By Bisi Lawrence
Well, it would seem that we lost – as I was afraid we would. It was the people against the government, the rabble against royalty, and it was not yet July 14. We lost and please don’t feed me that boloney of, “no victor, no vanquished”. We lost because we were not well-informed: most of the people did not know what was really at stake.
The other side had all the information. The quotient of intellectuals within the cab … the cabinet, that is, was about the highest in our political history. The ranks of the official side were awash with experts in almost every field you can think of; they were so many they almost tripped on one another’s technocratic heels.
What chance had innocent citizens against that, on the one hand, and monumental forces of self-interests on the other, with only the basic raw assurance of the “power of the people” as their weapon, a power that may asset itself effectively, at the best of times, only through the aegis of those against whom it was now set —and so sure to be soon beset. Against two Goliaths, our David still had only one stone.
I remember the first national strike that this country ever had. It was the second time the word, “strike”, came into popular usage. The first time was at the instance of the action of protest staged by students of King’s College, Lagos, against the institution’s authorities, and it did not even peer over the walls of the school’s premises.
That was in 1944. The precursor of all national labour disputes was to come up the following year, when all workers downed their tools over what they considered inadequate wages. They demanded a raise in their incomes to combat the upward trend of prices all around – in transportation, in the markets, in education. In frustration at the negligence of the authorities, they threatened to go on strike. The Railway Workers’ Union, being the largest, led the other industrial bodies under the epoch-making leadership of Michael Imoudu.
The colonialist government laughed at the very temerity of the challenge to their authority. What was more, they had behind them the express support of the wealthy businessmen, socialites and acclaimed professionals in the country. Only a single person and some of his followers— and, ironically, perhaps the only man who had a flawless accreditation to be grouped among any of the above distinguished classes stood up in support of the workers.
He spoke up for them; he wrote about their cause which was a just struggle to “accommodate the lean circumstances of their lives with reasonable dignity”; he eventually had a well publicized bet with another notable name of the day (who need not be identified here) for one hundred pounds, a princely sum in those days. And he won!
The people went on strike. The policemen stayed on the beat, and nurses remained by the beds of their sick patients. But the clerks in the Secretariat dropped their pens; the locomotive drivers stopped their engines; the road workers abandoned the streets; even the meat sellers discarded their knives.
And Zik won the bet of one hundred pounds. Yes, it was none other than that great nationalist and nation-builder, Nnamdi Azikwe, who manned the breach for workers’ rights when that indelible note was written in the annals of our history. The rampant State Governors of the South east should be reminded of the golden heritage of nationalism they seem to be toying with.
They appear to have condoned the arrest of too many people whose only fault was their loyalty to the breasts that suckled them.
We have been blessed, as a people, with other towering figures in the cause for our emancipation from the tyranny of officialdom, foreign and home-grown. In this company, Gani Fawehinmi, comes readily to mind. He was subjected to so much stress in that struggle for freedom that only the amazing grace of God could have kept him to attain the age of seventy before he passed on. Appropriately enough, the rallying point for the recent protests in Lagos had been fortuitously named after him.
His statute stood there with a benign mien in the din of the crowds’ resentment, just as his resolute spirit would seem to brood over the scene later, when power proclaimed its presence and decreed the dispersal of the crowd Fela Anikulapo’s sons, Femi and Seun, were also there, giving voice to the songs of protests which were the only hymns their father, the son and grandson of clergymen, ever relished.
Students, actors, transport workers, food vendors, and other citizens from all walks of life were out to vent their disagreement with the action of the Federal Government in removing the shadowy oil subsidy. The National Assembly remained honorable to their pledge.
They stood up to be counted. They boldly had their say, but could not stop the empire from having its way. They had gone the limit and deserve the people’s appreciation. The clerics of all religions raised their hands in one mind and almost re-invented religious tolerance in this country. The fever swept all over the nation. We have never had it like this. For six days, it was almost a total shut-out throughout the nation. But we lost. And they won.
The Federal Government stuck to their g- … er, position. The reasons they adduced to the withdrawal of the petroleum subsidy seem to clash with the reasons for the putative existence of the facility. But they kept pushing. The real passion, however, was fed by the fact that it is all theirs to do and they seem compelled to do it. I believe that they were prepared all long to move down from the initial peak of 141 naira to about 100 naira – we even intimated that much on this page.
