Aborted Nigerian Spring and the social media revolution by Uzor Maxim Uzoatu

Uzor Maxim Uzoatu

“The lesson to be drawn is that the Arab Spring is real and can manifest anywhere with the democratization of communications as made possible by the social media.”

One man changed the history of the world by setting himself on fire.

The Tunisian, Mohammed Bouazizi, was unable to find work and had to make ends meet by selling fruits at a roadside stand. On December 17, 2010 a municipal inspector confiscated his wares.

An hour later, he doused himself with petrol and set himself on fire. His death on January 4, 2011 brought together various groups dissatisfied with the existing system in Tunisia: the unemployed, political and human rights activists, trade unionists, students, professors, lawyers, and many others.

Thus began the Tunisian Revolution.

This uprising led to the sacking of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali on January 14, 2011 thus ending his 23 years in power. The ousted Ben Ali fled into exile in Saudi Arabia.

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Barely 10 days after the sacking of President Ben Ali in Tunisia, protests began in Egypt on January 25 and ran for 18 days. Beginning around midnight on 28 January, the Egyptian government attempted to eliminate the nation’s Internet access, in order to inhibit the protesters’ ability to organize through social media.

It was all in vain for, on February 11, 2011, President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt was forced to flee from power, after being in office for about 30 years.

Then the revolution spread to Libya, the land of the strongman Muammar Gaddafi.

Protests in Libya lasted till October 20, 2011 when Gaddafi met with gruesome death. The uprisings sweeping through the Arab world has since been given the name: The Arab Spring.

The fear of the Arab Spring spreading to other parts of the world is on the front burner in this day and age of the social media.

Through the Internet, Facebook, Twitter, Blackberry etc., landmark protests can easily be organized in the twinkle of an eye. Freedom and democracy are today atop the laps of all citizens of the world.

Nigeria had a spectre of the Arab Spring when the President Goodluck Ebele Jonathan’s regime removed the fuel subsidy on January 1.

This was done without the consent of the legislature. And there was not even enough dialogue with labour unions and civil society organizations. The very unpopular New Year “gift” sparked off spontaneous anti-government demonstrations in many Nigerian cities the very next day, that is, on January 2.

Nigerian towns such as Kaduna, Kano, Ibadan, Ilorin, Kebbi, Gusau etc. were literally on fire as many protesters marched on the streets with placards and made bonfires.

The demonstrations involved people from diverse social strata and different works of life.

The various classes of people were all united in opposition to the anti-people policies of the government. The uprising brought together the unemployed, the under-employed and even the employed. The poor and middle class people were involved. The educated and uneducated persons shared company in the marches. The artisans and sundry workers, musicians and diverse artists, students, all kinds of activists were united in the struggle.

The name that was given to the crusade was “Occupy Nigeria”.

A melting pot of the struggle was the Gani Fawehinmi Square in Ojota, Lagos. For a week, from sun-up to sundown, the many classes of Nigerians converged at the square, telling truth to power.

The opposition vice-presidential candidate of General Muhammadu Buhari’s Congress for Progressive Change (CPC), Pasor Tunde Bakare was in the thick of it all. He made bold to call for the change of the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP).

Issa Aremu, the vice president of the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) pointedly told the demonstrators: “Jonathan has shown that he can’t be trusted. He said he was engaging in dialogue and all of a sudden, he increased the price!”

Damning the fuel subsidy removal, Ganiat Fawehinmi, widow of the late human rights lawyer Gani Fawehinmi, after whom the Ojota park was named, said: “The prices of everything will increase – transport, housing, school fees, food, etc. The common man will not be able to survive.”

Gani’s son, Mohammed Fawehinmi, was a solid presence at the demonstrations in his wheelchair.

Respected academic, Professor Pat Utomi, mounted the rostrum to stress that the government cannot afford to forsake the people if the tenets of participatory democracy are to be maintained.

Fire-eating lawyer, Femi Falana, had very hot words for the corruptive influences of the fuel subsidy regime, wowing the crowd with his eloquence.

It was not all words. Musicians did their bit – or beats. Femi Kuti and his younger brother Seun reprised the legendary antecedents of their father – Fela Anikulapo-Kuti. The protégé of Fela, Dede Mabiaku, also made his presence felt. The hip-hop musician 9ice was a star attraction.

