#OccupyNigeria shows the movement’s global face

Cuts in fuel subsidies have inspired demonstrators in Africa’s most populous country to demand change.

Protesters took to the streets across Nigeria after the government removed fuel subsidies on January 1 [EPA]

Even as the Occupy movement recedes in size, if not in activism, in the global North, it has, to its own surprise, opened up a new front in Africa’s most populous country, Nigeria – where tens of thousands have occupied and paralysed the economy in a protest against the lifting of oil subsidies.

This is a movement that is actually spreading, according to Lambert Strether, as quoted on NakedCapitalism.com:

“And although some see Occupy as an aerial canopy of leaping bright fire, I prefer to see Occupy as a species of rhizome: A mass of roots growing slowly and irresistibly, indeed invasively, and scaling horizontally by sending out runners everywhere. Underground and in the dark. Right now cold, but soon to be warm. And just like hops, asparagus, ginger, turmeric, galangal, irises or Lily of the Valley, if you chop an Occupation into pieces, you get as many Occupations as the pieces you chopped.”

Suddenly in rapid succession, protests are popping up in disparate places across the globe.

Occupiers in the US have moved “troops” from lower Manhattan to Congress in Washington.

Chinese activists are occupying villages and South Africans continue protests in townships against what they call a “new apartheid”.

And, in Nigeria, a mass movement is gathering, in a country known more for its capitalist proclivities than activist leanings.

Even though the first name of Nigeria’s president is “Goodluck”, he isn’t having much in battling a citizens’ movement, led by unions and activists.  

#Occupy Nigeria explains:

“It all started on January 1, 2011, when the announcement of fuel subsidy removal by the federal government sent everyone into a crazy frenzy, people rushed to petrol stations to see if they could get PMS at the former price of NGN 65 [40 US cents], but the petrol stations had already implemented the new price regime.

“Nigerians suffered under the burden of the new price hike for two weeks, before their cries led organised labour to embark on a nationwide strike to protest government actions. Different organisations and personalities began to emerge as leaders championing the cause of the people; bodies like Nigerian Medical Association and Nigerian Bar Association immediately joining the strike in major Nigerian cities across the country.”

The Africa-oriented news service GIN reports on what happened next. First, the president caved on lifting subsidies, but:

“Soldiers were ordered into the country’s major cities and to remain while “tension” persists – something unseen since the nation abandoned military rule in 1999. The move raises new questions about freedom of speech in a nation where government power still appears absolute.

“Removal of the oil subsidy which had kept gas prices affordable, spurred tens of thousands of Nigerians to take to the streets last week, demanding not just a rollback but the removal of the entire Goodluck Jonathan administration.”

The reason: The protest has never been just about an oil subsidy but pervasive corruption involving the transfer of millions into the hands Nigeria’s politically connected one per cent.

Nigeria’s most prominent intellectual, Nobel Prize literature laureate Wole Soyinka is calling the mobilisation of the army “a gross betrayal”. He asked:

Nigeria fuel subsidy protests roll unabated

“Was it part of the deal reached by the government of Goodluck Jonathan, Labour Movement and Civil Society, that soldiers would be sent to occupy Lagos and intimidate the populace?”

“This is a gross violation of the rights of citizens to congregate and give expression to whatever grievances bedevil their existence,” he continued. “Until they are removed, Nigerians as a whole should understand that the present civic action is not over and prepare to mobilise and defend their liberty.”

In the past, in the days of military dictatorships, the violent and often out of control soldiers were denounced as “Zombies” in a popular song by the late Nigerian superstar Fela – who died of an AIDS-related illness in 1997, and whose own story is being told in a touring musical that debuted on Broadway. The soldiers he was ridiculing later raided his compound and beat him and his supporters.

