#OccupyNigeria: One year later, the gains, the losses

Ogala Emmanuel and Ben Ezeamalu

Published: January 12,2013

It has been one year since Nigerians, under the banner of #OccupyNaija, protested against misgovernment and massive corruption. 

Three months before, Nigerians began speculating about it. The Nigerian government, anticipating the catastrophe it might bring, began consultations and dialogue with civil society. Nigerians were however shocked when in the early hours of January 1, 2012, President Goodluck Jonathan announced the removal of subsidy from petroleum products.

The president’s New Year announcement meant that PMS, which sold for N65 a litre – with subsidy – would go for N141, more than a hundred per cent increase.

This action translated into more than one hundred per cent increase in fares, electricity, food, rents and virtually every all goods and services in Nigeria.

Petrol is central to Nigeria’s economy and literally close to every Nigerian’s heart.

The protests

Expectedly, the president’s announcement immediately drew Nigerians to the streets, sparking spontaneous protests across the country.

The first day of protest had residents of Lokoja, the capital city of Kogi State and an important link town between Abuja, Nigeria’s capital and the rest of Southern Nigeria, block the highway connecting Abuja with Southern Nigeria with bonfire protests.

In Abuja, civil society groups began collecting signatures that later transformed into full blown protest in the heart of the city.

The government deployed security agents and arrested some protesters.

By the second day, the protest had spread to more cities in Nigeria. From Lokoja to Lagos, Maiduguri to Sokoto, Abuja to Port Harcourt, Nigerians poured into the streets, angry and demanding answers from government.

The protest went on without any formal organization but a loose ‘Occupy Nigeria’ platform, modelled after the global occupy movements that season.

Nigerians abroad also joined the protest. Many Nigerian foreign missions abroad were besieged by protesters seeking answers to pressing corruption issues back home. The protesters threw up questions that had never been asked by Nigerians. They demanded a probe into the fuel subsidy scheme and questioned the credibility of the government for not standing up to the ‘cabal’ it blamed for corrupting the scheme.

The protest triggered increased national awareness, with citizens analysing the 2012 annual budget to the point where the president’s feeding budget was viewed as a major setback for the nation.

Protesters demanded accountability in virtually all sectors of government. The protest was bolstered after the organised labour called for a nationwide strike on the fourth day of protests. Labour union’s declaration of strikes, indicating that it will join the protests, provided the movement with a needed fortress.

However, this also gave the government a window through which the protests were later quelled. Organised Labour provided the protesters with leadership and a template for dialogue with government.

Most Nigerians, including the House of Representatives, demanded a reversal of petrol prices, a full probe into the fraudulent subsidy scheme and prosecution of individuals shortchanging Nigeria through the subsidy scheme.

The House of Representatives passed a motion demanding petrol price reversal and set up an investigative panel to probe the scheme.

Organised labour, occupying a vantage position in the protest, began negotiation with the government, brokered by the Senate President, David Mark.

Few days later, labour and government agreed on a partial subsidy that placed petrol pump price at N97 in exchange for normalcy.

Subsequently, labour backed down on the strike, the protest lost leadership and the government rolled tanks into the streets. Protesters became enemies of the state.

About 17 protesters were reportedly killed by security officials during the protest. By mid-January 2012, the protesters were totally, forcefully dispersed.

Six months later, the House of Representatives’ investigative panel released its report indicting many petroleum marketers, government officials and close allies of President Goodluck Jonathan. The House report was later ‘rubbished’ by a bribery allegation against the investigators.

The presidency also set up two committees – The Aigboje Aig-Imoukhuede-led Presidential Committee on Verification and Reconciliation of subsidy claims and payments and the Nuhu Ribadu led Committee on Petroleum Revenue Task Force.

Both, again, produced damning reports.

The Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, during the year, began prosecution of at least 20 oil marketers connected with the subsidy scheme fraud.

One year later, none of these government efforts are yet to translate to punishment for members of the ‘cabal’. Petrol is sold at an average of N110 per litre in most cities outside Abuja and Lagos. More so, no one has been fully prosecuted for the death of protesters.


The gains and losses

Some organisers and participants in the Occupy Nigeria protest argue that the protest was not entirely a wasted effort even though its impact is minimal. They all agree organised labour “sold out” but Labour argues it did its best under the circumstance.

Joe Odumakin

The gains of occupy Nigeria include the great awareness that corruption is the key issue in Nigeria oil sector and not subsidy. The HOR probe and the Ribadu Committee report eloquently speak to that. The shoddy handling of the prosecution of indicted subsidy thieves clearly demonstrates that the haemorrhage is coordinated at the highest level of government. The fact that government was unable to increase the prices of petroleum products again in 2012 is as a result of Occupy Nigeria. But because the struggle was not taken to a logical conclusion, the subsidy thieves are still walking free and the official thefts, in the name of subsidy, continues.

