In January 2012, the ill-timed petrol subsidy removal by the Goodluck Jonathan administration unwittingly triggered one of the most extraordinary events in recent Nigerian history.
While it was not the first time there were protests in opposition to an increase in petrol prices, the 2012 protests were different because rather than being led by the Nigeria Labour Congress, OccupyNigeria as the protests came to be known, was started by some activists and sustained for a week by mass action.
The working theory in Nigerian public discourse is that ordinary Nigerians are often too docile and insufficiently motivated to resist tyranny or government ineptitude.
This was given further impetus by the Arab Spring. It was fashionable within the commentariat to espouse the view that the spectacle of motivated and organised citizens agitating for social change and in some cases, altering the agenda of national governments; or in others, bringing them down all together, was simply unachievable in Nigeria.
Protests have been common in Nigerian public life for decades, often orchestrated for narrow political purposes by self-interested political actors or for leverage in negotiating pecuniary benefits by competing interests, and have thus ended up as flashes in a seemingly never ending cycle; people protest one day, and by the next, that famed “Nigerian resilience” and amnesia takes over.
But first OccupyNigeria in 2012 and later, the sustained daily protests by the #BringBackOurGirls advocacy group, have exerted tons of pressure on the last two national governments and have proved to be significant factors in shaping critical policy moves by both administrations.
The daily sit-outs #BringBackOurGirls were necessary to ensure that the story of the kidnapped girls never left the national consciousness, and subsequently escalated the Chibok incident to one of global concern.
This, is after all, a country with a notoriously short memory in matters of life and death, forgetting the victims, and in a few cases, actively covering up the occurrence or aftermath of awful events.
Many horrible crimes have occurred in recent years, particularly during the Boko Haram insurgency. Almost all of them have been promptly forgotten.
For example, the 2014 murderers of about 26 students and faculty of the Federal Polytechnic, Mubi in Adamawa State are yet to be identified; in fact, till date neither Adamawa state or the FG have even commented on the incident.
The rest of Nigeria has seemingly moved on, but for the grieving families there are many questions yet to be answered.
Why have the murderers of their children not been found and brought to justice?
Why are the Adamawa and Nigerian governments reluctant to meet, let alone acknowledge the events of that bloody October day in 2014?
Why did Chibok shock the world while Mubi barely registered on the scale?
This atrocity, and the speed with which it was forgotten lends credence to the supposition that we are docile.
There seems to be an unwillingness by Nigerians to organise and speak up against what we deem to be wrong or force our government to right those wrongs.
While there has been a flowering in community organising and pressure groups in the country over the past decade, these are disproportionately focused on Abuja. State and local governments literally get away with murder.
For example, last year, the National Assembly finally yielded to pressure and provided a detailed breakdown of its 2017 budget.
However, at the state level, almost no state provides any breakdown of budget details. The level of opacity at sub-national levels is so stunning, it is comparable to dictatorships.
Worse yet, there is no concerted effort at putting pressure on these governments -, some of which, such as Lagos, are bigger economies than most African countries -, to insert any form of public transparency in their budgetary processes.
This lethargic approach to demanding accountability can be found in every facet of Nigerian life.
Rather than simply lament the seeming docility of Nigerians, it is important to try to understand where this attitude originates from – the battered psyche of Nigerians after decades of military rule during which standing up to power was akin to requesting a death sentence.
The few who constantly spoke up were regulars in some of the world’s most atrocious detention facilities, and in some cases, notably Ken Saro-Wiwa, they paid the ultimate price.
This may in part account for why many Nigerians choose to ‘leave matters in the hands of God’ or the other divine beings rather than organise.
Although Nigeria has been a nominal democracy for almost two decades, it will take a while before there is a change in the mindset in understanding the power the ordinary citizen wields – a power that can be further amplified by numbers.
In the words of Edmund Burke, “A people afraid of their government are under a tyranny, but a government afraid of its people is a democracy.”
Nigeria has a lot of work to do in fully perpetuating democratic norms and standards. Silence in the face of its abuse will not help; only the meek will inherit the Earth and the good thereof, not the docile.
- This article appeared originally in The Guardian
Cheta Nwanze is the Lead Partner at SBM Intelligence and heads the research desk. He has worked in numerous Information Technology and Media organisations, key among them are the Daily Times of Nigeria, where he was managing editor for a while, and the defunct 234NEXT.
Cheta is passionate about writing and has published numerous articles in Sunday Telegraph, Premium Times, the Cable, and Financial Nigeria, all in Nigeria. His opinion pieces have been published in the Africa Report, Africa Is A Country, Al-Jazeera, The Guardian (UK) and SuperSport (South Africa).
Cheta holds a Masters in Computer Networks and Internet Security from Middlesex University, London and considers himself a former expert in Network design, management and security. He tweets @Chxta