NLC Strike Suspended While Soldiers Clamp Down on Protesters

There are two major developments today.  First, the NLC has asked for a “suspension” (i.e. end) to the nation-wide labor strike and encourages all Nigerians to return to work tomorrow, despite that the price of fuel was not returned to its previous price. The federal government had  stated last week that the N141 per liter price was non-negotiable but agreed with the NLC over the weekend on N97. The NLC also reiterated its call for an end to street demonstrations (although the demonstrations began before the NLC became publicly involved and most were planned and implemented independently of the NLC anyway).

Second, although the number and intensity of protests across the country lessened, today saw the strongest suppression of demonstrators yet. Police clamped down harshly on marchers (led by the former governor) in the northern city of Kano and President Jonathan deployed soldiers to disperse the remaining demonstrators in Lagos.  Soldiers fired live rounds into the air and around the crowds.  There were no fatalities. Additionally, state security forces stormed the CNN and BBC offices in Lagos, presumably to stop those news sources from reporting on the protests.

The Joint Action Front, the organizational force behind Occupy Nigeria in Lagos, has promised to sustain their protests.

Occupy Nigeria is over for the most part I think, and it is due to relative deprivation. Relative deprivation occurs when expectations (e.g. of standard of living) outpace capacities (e.g. to earn an income). In the long-term, the removal of the subsidy pales in comparison to other hardships this country has endured, and cannot be compared to many other injustices under previous regimes. Today’s Nigerians may compare themselves to Nigerians living under the economically inept administration of Obasanjo or the oppressive dictatorship of Abacha and be comparably thankful for Jonathan.  Nigerians have low expectations of their government because the government so frequently under performs, thus rising fuel prices are not shocking enough to galvanize prolonged resistance.  In the short-term, Nigerians spent last week bracing themselves for doubled fuel prices, making it easier to accept a 50% increase this week.  So long as expectations remain low, the state will not disappoint its citizens enough to incite  sustained opposition.

 

Fuel Prices Down to N97, NLC Suspends Street Protests (Jan. 16)

Just over an hour ago, President Jonathan announced that the federal government would reinstate a portion of the fuel subsidy, reducing the price at filling stations to N97 per liter. Although this is not the previous pump price of N65 that the Occupy Nigeria movement, the National Labour Congress (NLC), and the Trade Union Congress had requested, it is a significant reduction from the N141 price from the past two weeks. The President asked all Nigerians to return to work today, citing the economic hardships that the past week has caused to the country.  In response, NLC called off the public demonstrations but continued with the strike, urging workers to stay off the streets and continue striking at home. I am waiting to hear back from the civil/human rights groups who had coordinated with the NLC to plan the protests, as the former may or may not continue with their marches that had been scheduled for this morning at Isaac Boro Park in Port Harcourt. Here is the text from the President’s broadcast:

“Dear Compatriots,

This is the second time in two weeks I will address you on the deregulation of the downstream petroleum sector. In the last seven days, the nation has witnessed a disruption of economic activities.  Although, the economic imperatives for the policy have been well articulated by government, the Nigerian Labour Congress (NLC) and the Trade Union Congress (TUC) went ahead to declare a nationwide strike.

There was also near-breakdown of law and order in certain parts of the country as a result of the activities of some persons or groups of persons who took advantage of the situation to further their narrow interests by engaging in acts of intimidation, harassment and outright subversion of the Nigerian state. I express my sympathy to those who were adversely affected by the protests.

At the inception of the deregulation policy, Government had set up the Justice Alfa Belgore Committee to liaise with Labour and other stakeholders to address likely grey areas in the policy, but despite all our efforts, Labour refused the option of dialogue and also disobeyed a restraining order of the National Industrial Court of Nigeria.

However, following the intervention of the Leadership of the National Assembly, and other well-meaning Nigerians, Labour accepted to meet with government, but this yielded no tangible result.

It has become clear to government and all well-meaning Nigerians that other interests beyond the implementation of the deregulation policy have hijacked the protest. This has prevented an objective assessment and consideration of all the contending issues for which dialogue was initiated by government. These same interests seek to promote discord, anarchy, and insecurity to the detriment of public peace.

