have always yearned for a change of the evil status quo in the country have been able to identify with the movement. In fact the London protest wasn’t even called Occupy Nigeria protest. The London protest was organised by a group of mostly Nigerian student from across the United Kingdom.
The remarkable thing about the protest is that many of us had never met physically until the day of the protest. After the Nigerian government announced the removal of subsidy on fuel, most Nigerian students who believed this was an evil policy and unfair to the Nigerian people, individually started calling on Nigerians in the UK to gather for a protest at the Nigerian High Commission. With the help of Twitter and Facebook we got to know of others doing the same thing. Since we realised that our intentions were the same we thought it would be nice to collapse our effort together to the needed effect. So we arranged for a meeting on Skype where the planning and ultimately, the execution of the protest was done. For me it is a thing of joy to see Nigerian youth coming together, irrespective of ethnicity and religion, to work for the betterment of Nigeria.
We felt our job was to make sure that the protest was a success. That was more important than christening the movement. May be that will be considered subsequently. Meanwhile back home some people are beginning to refer to the protest as the Nigerian Harmattan after the popular Arab Spring.
The Nigerian government’s reason for the removal of the fuel subsidy seems arguably reasonable. The subsidy regime as it stood was riddled with corruption and mostly benefited those who import fuel into the country. The government has said on record that the funds saved from the subsidy removal will be used for infrastructural projects that are essential if Nigeria is to become an economic power house. Why then are you protesting for what on face value seems like a perfectly reasonable policy?
Most organisers of the protest believe that removal of subsidy is not a bad thing. And I share that sentiment as well. However, the removal of subsidy in Nigeria is not about economics, it is mostly about trust, corruption and timing. The Nigerian government has not given the ordinary Nigerian reason to trust it. The same argument that the present government is propagating is what previous governments have given and what we have found is that the money accrued through subsidy ends up in private pockets rather than being used for the benefit of the people. This government particularly, has shown by its wasteful nature that it cannot be trusted with money.
Let me give you some statistics: The President and Vice president have budgeted N1 billion for feeding this year. What that translates to is they spend more than N2.7 million naira for food everyday. And you are asking the people to suffer? That is not just unfair, it is evil. Can you honestly trust a President who earmarks 300M for kitchen utensils and removes fuel subsidy under the story that he is saving money for Nigeria? This same government has emptied the the treasury since it came into office and they want us to trust them with money again? No. Nigerians are not fools. Let the government start by cutting its frivolous spending drastically then it can talk to Nigerian about subsidy removal.
The government should block the leakages at its end first. Why take away 1.3trillion fuel subsidy from 160 million Nigerians when 469 legislators take 1.12trillion annually as salary and allowance! It must be brave to fight corruption. The so-called Cabal should be kicked out. Nigerians should not be made to finance the illegal activities of a corrupt few. The timing is also wrong. This was an ambush on the Nigerian people. Many people are stranded in their villages after the holiday because they cannot afford to come back home after transport fare went up by more that 200%.
Not every body’s idea of political activism is to march around with placards under the “Occupy Nigeria” banner, are there other initiatives under way to bring those people into the fold of the protests?
Yes we are ready to incorporate other types of protests. Someone has suggested that Nigerians should adopt a sit at home protest to attract attention to their problems. Some have even suggested that we stop buying the expensive fuel. But right now as we have seen from the protests in the Arab world this type of street protest though costly is the best way to correcting things.
As you watch a defiant generation of Nigerians prepared to assert themselves and to say No to the fuel subsidy removal, is there a part of you that thinks this new found activism could be extended to protesting about other equally important ills such as corruption and the environmental damage caused by oil spills in parts of Nigeria?
I have no doubt in my mind that this is the beginning of greater things to come. But it all depends on the success of this fuel subsidy protest. If Nigerians are able to force the government to revert to the old price. Then we would have achieved a lot and young Nigerians would then understand that they could call any frivolous government to order. Like they say Rome was not built in a day. We have to start from somewhere. You never can say what this will lead to. We have to keep pushing and pressing until the government listens.
How long do you and other protesters and protest organisers want, plan and/or think this can go on and what in your view will be success?
Our mind is set for the worst. The Nigerian government has enjoyed years of riding roughshod over the people. Therefore, they are not used to listening to the will of the people. So it may take quite a while for them to realise that they are accountable to the people and not the other way round. So this struggle will continue until they buckle to the wishes of the people. There are plans to mobilise for other protests in London or other parts of the UK, but this depends on how the government reacts. We shall be watching them with keen interest. For now the return to the old price of fuel is minimum yardstick to measure our success. Anything less than that will be a disappointment.
Photos of the Occuppy Nigeria Protest in London are here: Occupy Nigeria Protest