By Dr. Aliyu Tilde
This morning the Occupy Nigeria protests against fuel subsidy removal (FSR) entered its second day. It has been a resounding success. Never in the past fifty years of my life have I seen the country absolutely shut down by a consensus of its citizens like this. Nigerians have proved to the world, and convinced themselves now, that despite their differences they collectively harbour their country in their hearts. They are not ready to sacrifice their welfare at the altar of some meaningless ethnic differences. Bravo!
It is noteworthy to mention that the protest have so far claimed minimal casualties by Sub-Saharan standards. I was delighted that the security chiefs decided at their meeting last week that protesters should not be attacked by security forces. This indicates that we are making progress in our ascent on the barometer of human rights. We need to sustain it.
As we celebrate this success, it is pertinent to start applying our intellects to the fate of the process we gallantly started. It is important to foresee the obstacles that are likely to avert its success and leave us broken-hearted. What are the possible arsenals that government would deploy from its armoury and how do we immobilize them aground? Which natural and human forces can we count on and which ones do we protect ourselves against?
Having witnessed a number of protests in Nigeria before, a number of things naturally come into focus. The first is time. This is both an enemy and a friend. From my experience, the "fizzle out" doctrine of Obasanjo and Jonathan must be a phenomenon to conquer if the protests must succeed. Many things can push people to wear out and abandon the protests. Chief among them is the biting poverty especially among urban dwellers whose majority live on daily bread. Rural dwellers will also suffer because their produce cannot sell when market days do not hold. Their vegetables will rot and their animals will go for a pittance when urban dwellers do not mop them up on market days. As the food chain is severed, city dwellers will be hit hard with scarcity.
If workers of essential services that provide healthcare, water and electricity also join the strike, life of citizens will freeze. For how long can we survive such sub-zero temperatures when we are accustomed to the motherly tropical climate of Africa must presently be the subject of intense discussions in both government and labour circles. Known that they are bereft of any hibernation skills, Nigerians must find a way to prolong their survival under such a winter, while the government intensifies its effort to drop the temperature much farther as quick as possible to enable a lethal shock effect.
I was a lecturer in Sokoto when the Dasuki crisis of 1988 broke out. On the first afternoon, it seemed as if the masses in Sokoto town would sustain their resolve to success, no matter how long it will take. The atmosphere of dissent covered the city with its rare fragrance of freedom and defiance. How pleasant was its breathe it air and how beautiful was it to witness its scenes! But by the fourth day, empty of cash and foodstuff, the people were begging for the Sokoto Market open, grudgingly depositing their fate in God, trusting that He will judge in their favour in the next world. But God wished that Dasuki will remain the Sultan, and so he did, until when Abacha deposed him in 1996.
Each us therefore has the duty of managing his affairs to enable him, his family and, of course, other Nigerians to maintain the tempo of the protest until our goal is achieved. We must know that governments under such circumstances are aware that time is naturally on their side. So they wait, like vultures, for our energies to dissipate and for our patience to runout before they strike at the few survivors with brutal force or with offers that a demoralized labour will find difficult to turn down.
Here, in addition to advising Nigerians to store provisions and cash, Labour must be innovative in inventing means to keep us marching forward. To do this, it requires the fuel necessary to keep our engines running. Fortunately, social media is here to aid us. Let there be, for example, more revelations on government corruption, what is in its mind at any given moment and the devices it plans to employ to quell the protests. Let us know the division in its ranks. A mix of fact and propaganda and facts, if you like. The government has fed us on lies all along. We must work ahead of it. As I wrote this paragraph, the following text message came in coincidentally:
"Now available for sale in different sizes: bicycles, camels, horse and donkeys. We can also train and equip your dog, goat, ram,etc to carry u around. They all don't use fuel or gas. Visit us at our office. No. 1, Oil Subsidy Road. Alison Madueke Junction. Goodluck Close. Off Okonjo-Iweala Street, by Labaran Maku Avenue, Austin Aniwon Crescent, Sanusi Lamido Area, Abuja. Or call 080-GEJ/DAM P-ABUJA."
What a pleasant satire!
As found in other countries, the larger population should mobilize its singers to entertain its mind and instigate its writers to feed its resolve. Elders and our women must strike at the nerve of revolt in our youths and revive their African courage. For their personal aggrandizement and the neocolonial ends of their masters in the World Bank and IMF, few gangsters that have been sucking our blood must not be allowed to continue killing the African child and enslaving 164 million of its folk. This is an opportunity to break their shackles and end their misrule.
