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Why are Nigerians docile?

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In January 2012, the ill-timed petrol subsidy removal by the Goodluck Jonathan administration unwittingly triggered one of the most unusual and extraordinary events in recent Nigerian history, setting off a series of daily protests across most of the country for almost a week and bringing economic activities to a halt.

It is important to note that this was not the first time there was an increase in petrol prices - a natural consequence of removal of the subsidy. Since the oil boom in the 1970s, Nigerians have opposed a succession of similar tariff hikes and led by the quarrelsome Nigerian Labour Congress, embarked on general strikes, forcing successive governments to settle for a price lower than the originally announced one.

However, the 2012 protests were different because rather than being led by the NLC, OccupyNigeria as the protests came to be known, was started by some activists and sustained for a week by mass action. Never before had such a thing happened in Nigeria and it took the government, a majority of the populace, the media and even the labour unions by surprise.

The working theory in Nigerian public discourse is the belief that ordinary Nigerians are often too docile and insufficiently motivated to resist tyranny or perceived government ineptitude. This belief was given further impetus by the Arab Spring that swept through most of the Middle East - a once in a generation event that proved both inspiring and terrifying at the same time to many around the world.

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 the cases of Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, - bringing them down all together – was simply unachievable south of the Sahara and especially in its most populous country – Nigeria. This downbeat and pessimistic caricature of the Nigerian citizen was to be fortified by the irony of the Arab Spring being largely considered to be a significant contributory factor in the rise and impact of the Occupy Nigeria movement. For many, in other words, the Nigerian organisers only picked up the protest gauntlet in 2012, while trying to be copycats of their Arab counterparts.

This is far from the truth. Protests have been a common feature in Nigerian public life for decades. Unfortunately, they have often been orchestrated for narrow political purposes by self-interested political actors, or for leverage in negotiating pecuniary benefits by competing political, ethnic or religious interests. This has largely seen them end up as flashes in a seemingly never ending and depressing pan; people protest one day, and by the next, that famed “Nigerian resilience" and amnesia that sweeps significant public concerns under the rug takes over.

But first Occupy Nigeria in 2012 and later, the sustained daily protests by the #BringBackOurGirls advocacy group which has been waxing strong since April 2014, 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.

#BringBackOurGirls was a thorn in the flesh of the previous administration - and to an extent, has been a torn in the flesh of the incumbent one. The daily sit-outs and regular protests by the group were necessary in order to ensure that the story of the kidnapped Chibok girls never left the consciousness of the national conversation, and subsequently escalated the incident to one of global concern. Despite their dwindling numbers, the #BringBackOurGirls group were important in ensuring a relatively quick, if incomplete, resolution to the Dapchi girls’ kidnap. Since their advent, other groups, such as the #OurMumuDonDo group have taken a leaf from them, and not to forget the growing daily protests by members of the Islamic Movement of Nigeria.

These are important as this is, after all, a country with a notoriously short memory in matters of life and death, forgetting the victims of disasters and horrific crimes and in a few cases, actively covering up the occurrence or aftermath of such acts.

Many horrible crimes have occurred in the recent past, particularly in the wake of the violent insurgency by Boko Haram. Almost all of them have been promptly forgotten. For example, the 2014 murderers of about twenty-six students and faculty of the Federal Polytechnic, Mubi in Adamawa State are yet to be identified; in fact, as far as I know, neither the Adamawa state, or the federal governments have even been bothered to comment on the incident for four years. The rest of Nigeria has seemingly moved on but for scores of 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? Mubi Polytechnic graduated its first set of students since that tragic day almost three years to the day, in what can only be seen as a classic illustration of Nigeria’s somewhat uncanny ability to pick up the dust and move on without questions examined and lessons learned.

It is also worth noting that this is but one among many of Boko Haram’s trail of blood, pillage and terror which has been sprinkled all over the country. Other notable but forgotten tragedies include the Buni Yadi massacre where the insurgent group shot or burned to death 59 pupils in a daring night raid on a boarding school and the murders of 42 students at Government Secondary School, Mamudo, Yobe State, both incidents happened in 2013, and it has been five years of “moving on”.

These atrocities, and the speed with which they have been forgotten lends credence to the supposition that we are docile. We have refused, almost sternly, to demand from our government account of what happened to our fellow citizens.

There seems to be an unwillingness bordering on sheer inability by lots of Nigerians to organise to speak up against what they deem to be wrong and to form pressure combines and groups to force government to right those wrongs. Although there has been a flowering in community organising and pressure groups in the country over the past decade, whether as individual activists or civil society organisations, these are disproportionately focused on the federal government. States 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, a first for a Nigerian legislative body. This singular achievement required sustained pressure by a motivated civil society organisation, BudgIT, expressed both in traditional and social media and even a lawsuit to get public officials to do a thing which is a given in most democracies and be properly accountable. However, at the state level, almost no state provides any breakdown of budget details of either the executive or legislative arms. There is little information provided on how government funds are spent at all levels, but the level of opacity at the state and local levels is so stunning, it is comparable to most dictatorships. Worse yet, there is no concerted effort at putting pressure on these governments, some of which such as Lagos and Rivers are bigger economies than a few African countries, to insert any form of public transparency in their budgetary and procurement 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 persons who constantly spoke up were regulars in some of the world’s most atrocious detention facilities, and in the case of a few, notable among which was Ken Saro-Wiwa, they paid the ultimate price.

This may in part account for why rather than many Nigerians organise to exert pressure on governments and its institutions, they choose to ‘leave matters in the hands of God’ or the other divine beings.

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 their numbers.

In addition, it is important that some of the elements that make for a free and vibrant democratic space continue to be encouraged and developed, hence dealing a death kneel to the apparent docility prevalent in the land: elements that include a vibrant free press especially at the sub-national levels, support for civil society organisations and laws that ensure that concerned citizens are able to organise more efficiently, as well as a willingness to go to every length to guarantee the safety of those who speak up.

It is also important to note that there will be a reaction from the powers that be. The harassment of the head of the Open Societies Initiative for West Africa by the Department of State Services last week is one of such reactions. History never moves in a straight line, and these zig-zags are a necessary part of the learning experience if we are to build a nation.

In the last few years, social media has proven to be very useful in providing that opportunity for organising and overcoming our docility. But often, social media comes with a lot of discordance and lacks the offline critical mass to give it more potency.

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.


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