That would be another point they could raise in their favour, as indeed we saw them claim in the justification of their willingness to negotiate. But the stance actually negated all the norms of negotiation – negotiate or else, as a proposition, has absorbed all the space for a meaningful way of finding the middle ground in any proposition.
The aggressive attitude of the official position gave more than a mere hint of desperation in the determination to withdraw, or remove the subsidy. Some experts felt, and openly stated it, that the nation is broke; that if we went on with the subsidy, we would have to borrow heavily from within the economy, and that would be suicidal. That was expressed on both sides of the fence, so it must be true.
In that case, we all must be able enough, strong enough, to make whatever sacrifices are necessary to pull the national economy back from the brink Pain is for the weak; the strong call it trial. But are we strong enough to bear the pain? Or can the ordeal be reduced to the measure of a trial?
Well, we have heard of palliatives, but one believes that those mentioned, or even already actualized to some extent so far, display only a surface awareness of the disruption that the fuel increase, even to 97 naira per litre, would cause in the life of an average income-earner.
What is mostly and directly affected is the all-important issue of transportation. It is basic to all other considerations. Tackle it, and most of the principal areas of necessary re-adjustment would naturally benefit and respond to any additional effort. That is why the proposal of Ben Murray-Bruce is of immense potential for the opening of ever-widening opportunities for effective public/private cooperation in these trying times.
In philosophical terms, movement is life. Movement is basic to re-generation which is the ultimate in man’s developmental virtues. It is progress in any direction, the existence of which it elementally ordained, in the first place. Ben Murray-Bruce seems to have been blessed with the kind of sharp perception that can easily cut through the confused considerations of a situation to the root solution at its base.
But those who could use these suggestions are not listening. If they are, we have seen no evidence of any response. What seem to occupy the interest of these self-important ministers, and their special assistants, and the assistants to the special assistants, and whatever, who blandly present solutions that are patently puerile, are ludicrous issues which revolve around insults that are hurled at President Jonathan by some irate elements within the masses.
They cannot understand that President Jonathan is public property, and the public is made up of a wide variety of characters. One of these hangers-on was almost in tears on television. “They are abusing the President; imagine! How can they be abusing the President?” And why not? Is he God? He is their PRESIDENT. They voted him into power, and they can abuse him if they so choose.
Let us turn to more serious matters, like the creation of relief for the masses in these stressful times, and I believe that Murray-Bruce’s ideas are ideal in many ways. The details will be forthcoming on this page soon to invite worthy contributions from you – particularly, you who own this page.
Another grouse, issuing from the proponents of the removal of subsidy, is that the demonstrations against the government’s decree were being “hijacked” by miscreants, politicians, hooligans and other people who, I suppose, were not personally approved by them.
From whom were the protests being hijacked? The twin-leadership of the labour movement? And who were these miscreants and thugs taking over what is already spread all over the country? It was all, of course, no more than a ruse to flood the streets of Lagos and some other cities in the South-West with soldiers, to threaten the peace of the environment, and terrorize the citizenry through a tasteless display of naked power.
Appropriately, His Excellency Babatunde Raji Fashola, in his daring, debonair but decent manner made it clear, that such an uncivilized approach to a civic matter is unacceptable. But the army personnel were still left in the purely civilian community even after several religious and community leaders joined in the protest against their presence.
It was just one of the several occasions in which the Jonathan administration has shown its steely hubristic demeanor in matters of the public welfare. No thought of common courtesy, or any consideration of human concern, ever soars high enough to address the Olympian loftiness of their uncaring attitude.
But, if I may say it once again, don’t give up, Nigeria. Hang in there, the subsidy crisis could become a whirlwind that some people will reap from the wind they inadvertently sowed. For instance, we always insisted that the sums of money stolen from the oil industry would far outstrip the amount of the so-called subsidy, inflated as it may be, if all the facts were known. Some of the facts are now slowly emerging, and they already are enough to keep a man away from his dinner. Are you aware, for instance, that Nigeria has been paying out no less than the cost of 54 million litres of petrol now for over one year, ON A DAILY BASIS? It’s all coming out. But what will then come out of it and other revelations that are bound to follow? No fear, Nigerians will this time follow it through.
All the same, hang in there. The people may appear to have lost now, but all is not lost. Truth must win over falsehood. The moment of truth is here.