Nigeria: Stages of helplessness

The postponement of Nigeria’s elections and the subversion of the will of the ordinary citizen.

People demonstrate against a decision to postpone Nigeria''s elections
It is normal for citizens to feel frustration and helplessness with their governments, writes Ogunlesi [AP]

There’s a special sort of helplessness that has recently come to define my relationship with Nigeria. It occurs to me that all over the world it is normal for citizens to feel a certain frustration directed at their governments, or at institutions within their countries – for example the Arab Spring, which brought down entire governments in North Africa, or the Occupy Movement, which emerged as a backlash against the “institution” that is Wall Street.

This is a different sort of helplessness; the vulnerability triggered by the realisation that a small group of politically powerful persons, sometimes not representing any formally constituted authority, is attempting to subvert the will of the ordinary citizens of a country.

This is a far more discrete type of helplessness than what emerges from a general, lingering, wide-angle sense of dissatisfaction with the way a country is being run.

Days, weeks, months

The first time I felt this way was in November 2009. President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua had suddenly taken ill, and left the country to seek medical attention in Saudi Arabia, without handing over power to his deputy. Days turned into weeks; weeks to months, yet no word from the president.

Inside Story – Why is Nigeria postponing its general election?

Here was my country drifting, bereft of leadership. It quickly became clear that there was a conspiracy, by the ailing president’s kitchen-cabinet, and his wife, to keep the vice president from assuming office.

So when, in March 2010, an opportunity arose to join a group of friends to publicly protest against the grip of the “cabal” – as they came to be known – on the seat of power, I wasted no time signing up. We flew to Abuja, at our own expense, to march to Parliament with a list of our grievances.

The combined pressure from citizens and civil society would eventually force the legislators to decree a temporary transfer of power to the vice president. 

The cabal, unwilling to give up without a fight, arranged to have the ill president flown back to Nigeria, without advance notice, and under cover of darkness. Now that he was back, we waited for him to address the nation, to explain why things had played out the way they did.

Stuck with the sick

He never did. He was in no position to speak to anyone; his barely sentient body had been flown back home simply because a group of people thought it was the only way to keep the acting president in check. A small group of people had arrogated to themselves the power to play games with the fate of a 170 million citizens.

Had Yar’Adua not suddenly died on May 5, 2010, I hate to imagine how things would have played out. In one scenario I imagined and wrote about, we were stuck with the sick, absent Yar’Adua until the end of his first term.

I didn't hesitate to join the 'Occupy Nigeria' protests that followed. For five days people in Lagos gathered at the Gani Fawehinmi Memorial Park - our own idea of Tahrir Square - to protest against the government's insensitivity.

The next time I felt that kind of helplessness was in January 2012. News filtered out, on New Year’s Day, that the petrol subsidy had been removed, and that the price of petrol had subsequently risen by 116 percent.

The news caught the nation unawares. A public debate was still ongoing about the merits and demerits of removing the subsidy; there were, in my view, a number of important issues to be considered before the removal of a subsidy that was one of the few benefits citizens enjoyed from a state that had long perfected the art of abdicating its responsibilities.

I didn’t hesitate to join the “Occupy Nigeria” protests that followed. For five days people in Lagos gathered at the Gani Fawehinmi Memorial Park – our own idea of Egypt’s Tahrir Square – to protest against the government’s insensitivity. On what would have been the sixth day, the government backed down, announced a price reduction, and then sent the military out onto the streets to break up the rallies.

A new cabal?

Three years on, I’m starting to sense that peculiar sense of helplessness descending on me again. This time the matter at hand is our rescheduled elections. The presidential election, scheduled to hold last Saturday, has been postponed by six weeks, as have all the other elections.

A small group of powerful Nigerians – a modest-sized mix of politicians and security officials – appears keen on dictating the fate of the entire country. I am convinced that there’s a determined plan on the part of the ruling government to scuttle the presidential election, simply because of a strong chance that the opposition might finally end its 16-year losing streak.

It seems to me that the postponement is merely to buy some time to consider the next plan of action; which could be anything from invoking the part of the constitution that permits a declaration of a state of emergency, to forcing the election commission boss, Attahiru Jega, out of office before the elections, and replacing him with a more pliable candidate.

President Goodluck Jonathan has come out laden with reassurance, saying Jega will not be fired, that the rescheduled elections will take place, and that May 29 – the day the winner is constitutionally due to be sworn in – is sacrosanct.

I wish I could believe him. Certain people and groups within his government and his campaign organisation seem to be operating from a different script. They are stepping up a campaign to discredit the electoral body and its beleaguered boss.

Some are openly vowing that opposition candidate Muhammadu Buhari will never be president. I am again hit by that deeply troubling feeling that things are out of our control as citizens; that there’s a cabal out to continue from where we halted the Yar’Adua cabal, five years ago.

Depending on what happens in the coming weeks, I can see myself back on the streets of Lagos, or Abuja, like in 2009 and 2012, protesting – peacefully no doubt. Not because I enjoy protesting, but because I believe that as citizens we have the most important duty of all – that of ensuring that power never rests for long in the hands of those for whom it is a tool for subjugation, not service.

Tolu Ogunlesi is a Nigerian journalist and blogger, and West Africa correspondent for The Africa Report. His work has appeared in Al Jazeera, Financial Times, the London Guardian, CNN and NEXT. He is a two-time winner of the CNN Multichoice African Journalism Awards. He lives in Lagos.

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