Government appreciates that the implementation of the deregulation policy would cause initial hardships and commends Nigerians who have put forth suggestions and credible alternatives in this regard. Government also salutes Nigerians who by and large, conducted themselves peacefully while expressing their grievances.

Let me assure you that government will continue to respect the people’s right to express themselves within the confines of the law and in accordance with the dictates of our democratic space.

Government will continue to pursue full deregulation of the downstream petroleum sector. However, given the hardships being suffered by Nigerians, and after due consideration and consultations with state governors and the leadership of the National Assembly, government has approved the reduction of the pump price of petrol to N97 per litre. The Petroleum Products Pricing Regulatory Agency (PPPRA) has been directed to ensure compliance with this new pump price.

Government is working hard to reduce recurrent expenditure in line with current realities and to cut down on the cost of governance. In the meantime, government has commenced the implementation of the Subsidy Reinvestment and Empowerment projects: including the Federal Government- assisted mass transit programme which is already in place, and job creation for the youth.

Furthermore, the legal and regulatory regime for the petroleum industry will be reviewed to address accountability issues and current lapses in the Industry. In this regard, the Petroleum Industry Bill will be given accelerated attention. The report of the forensic audit carried out on the NNPC is being studied with a view to implementing the recommendations and sanctioning proven acts of corruption in the industry.

Let me assure Nigerians that this administration is irrevocably committed to tackling corruption in the petroleum industry as well as other sectors of the economy. Consequently, all those found to have contributed one way or the other to the economic adversity of the country will be dealt with in accordance with the law.

My dear compatriots, I urge you to show understanding for the imperatives of the adjustment in the pump price of petrol and give government your full support to ensure its successful implementation. I further appeal to Nigerians to go back to work and go about their normal duties as government has made adequate arrangements for the protection of life and property throughout the federation.

Government will not condone brazen acts of criminality and subversion. As President, I have sworn to uphold the unity, peace and order of the Nigerian State and by the grace of God, I intend to fully and effectively discharge that responsibility.  Let me add that we are desirous of further engagements with Labour. I urge our Labour leaders to call off their strike, and go back to work.

Nigeria belongs to all of us and we must collectively safeguard its unity.

Thank you. God bless the Federal Republic of Nigeria.”

The demand that the liter price be reduced back to its original price of N65 per liter was one of the clear and consistent demands common among all agitating groups this week.  It will be up to the involved civil society organizations to decide if they want to join the NLC in calling off streets protests but continuing the strike, or if organizations want to continue to demonstrate in order to meet their original price goal.

By agreeing to N97 per liter, subsidy supporters show that they are willing to engage in dialogue and compromise with the federal government, possibly increasing their legitimacy in the eyes of state officials and  their chances of collaboration with the government in the future. However, agreeing to a price higher than the original one may also indicate to the public that the NLC is no restraining force on the state, and is simply a collection of “big men” making decisions behind closed doors.

The lesson learned by the government may be that if they want to implement an unpopular decision, all they must do is take a wildly unpopular action and quickly change it to a mildly unpopular one for it to be palatable.  Like a seasoned salesman who knows a buyer will haggle over a price, perhaps the federal government doubled the fuel price in order to ultimately have the price be increased by just 50%, sending the public the message that the state is responsive to the demands of the public.

Goodluck Ebele Azikiwe Jonathan, 14th President of Nigeria

Day 5’s Anti-Occupy Nigeria Demonstration, Port Harcourt

Occupy Nigeria activists did not take to the streets today.  However, pro-Jonathan demonstrators reacted to pro-subsidy marches by staging their own movement, arriving to Port Harcourt on minibuses in order to show their support for the Federal Government’s decision. Gathering at 9 am, they marched north up Aba road, down to Diobu road, and then to Rivers State Government House (the site of Occupy Nigeria’s protest on Tuesday).

Most of the anti-Occupy Nigeria demonstrators were Ijaws from oil-rich Bayelsa, the ethnic group and home state of the President. They came out with two aims in mind.  First, they announced their allegiance to the current administration. They cautioned that if anyone attempts to assassinate Jonathan then northerners will emerge to testify as to how he died. Their remarks allude to the fear that the protests, in conjunction with the discontent caused by Boko Haram violence, are enough to bring about an attempt on the President’s life. The second purpose of the protest was to criticize the National Labour Congress’ unnecessary national workers’ strike. Pro-Jonathan speakers stated that Nigerians should both go back to work and support the President’s decision to lift the subsidy.  They further accused the NLC of complacency in the period after the extrajudicial killing of Niger Delta human rights activist Ken Saro-Wiwa in 1995, arguing that the NLC had a duty to speak out against the injustice of his execution.

