By Owei Lakemfa
PARLIAMENT of the Streets: Mass strikes and street protests that shook Nigeria in 2012 is the title of my newest book. Although written over three years ago, it has just come off the press. It seeks to document those turbulent days when government had control of Aso Rock, the Government Houses and the apparatus of state power, while the populace took firm control of the streets in an historic power struggle.
There were no known fence sitters in the struggle which split the country between pro-government, and pro-people supporters. Almost all governors including those from opposition parties, and the Senate under David Mark were for government while the professional groups like the Nigeria Bar Association and the Nigeria Medical Association, the Civil Society and the House of Representatives led by Aminu Tambuwal pitched camp with the populace.
The Jonathan administration had on New Year Day, January 1, 2012 increased the price of fuel(PMS) from N65 to N140 and the populace had kicked. The historic eight-day general strike, mass rallies and street protests from January 9 – 16, 2012 brought out the best in Nigerians. The Nigerian people were angry, and they showed it; sovereignty belongs to the people from whom all power flows, they reasserted it; they displayed that the country belongs to the people and not to the government in power.
The populace showed that unity is an article of faith, a theoretical proposition and a practical demonstration of their oneness as a people.
It was the best of times; Nigerians put gender and regionalism aside; political affiliation and party loyalty melted in their hearts; no politician, jobber or government could divide them. Daily, they poured out in tidal waves of humanity in their tens of millions, walking the villages, filling the towns and occupying the cities; men and women, believers and non believers, the ordinary citizens and the movie stars, the preacher and the congregation, the dancer and the vocalist, the student and the teacher, the employer and the employee, the lawyer and the client, the doctor and the patient.
When it was time to pray and the faithful bowed down their heads or closed their eyes, protesters of other faith formed human chains around them; guarding and protecting their comrades. Never had Nigerians been so united! It was the most undiluted, peaceful, solid and focused movement of the Nigerian people. They willingly, voluntarily and completely shut down the entire country for eight days; the airspace and the seaports, the offices and the markets, the formal and informal economy. Communities engaged in self- policing and voluntary enforcement of the strikes. A hungry populace most of whom depended on daily work or sales, endured hunger to reclaim their country. It was a beautiful sight and experience never before witnessed in the country; to crown it all, it was peaceful!
When it was time to hold strikes, mass rallies and street protests, the people poured out daily in huge, unprecedented, and sometimes, frightening numbers in unparalleled display of sovereignty, unity of purpose and oneness in thought and action. Yet, when the burgle was sounded by Labour, the arrow head of the protests, asking the mass to return, within twenty four hours, the jammed streets, the roads that were clogged by human mass, became empty. The multitudes in another unprecedented display of consciousness and collective discipline, simply vanished from the streets.
The street protests showed that in the African peoples’ most populous country, Peoples Power is no longer a theoretical issue; the ability, capability and political will of Nigerians to fight for their rights, assert their sovereignty and reclaim their country from unaccountable elites, is no longer in doubt. Although it came at the very high cost of at least fifteen human lives and scores injured, those eight days when all Nigerians irrespective of class and distinction, religion and regionalism, political partisanship and party affiliation united, were undoubtedly, the most glorious in Nigeria’s history.
In contrast, it brought out one of the worst instincts and actions in the political class. The preaching and claims by the political elite was that Nigeria is a fractured society ridden by primordial sentiments, irreconcilable religious, cultural and ethnic differences and cancerous corruption that cannot be tackled. But the strikes, mass rallies and street protests showed that these are mainly creations of the political elites who employ them to divide the populace and ensure that there is no united action by the people to genuinely transform their country for the benefit of the populace.
So in a period when even the Boko Haram terrorists, ubiquitous armed robbers and kidnappers took holidays, the Government sought to plant disaffection, use ethnicity, regionalism, naked force and thugs to attack the populace.
Government wasted hundreds of millions of Naira in public funds on faceless organisations, armed thugs and divisive and illogical adverts. In its disinformation campaigns, it claimed that the aim of the mass action was “Regime Change” and that Labour had not only been infiltrated, but also lost control of the mass action.
It claimed that the strikes, mass rallies and street protests were actually an insurrection, and are treasonable.
After this expensive and unpatriotic gambit, refusing to listen to the voice of the populace, and with the country on its knees, the government, to avoid collapse, yielded ground to the people by reducing the PMS price to N97 . But not before turning the armed forces out to take back the streets by force.
The protests exposed the underbelly of the Jonathan administration, and the subsequent Public Hearings of the House of Representatives threw wide open, the massive corruption in the oil sector which remains in place.
The Jonathan administration learnt little or nothing from the protests only to be shocked by its rejection, or betrayal by almost all the governors that had egged it on to disregard the cries of the people and show that it is in charge. It forgot a basic lesson; nobody fights its own people and win. Those protests were the beginning of the end for the Jonathan era. They were the real change that eventually, swept it into history.