Nigeria’s Day newspaper blasted the government, writing:

“What began as an audacious error of political judgment and economic desperation quickly graduated into a landmark national upheaval. It threatened to swallow the little democratic gains that have been made in this imperfect republic.
It afflicted the ruling political elite with avoidable insomnia. The fuel subsidy crisis that ended yesterday was a disruption foretold but clearly avoidable. It was foretold because, either way, a removal of subsidy on petroleum prices was bound to dislodge honest private budgets and unsettle public peace.”

Corruption is nothing new in Nigeria, where many believe it was a legacy of British rule. When I visited Lagos back in 1986, I was told to be careful in the airport where “the once around rule” was observed: if you didn’t get your bag on the carousel, the first time it turned, it was fair game for anyone.

I was there reporting for ABC News on a visit by the Reverend Jesse Jackson. When we left, staffers of the protocol office of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs tried to shake down the whole entourage for money.

When we boarded our plane to leave, soldiers followed to remove passengers flying on phony tickets. These were minor instances compared with the machinations of ministers who wired their entire budgets to foreign banks over the weekend to capture the interest before the funds were sent back.

Nigeria is known internationally for its email scammers, but the costs of the more entrenched corruption is massive on the Nigerian people themselves.

Now, those people are mobilising with popular demands that could overthrow their government.

The Wall Street Journal quotes a financial manager: “Both the unions and the government have lost control of this process,” said Bismark Rewane, managing director of Financial Derivatives Co in Lagos. The protests, he added, are “becoming a referendum on Goodluck”.

The Journal offers this analysis: “The demonstrations present Mr Jonathan with one of his biggest challenges in his two years as president. He has staked his presidency on the removal of the fuel subsidy to free up funds for infrastructure investment.

“The move is intended as the first in a series of tough overhauls – including the privatisation of Nigeria’s threadbare electric grid. Aides say Nigeria lacks the funds to restore the subsidy, the principal demand of labour unions.

“Some analysts warn that even if Mr Jonathan were to restore part of the subsidy, the concession wouldn’t be enough to satisfy the thousands of protesters, who have turned city centres into cauldrons of antigovernment sentiment.”

When you see phrases such as “cauldrons of anti-government sentiment”, you know this is serious.

Local unions are defying orders from their national leaders, report local outlets on AllAfrica.com:

“Addressing a press conference in Kano yesterday over the strike suspension under the auspices of NLC/TUC/JAF Committee for the Kano Struggle, chairman of the state NLC chapter Comrade Isa Yunusa Danguguwa said the mandate given the NLC’s national leadership by the National Executive Committee of the congress was ‘grossly violated’.”

Meanwhile, the government is trying to placate protesters by sending anti-corruption police to seize documents from the Petroleum Ministry – with no arrests to date.

The next wave of protests is being supported by the popular Nigerian artists of “Nollywood”, with new anti-subsidy songs that have turned into anthems.

The Osun Defender gives a taste of what’s being said and done:

“Actor Desmond Elliot on his Tweeter [sic] page said: “Why does our president need six private jets? Why should our public officials keep their salaries when Obama slashed his? Why should we believe the government when it says the subsidy gain will be properly invested? Bad leadership and corruption must stop. A lot of other stars went beyond just talking, to actually appearing on the streets and speaking at the various rallies, we had notable faces such as; Banky W El Dee, Kate Henshaw, Omoni Oboli, Bimbo Akintola, Desmond Elliot, Ufoma Ejenobor and Ronke Oshodi-Oke appearing at some of the venues of the #Occupy Nigeria rallies.”

Social media outlets, including what they call “Tweeter”, are on the case. Whatever you call it, this movement is no longer just galvanising existing social activists. It is gaining traction with a larger public in a way that Occupy movements in the West only dream about.

It is likely to lead to deeper change or massive repression.

The Arab Spring is moving south, thanks to #OccupyNigeria. If nothing else, this movement dramatises the global nature of the new wave of Occupy protests.

News Dissector Danny Schechter blogs at NewsDissector.com. His new book is Occupy: Dissecting Occupy Wall Street, He reported on Africa for many years for the Africa Research Group and in other outlets. Comments to dissector@mediachannel.org

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.