Today’s march was led by the former leader of the Niger Delta Volunteer Force, Asari Dokubo.  Dokubo is a militant-turned-politician who ran for Rivers State office twice in the 190s. He has lived in Abuja since being granted amnesty two years ago. It was the perception of some of the Occupy Nigeria mobilizers that Oronto Douglas, Jonathan’s strategic advisor on the Niger Delta, helped to fund the minibuses that delivered the demonstrators from Bayelsa State, but this is not at all confirmed.

Asari Dokubo

The demonstration was peaceful overall, except for a scuffle over the distribution of free t-shirts. The shirts depicted the images of Asari and Saro-Wiwa along with the message, “Sovereign National Conference Now!” The purposed pan-Nigerian conference would bring together representatives from all ethnic groups to chart a path forward for the country. Such a conference feels far removed from the current crisis here.

Occupy Nigeria, Women’s Mobilization

Yes, women are here too.  The photos circulating on the web depict roaming bands of angry young men in protest, and they do constitute a large portion of mobilizers, but women have emerged strongly as well.  I received a text about the powerful presence of hijab-clad female demonstrators in the large northern city of Kano. This is the first time in anyone’s memory that women in the conservative Muslim city have taken to the streets. Another source sent me photos of topless women reportedly marching through the streets in Benin City, using their power of the curse of nakedness to shame the government into reinstating the fuel subsidy.

Marching against fuel prices in Benin City

Here in Port Harcourt, the number of demonstrators has not grown but the proportion of women in the movement has certainly increased.  On the first day there were less than a dozen women, the following day a few more, whereas 1/3 of today’s marchers were female.  The women I spoke with were from the nascent Princewill Political Assocation.  Most of them were first acquainted through selling goods at the market and then they drew in new members outside of work. They had no identified leader because they said they wanted to maintain equality among their members. When they spoke they emphasized the ways that increased fuel costs affect women’s interests in the home. They argued that they were the ones who would no longer be able to afford meat in their family’s soup or to travel to the hospital with sick children. As primary caregivers in the home they felt that even a slight increase in the cost of living burdened them more than it did men. They didn’t take up the bullhorn as often, nor did they chant very loudly, and they marched together in back of the procession behind the men, but they were there and said they intended to return tomorrow.

Occupy Nigeria, Port Harcourt, Day 4

Today’s march started later than usual, almost at 11:00, because the protest leaders at Social Action were waiting for more demonstrators to arrive.  They trekked over the first flyover north onto busy Ikwerre Road.  It was the first day that I saw the march attract any notable number of detractors.  A few zealous young men countered the demonstrators’ effort with pro-subsidy removal signs.  They argued that the removal of the subsidy was a positive step towards curbing corruption.  The activists around me claimed that the young men were the very ones selling black market fuel at a higher price than ever before and so they were benefitting from the removal. Ikwerre road proved the be the most populated route the march had taken so far, and nearly everyone stopped their shopping, selling, and portering of goods to watch and video record the protesters. Most of them looked at the march amusedly and a few danced to the music played by the demonstration truck in front. The song that the truck played most was Eedris Abdulkareem’s Jaga Jaga which criticizes the suffering caused by the corruption of Nigerian government (it was banned from radio under the Obasanjo administration).

Monday saw many bystanders follow, yet despite the crowds along the road today no one new joined in the march. The demonstrators stopped in front of the Mile 3 bus stop where there were dozens of police officers waiting.  Leaving one lane open for passing traffic, mobilizers held up three large signs on the road and several handed out flyers.  Celestine Akpobari and Vivian Bellonwu spoke about corruption and quality of life for families respectively, and other protesters rallied in favor of the national workers’ strike. Across the road several men got into a heated argument over the value of removing the subsidy removal but it ended peacefully.