Achike Chude, Vice Chairman, Joint Action Front

If there was any major thing that was gained from that exercise was the fact that it opened the minds of Nigerians, especially those who were doubting whether there was subsidy or not. And I think the consensus at that particular time was that there was no subsidy and that the federal government had no right to continue to impose hardship on Nigerians.

Then again it helped in educating Nigerians on the fact that they have a right to question any act of government once they feel that those actions no longer go with their own interests. Again, the fact that it frightened the government and those in power who realised that the people’s revolt can undermine them and take them out of power. These eventually forced the government, not that they were interested in anti-corruption, to start the subsidy probe.

The downside was that resulting from that particular protest, that Nigerians were not actually able to impose their will on the government by ensuring that those who were involved in that subsidy were punished adequately. We know the games the government has been playing, hiding the people and using delay tactics through their anti-corruption agencies like the EFCC who perpetrate corruption themselves in this country. We have not been able to do anything from revelations arising from the subsidy probe, and the fact that corruption has continued unabated.

Abiodun Aremu, Secretary, Joint Action Front, JAF

The major gain is the resolve by Nigerians to struggle. The major losses are whether there has been consistency in forging ahead with that struggle and I think for us that is the challenge.

When we say struggle continues, it’s to the extent that the contradictions inherent in every society in terms of the struggle of purposes because for there to be hunger, then people must have to loot the resources of the country.

So if you have struggled on account of the hike and inadequate supplies of fuel and those things still persist, what it shows clearly is that there is a need to further that struggle. Because the whole thing about the subsidy thing which we have claimed over and over had been a ruse and an avenue for further looting of resources have been further exposed by the probe panels. What has happened to the perpetrators? What has happened to the corrupt atrocities that are perpetrated? These are the issues. So for us the challenge is how to intensify the struggle.”

Debo Adeniran, Chairman, Coalition Against Corrupt Leaders, CACOL

First and foremost, the protest in itself was an eye opener that Nigerians are ready for action. What they are waiting for is the person to provide the leadership.

Second is that Nigerians are capable of replicating Arab Spring and that the state should take necessary precautions not to arouse their anger to that level.

Then, most of the things we got was actually deception, to say the least. The calling off of the protest is a kind of betrayal on the part of government and labour leaders, who were our partners in the process, because they were not part of the meeting that agreed on N97 per litre. They betrayed the cause of the civil society populace because we were never part of the negotiation that arrived at N97 per litre of petrol. That is the first loss that we suffered, because we were capable of forcing the government to come back to N60 or even less. Again, the government played upon the intelligence of the Nigerian populace by dangling the SURE-P and other panels like the Nuhu Ribadu panel, Aig-Imoukhuede panel and so forth, giving an impression that they understood our reason for protest, they were going to assuage the fears that were expressed. But they have woefully failed in the sense that the SURE-P, if it benefits anybody, it is the ruling elites who are favouring themselves. The protest did not succeed in getting a credible answer to the question of what have they done with the subsidy removal on diesel and partial removal on kerosene. Now more than 10 months that they have increased the prices of petrol to N97, we have not seen dividends of that endeavour.

Idowu Adelakun, Lagos Nigeria Labour Congress Chairman

I can say we gained a lot. If not for that protest, government will have increased the pump price again. But they are afraid of workers coming out to protest again. I don’t think we lost anything.

Before the strike was suspended, a lot of things happened, like some politicians trying to hijack the protest. And that was why the labour leaders quickly suspended the strike. Because that time we were calling for the removal of the fuel subsidy, which was a bad policy by the federal government. We want them to change that policy. We were not calling for change of government and we were not calling for the removal of the president. But as the protest was going on, people were agitating for change of government, of which that is not the labour stand. So I don’t think we lost anything. I think that’s an eye opener, because when we travelled to America, the issue was discussed and American people said that they cannot even try that protest the way we did and I think it’s a pass mark on Nigerian workers.

There is nothing that can be 100 per cent okay. As far as Labour is concerned, we achieved a lot. We normally do the protests with civil society groups. (Now) we believe that their own stand is different from our own stand. So we have said that future protests, we will not involve them because the way they take their own case is different from the way we take our own case. Our own side is to fight the bad policies of the government, not for revolution. Their own side is for revolution. How can we call for revolution? Even the strike we are talking about we know what it takes us before we can stop workers from going to work, even danfo buses from operating their vehicles. So when they are calling for a revolution, all the countries that have called for revolution we know the problems they are facing up till now, and those countries are not as big as Nigeria. So the issue of revolution is not part of what labour is agitating for.


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