By Emmanuel Aziken, Political Editor
It was a year ago that the cracks in the country were temporarily put aside in a united protest against the government. For once, Christians and Muslims across tribal lines stood as one against the administration’s 2012 New Year increase in the price of petrol.
Unarguably, one of its most infamous actions, the Goodluck Jonathan administration had on New Year day, 2012 announced the increase in petrol prices from N65 per litre to N141 per litre. The increase, the administration claimed, was in line with the deregulation policy that had for long been mouthed by several administrations since the Ibrahim Babangida regime in the 80’s.
It was an irony. Many iron fisted regimes before it, including the Sani Abacha junta, had shied away from implementing full deregulation of the petroleum downstream sector.
The Jonathan administration maybe out of sheer lack of political or management counsel, or maybe as an act of bravado, decided to tread where many angels had in the past dreaded.
The result was met with near universal disapproval.
It was especially painful for many Nigerians who had travelled prior to the Christmas holidays as they found themselves trapped where they travelled for holidays as a result of the more than 100percent increase in transport fares.
It was one notable action that many Nigerians saw as an act of bad faith from an administration that they had in the past supported.
Remarkably, one of the first groups to mobilise Nigerians against the increase was the Pastor Tunde Bakare, led Save Nigeria Group, SNG. Remarkably, the same group had just a year or so earlier championed the enthronement of Dr. Jonathan as Acting President in the face of the intrigues played by the Aso Rock cabal in the dying days of the Umaru Yar‘Adua administration.
A day after the increase, Nigerians inspired by the SNG started gathering at the Gani Fawehinmi Park at Ojota to denounce the increase. Their action was partly motivated by the gatherings in Tahir Square , Cairo , Egypt that led to the fall of the Hosni Mubarak regime.
Remarkably, the same protest was also at the same time replicated in some major towns across the country, notably in Kano, Abuja and Illorin.
In Lagos participants at the gatherings cut across social and economic classes who joined hands to denounce the increase.
Celebrities were not left out. Among those who thronged the Lagos gatherings were Banky W, Funmi Iyanda, Seun Kuti, Raskimono, 9ice Dede Mabiaku among several others.
Madam Ganiyatu Fawehinmi, widow of the late Fawehinmi carrying on with the social crusades of her late husband told the gathering at Ojota. The prices of everything will increase – transport, housing, school fees, food, etc. The common man will not be able to survive.
Leading Nigeria Labour Congress, NLC Vice-President, Comrade Issa Aremu in seeming echo of the frustration of many former supporters of the president said:
“Jonathan has shown that he cannot be trusted. He said he was engaging in dialogue and all of a sudden, he increased the price!”.
With civil society groups leading the charge, Nigerians anxiously waited for organised labour to take the lead and by January 5, the NLC and the Trade Union Congress, TUC gave a joint demand that the increase be reversed.
The nation was heading towards the precipice.
The two arms of the National Assembly were also in revolt. The House of Representatives in an unprecedented action sat on Sunday January 8 and passed a motion urging the executive to rescind the increase and at the same time urged Organised Labour to sheath its sword.
The presidency defied the House resolution and also the ultimatum from labour.
Given the political tide that swept away regimes in North Africa just before that time, it was not surprising that friends and foes of the administration in Nigeria took interest in the protest that came to be termed as Occupy Nigeria.
The centre of the protest in Lagos was the Gani Fawehinmi Park in the Ojota area of the metropolis.
In Kano protesters defied pleas by Governor Rabiu Kwankwanso not to join the protests as they converged on the Silver Square vowing not to leave the square until the increase was reversed.
The demonstrators also repeatedly denounced top government personalities with the president as the major hate figure and they repeatedly demanded his resignation.
As Muslims sat down to pray instead of going to the mosque, Christians formed a chain around them to protect them from the security forces in an action that put the protests beyond any religious colouration.
Following the intervention of anti-riot policemen who invaded the square to uproot them, the protesters in Kano relocated to Sabuwar Kofa where they continued the demonstrations against the fuel price hike.