 

 

Occupy Nigeria, Port Harcourt, Day 3

There was no demonstration here yesterday.  According to my sources, the grassroots NGOs involved were dismayed with how the previous day’s march turned out.  They spent yesterday creating strategies for, as they termed it, “taking back the mobilization from the labor union big men.” Those human rights groups felt like further coordination with the NLC could further professionalize (my term from the previous post) the movement, making negotiations too covert and too undemocratic. There were rumors swirling around via text message that labor leaders had taken bribes from the governor’s office at the Tuesday march, and that consequently the national strike would be called off next week (yet to be determined true or false). The other messages disseminated on facebook included that the subsidy would soon be reinstated to 65 naira per liter (false) and that a protesting youth in Port Harcourt had been shot by police earlier in the morning (false). After spending the day rethinking the mobilization tactics, NGO activists set a demonstration time for 9 am this morning.

Occupy Nigeria, Port Harcourt, Day 2

Tuesday’s march was perceivably different from that of the first day, and it could be felt even before the demonstrators left Isaac Boro Park. It was less dynamic, less enterprising, and frankly, less powerful. Whereas Monday attracted a motley group of activists from various demographics, Tuesday was planned by grassroots NGOs in cooperation with the National Labour Congress (NLC), Rivers State Council. Consequently, most of the demonstrators present were professional and male, many wearing coordinating NLC shirts.  People gathered idly inside the park until a few activists began their speeches to help increase the energy level of the crowd.  Large banners began to be hung up and the 300 people gathered on the grass to sing “Solidarity Forever” before they began the walk towards Government House around 10:30 am.

Although there were overall more folks present at this march, the route did not pass any shopping or transit centers, so there was less opportunity for new mobilizers to join in. Protesters walked along concrete pillars that had gone up years ago as the start of a monorail, pillars that had cost millions of dollars but since the public transit project was never completed, they simply served as a reminder of government waste. Despite the lethargic start to the day, people were far more spirited as they neared the Government House.

Police directed protestors into the parking lot first and then back outside the entrance as they waited for the address of the Governor of Rivers State, Chibuike Amaechi.  The governor spoke for twenty minutes on the importance of having affordable fuel and promised to speak with President Jonathan promptly after the demonstration.  He always wanted to dispel the rumor that the President had left the country; he stated that he had just spoke with the President on the phone at 1 am.  The Governor and the President do not historically have a harmonious relationship so some of the protestors around me wondered aloud how the two were negotiating during the crisis. Before ending his speech he also asked, using the term “beg,” that the national strike be ended as soon as possible, a suggestion that we met with jeers by the crowd. When he left his stage the protesters simply dispersed, guided along by the strong police presence.

I had two reactions to the demonstration.  The first was what I would call the “professionalization effect” caused by the NLC’s involvement.  Whereas the previous day was more active and emotive, Tuesday was characterized by most waiting around for directions from NLC leaders, perhaps even hesitancy in acting in way that would shame the NLC.  As is true in all countries, national labor union leaders here have come far from their working class background.  The nature of their work negotiating with those in charge naturally makes them take on the forms of communication of those in charge.  They are trying to reform an arrangement of power from within that arrangement of power, and that changes the nature of their activism. They became less like resistors and more like politicians.  The presence of the NLC took the movement from the grassroots level and for better or for worse, placed it in the hands of labor leaders who are seasoned negotiators.

Second, I was surprised at how obliging demonstrators were in dispersing after the governor’s speech.  I heard murmurs around me echoing my surprise, with people wondering aloud, “That’s it?” Demonstrators put their signs down, they stopped handing out flyers, there was no more singing, and most quickly began discussing unrelated topics. The crowd from the previous day was not so amiable (but certainly not aggressive either). A colleague reminded that they did not want to give the government an excuse to use violence on the marchers, nor did they want an ugly confrontation to threaten the legitimacy of their movement.  She was speaking to the value of reform from within the system. But there are many who might ask, what is the purpose of social mobilization if it is not disruptive?  Change does not come about by heeding the directions of those in power. There are merits to both models, the first being an evolutionary one alá MLK and the second a revolutionary one alá Malcolm X. It appeared though that those who are leading the Occupy Port Harcourt movement have yet to garner an agreement on which one they want to follow.