Monday, January 16, 2012
I came back from Nigeria yesterday evening, after some 8 days of stay. I arrived on Saturday the 7th.. in the heat of "there may be a strike next week" talk. And strike there was.. the whole week. By Saturday 14th, someone had named it "the mother of all strikes" in Nigeria. He is correct.
For me, the protests were on three levels. First, I was a complete stranger to the whole of it. Since I dont live in Nigeria.. and fuel costs 1.5$ in my residence country for a liter..it was interesting for me to watch the outcry. On a second level, as a Policy Adviser, I was listening a lot: about what my relatives were saying. I watched a lot of news on TV, followed the #OccupyNigeria and #FuelSubsidy tags on Twitter and tried to process all the public policy issues that were flowing through all of that. On a third level, when I had to hit the road from the Eastern part of the country to the Western part on the Thursday,despite expressed fears from my mother and close family members, then I became one of the actors.
From my end, here are a few of the things I saw as the good, the bad, and the ugly of the strike.
The citizen mobilization. Oh yes! In Yinka's article, Social media was hailed as a magnifying force of the protests. The photo shot by Sunday (which I borrowed for this post) also shows how huge certain crowds got. Since the Arab Spring, millions of Africans having been desiring, hoping, scratching for a similar occasion.. to out their issues with the powers that be. In Nigeria itself, the OCCUPYNIGERIA movement had started before the fuel subsidy saga. So it was not a surprise that that the citizen mobilization was huge.
Corruption to the fore: Everybody says there is corruption in Nigeria. I am not in the secret of the gods and cannot say what strategy the Nigerian President - Goodluck Jonathan - may have put in place alongside the fuel subsidy removal one, but for once, the big question of corruption in Nigeria became a national agenda. Government says it wants to tackle corruption by removing subsidy and citizens insist corruption needs to be tackled while subsidy is maintained.. which ever way.. the strike has made it clear.. everyone in Nigeria agrees that corruption is THE problem and needs to be confronted.
Rise of critical questions: I listened to radio and TV programmes during the entire strike. I read the tweets and web posts. I have been impressed by the number of critical questions raised during the strike period. What happened to the subsidy money from diesel? Is kerosine subsidized or not? How does government spending in fuel subsidy actually add up? What are the exact costs? Where does the spending go? Who makes decisions in key energy issues? What about earlier promises made by government on energy-related issues? What is the role of the Bretton-Woods institutions on this? When are the refineries getting back to work? What does it take for Nigeria to get them started? What real mechanisms is government putting in place to REALLY tackle corruption? How come government is quick to remove fuel subsidy when it is so slow in fighting Boko Haram (The Militant Islamic group). So many questions..
Mutual respect: In the history of Nigeria, I am not sure that such a strong-willed confrontation has happened. The way the government took the citizens by surprise.. and the way the citizens reacted with a resilience that took decision makers by surprise as well. At first, the citizens thought the government will back out entirely after 2/3 days of strike.. and the government also thought that citizens will back off after 2/3 days of protests. It is now comfortable to say that there is that healthy respect; in which the government respects the power of the citizens and the citizens become aware that the present government has a strong will. Now that everyone is aware that everyone is aware.. things may never be the same again.
The loss in productivity: This is the huge loss. There are figures that are flying around about how much the government was losing in productivity for each day of the strike. But the loss is incalculable. The economic, yes. But the social, the political and the personal. Simply put: Almost everyone in Nigeria lost.
No clear way out of the corruption quagmire: Though the question has risen to the fore and the need to tackle corruption has become a national agenda, the strike does not seem to have paved a way for it. Will the Nigerian government put more emphasis on transparency and good governance? Not sure. Will individuals adopt a less corrupt behaviour? No signs.. The strike may have been the "River Niger" of an anti-corruption move, but the "pacific ocean" of corruption remains cool, calm and undisturbed. Like the novelist Ayi Kwei Armah says: "The Beautyful Ones are Not Yet Born".
Issues with information: As in such cases, one thing was the strike, the other was the information management. It is not clear that the Nigerian government has put in place a strategic government information channel that takes into consideration the Web 2.0 era. Rumors had a field day. When I was setting off from Aba to Lagos, those in Aba had information that there was zero movement in Lagos and those in Lagos were under the impression that because Lagos was crippled for the major part, all parts of the country were. In truth, Aba and some other Eastern Nigeria cities were going about their businesses. Granted, banks were not open but transport was okay. In Lagos too, apart from the designated meeting areas, there was movement in town. If you add those to hackers who took the opportunity to hack key institutional sites.. the misinformation of both parties, and especially the international community was on "high level".
Lack of proper citizen education: In many of the responses to the fuel subsidy removal, almost all pointed to one key factor: there was not enough public policy education of the Nigerian population. The education of the mass did not happen. Some claim consultation did not also happen. Those who could quickly educate themselves "saw the point" in what government was "trying to get at" but not everyone can educate him/herself.
Greed. I think it should be called by its name. Owners of fuel stations who had products delivered at the initial price were happy to sell the same at the new price. In Aba, stations sold PMS for 150 Naira!! Somewhere in Lagos, people had to beg to buy at 138 Naira. It is easy to point at the corruption of others.. but for the owners of the fuel stations.. mhmm! There was also the "Okada" bike riders who doubled their prices. The airlines who were collecting 100$ each for ticket changes. The women at the market.. greed had a field day
Extortion: I had to send out a tweet when my driver panicked. He got news that youths armed with clubs were breaking windshields of vehicles at Ijebu Ode junction of the Benin-Abeokuta express way. On arrival, the sight that met my eyes was a very worry one indeed. At least 1000 youths had mounted road blocks at every 20 meters on either side of the highway and were collecting cash from every single vehicle that drove by. My driver paid in at least 12 points for a 500 meters stretch of road. It was sickening!
Deaths: Labour may have called off the strike, but the fact still remains that people died during the strike. Some from one kind of violence or another, and others as collateral. Like my mother will say, "it is only after the race that we will calculate the distance".
In years to come, Nigerians will look back to the second week of January 2012 and point at the many firsts..
I do hope that the good, the bad and the ugly of the week will serve us in a positive way.
For Nigeria, for Africa, for the world.