The reggae icon, Ras Kimono, got the gathered throng dancing with the revolutionary tunes coming from his music.

The number of protesters increased steadily by the weekend. The fear in the air was that the coming week’s protests could turn into the Nigerian version of the Arab Spring. It was akin to waiting for the Nigerian Spring!

The first objective of the Occupy Nigeria protest was to force the government to return to the status quo and cause petrol to be sold at the previous rate of 65 naira per litre. There was also the need to get the government to provide improved infrastructure and eradicate corruption.

Messages passed back and forth on the social media network about the imminent revolution. The Facebook pages were replete with instructions on how to follow through the Nigerian Spring.

Facebook group pages were created to spur Nigerians globally against the fuel subsidy removal. One of the Facebook groups called “Nationwide Anti-Fuel Subsidy Removal: Strategies & Protests which was created on January 2 had over 20,000 members by January 9.

People tweeted on how the government would be upstaged. A battle royal was in the works.

It is indeed ironic that the social media like Facebook was used in the mass action against the President Jonathan regime. President Jonathan happens to own a Facebook account which boasts of well over half-a-million fans, and counting.

In short, the Nigerian president has more Facebook fans than the combined tally of the British Prime Minister David Cameron, German chancellor Angela Merkel, and South African head of state Jacob Zuma.

Since he created his profile in June, 2010, rarely a day goes by without a fresh update concerning recent news events and government policy. He actually seized public momentum by choosing the hugely popular social networking site to announce his standing for the presidential elections in 2011.

On September 15, 2010, President Jonathan posted on his Facebook status the following words: “I, Goodluck Ebele Jonathan, by the grace of God hereby offer myself and my services to the Nigerian people as a candidate for the office of President.” This posting effectively ended a long period of speculation about the likelihood of his candidacy.

He has since earned the alias of “Nigeria’s First Facebook President.” Each new post from Jonathan attracts thousands of comments and some have garnered in excess of 6,000 responses. It is against this background that President Jonathan received the backlash in the social media following the fuel subsidy removal.

Incidentally, United States President Barack Obama is continuing to build on the social media campaign he used in his 2008 presidential campaign, with a 17-minute online video being released on his own YouTube page, thus underscoring the great importance of the media on world affairs.

With the influence of the social media today, many Nigerians are left wondering what could have happened if the June 12 presidential annulment protests were to be backed by the boom in the social media.

On Thursday, January 5, the Nigeria Labour Congress issued an ultimatum to the Federal Government promising to halt the economy of the country by Monday, 9 January 2012.

Here are the fighting words of the NLC’s Denja Yacoub: “We are shutting down the Nigerian airspace to local and international flights from Sunday night.

If a revolution will solve our problems; why not? What is going on already shows that our people are prepared for a revolution. But we will not ask for a revolution that will bring back the military; they are a part of the problem.”

It was make-or-break time for the government. Something had to give. The government rolled out tanks and ordered soldiers into the streets of Lagos to stop the protesters in their tracks.

Many were wounded. A Divisional Police Officer (DPO) shot dead a protester named Ademola Oderinde in the Agege area of Lagos.

Even so, the Nigerian people were unrelenting in their protests until President Jonathan announced that his government had reached an agreement with the labour unions to put petrol price at 97 Naira from the high of 141 Naira.

Many Nigerians were determined to continue with the protests, but they had to back down when leaders of the Nigeria Labour Congress and Trade Union Congress decided to call off the strike.

NLC President Adulwaheed Omar and his TUC counterpart Peter Esele announced that they had reached an agreement with the government over the new fuel price regime.

Not a few Nigerians were let down by the apparent volte-face by the labour unions. And thus was averted what would have amounted to the Nigerian Spring.

The lesson to be drawn is that the Arab Spring is real and can manifest anywhere with the democratization of communications as made possible by the social media.

Little wonder that Senate President David Mark who in the past had infamously said that the telephone ought not to be for every Tom, Dick and Harry is today campaigning for the embargoing of the social media.

There is definitely not stopping of the modern-day spring made possible by the social media revolution.

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