Protests were, however, almost non existent in most of the South-South and South-East geopolitical zones. In the South-East the view of many opinion leaders was that petrol had for long been selling for the new price announced by government and so it was for them no big deal.
Two weeks after the protests and with the country on a meltdown, the presidency after marathon negotiations with organised labour, announced a concession that saw the price reduced to N97 per litre. Labour agreed to call off the strike alas to the disappointment of many Nigerians who indeed wanted the strike to continue. Many who did not see the justification for the increase at all wanted the price restored to the original price of N65 or less.
The arguments for increase were seriously punctured by revelations at that time of wastages, and the question about benchmarking local production with international production. Especially worrisome was the administration’s inability to answer the question as to the cost of production for petrol made in Nigeria .
Also riveting is the administration’s failure to answer the question on how the subsidy on imported fuel skyrocketed to trillions.
Though later day revelations have helped to reveal the fraud inherent in the subsidy regime, a definitive explanation has yet to be given.
So, a year after and after billions of naira of lost productivity and 16 lives lost through the Occupy Nigeria protests, the question as to the benefit remains unanswered.
An administration sympathiser, Mr. Joe Ambakaderimo national coordinator of the South-South Elements Progressive Union, SSEPU who has in the past been defensive of the Jonathan administration, however, faulted the government’s action, describing as regrettable that the subsidy fraudsters are yet to be put in jail.
Asked if the Occupy Nigeria protests were successful, he said:
“Yes, the protest brought out the endemic corruption in the oil sector which the government have not been able to tackle over the years and it is still yet to be tackled. Inspite of the mind boggling revelations unearthed by investigative and probe reports those indicted are walking tall on our streets. Many Nigerians can now appreciate the level of corruption that has taken root in this country even if govt has deliberately refused to prosecute the so called subsidy thieves.
Yinka Odumakin, one of the leaders of the SNG concurs, albeit partially. He said:
I think the protests partially achieved its objectives in the sense that we know that the pact with labour to back down to N65 per litre was to move it back to N141 in April last year and that they could not increase it again shows that the protest created a fear in the minds of government and they didn’t know how the people would react it.”
That is a fact that Mr. Osita Okechukwu, the Secretary General of the Conference of Nigerian Political Parties, CNPP agrees with. According to him the protests would have taught President Jonathan the lesson of a social contract between him and Nigerians.
“the protest more than any other event reminded President Jonathan that there is a social contract between the leader and the led and most importantly that this is democracy not dictatorship,” Okechukwu said.
He asserted further that the protest also caged the administration from initiating other anti-people programmes. He, however, regrets that the administration did not do more to win approval for itself through good works.
“Without the protest we could have witnessed other arbitrary petroleum tax increase or electricity tarrif increase from a government preoccupied with taxation without service, a government which erroneously hangs on a nebulous economic concept that government has no business in business.”
Continuing, he said: “A patriotic government could have by now been constructing two or three refineries with the unprecedented oil revenue.”
Odumakin on his part despite the regrets counts the gains of the protest to include the exposure of corruption in high places.
“Don’t forget that it was that protest that gave rise to the Farouk Lawan Committee which exposed the fleece in the oil industry and also the Ribadu Committee that was set up by the government.”
“But the regret is that because the struggle was not taken to the logical conclusion the corrupt elite still retain power and they have been able to shield all the subsidy thieves and as you can see today most of them are still walking free.”
“They continue to hold the country to ransom and what they cannot get from us at the pump price they are getting from government. Don’t forget that few days to the end of last year that the presidency asked for N161 billion for subsidy.
“So the fact that corruption continues unabated in the country is a result of the fact that the struggle was not taken to its logical conclusion.
“But we believe that a template has been laid and that template would be useful for the fire next time.
Asked when the next fire is coming, he said:
I cannot be talking of date now, but I know that if the country continues the way it is that there is no way that Nigerians will not,we cannot continue this way and people will not say that enough is enough.
After the protest who is occupying Nigeria now, he was asked? Corruption,he replied.