Once we can defeat time and sustain the protests, the government will be brought to its knees. This is the secret behind the success of the Arab Spring, when they confronted Pharoahs like Ben Ali, Mubarak and Gaddafi, professionals in tyranny, worse than the thieving rats that we call our leaders. The international community that Jonathan is so mindful of will then press him to yield yo our demands in the fear that he may lose the power all together. That is when time becomes our friend.
But the government is not likely to count on the passive effect of time alone. I have no doubt that it will attempt to use more active strategies.
Money, politics and religion will be recruited by government at will as potent agents of destabilizing the protests. Since the beginning of his tenure, President Jonathan has shown unprecedented readiness to disburse huge money to buy off his opponents, religious leaders and the parliament. In fact, this is the crux of the FSR. To partially finance his election campaigns, commentators have alleged that over N800 billion was stolen in the name of subsidy, causing the figure to jump from its traditional N300 billion annually.
An attempt will be made to buy the trade unions leaders or part of them. Mainstream religious leaders have already started a campaign to persuade their followers from future participation, as evidenced from a BBC Hausa interview with some leaders of Jammatu Nasril Islam and CAN last Saturday. The name of God will be invoked to anasthetise the population.
Likewise, there are allegations that the National Assembly has been compromised before it went on Christmas holiday. Part of the advanced payment, it is alleged, was the removal of Farida Waziri from the EFCC chair and the payment of N10 million to each senator and N5m to each member of the House of Representatives before the Christmas break. Though we may never know the truth about this, the silence of the parliamentarians, especially the senators, is surprising, given how they shouted down the President when he introduced the matter to them at a special dinner earlier in 2011.
Jonathan, his cabinet and the governors can also appeal to PDP sentiments among the population. They can create an atmosphere that will enable them claim that the opposition has hijacked the protests; that it is a subversive attempt to bring down the PDP government; etc. Organized labour and Nigerians in general must, therefore, be watchful of politicians that cannot resist the temptation of manipulating the protests to their ends.
Lastly, "Boko Haram" is a readily available tool. Mercenaries can be sent to kill worshippers in order to stir bad blood amongst us and divert our attention. Already serious questions are being raised about the identity of the people who carried out the recent attacks on Christians in the Northeastern towns of Gombe, Mubi and Yola. We hope the security agents will tell Nigerians the truth about them.
When push comes to shove, government will employ its security apparatus or thugs to stop the protests by blocking, intimidating and attacking civilians, not withstanding the resolve of the security chiefs not to deploy force. Protesters will be ready to remain peaceful, but violence can easily be instigated by hiring some agents to commit arson on government property, to engage the police in violence, etc. We have already witnessed the unfortunate incident at Government House Kano yesterday. Such attacks will provide government with the desired pretext to "retaliate" to "keep the peace", using live ammunition as they have done twice in Kano.
Whether the death of their countrymen would ignite the fear in Nigerians, persuading them to abandon the protest, or the blood of its martyrs would water the tree of their defiance is a quest that cannot be answered with any certainty now. The use of violence by government, however, is a possibility that is highly probable, especially with many Nigerian governors who have finished calculating how much they would loot from the FSR funds and who have so far shown zero degree of restraint in unleashing state apparatus of coercion against their citizens.
The most lethal weapon Nigerians can employ apart from hoarding its abour is to immobilize the security personnel upon which the government depends. Let us persuade soldiers, policemen, custom officers and immigration officials to side with us, their brothers and sisters. Once they refuse to be used by government, Jonathan will have no option but to concede to our demands. This responsibility does not rest with labour alone but with anyone among us who can reach out to someone among the security forces.
State of Emergency
Finally, a state of emergency will be the joker that the President will use, if all the above fail. We have seen how the PDP used curfew to rig elections in Kaduna and Bauchi States. The need to use it when the regime is under threat will be more compelling by a President that is deaf to the demand of his entire countrymen.
These are the challenges awaiting the protests that are currently dubbed "Occupy Nigeria" or Zanga Zanga in Hausa. Mentioning them here is not intended to discourage, but to remind us that the path to freedom has never been smooth for anyone throughout history. Freedom, the Americans say, is not free. Or as the late Sayid Qutb would put it, "the tree of a cause is watered by the blood of its martyrs."
10 January 2012