Power of placards
No one except the exceptionally bigoted can say that things are hunky-dory in Nigeria today. Our lives have become a bottomless apology because our stock has plummeted like a crashing comet. When people want to sell their children for a bag of rice that is the limit.
Those who are lucky to have and hold down jobs are unlucky not to be paid for months even by state governments who troop to Abuja monthly to collect “awoof.” Others live in the wasteland of joblessness burning their shoes on the streets in search for jobs that had vanished a long time ago. Factories are shutting down and taking their skills elsewhere. The naira has taken a severe beating despite the efforts of its managers to stem its slide. Petrol and diesel whose prices went up astronomically last year are either not available or their prices have hit the roof in a manner that raises the suspicion of another hefty price increase. We have four refineries that can produce only 455, 000 barrels of refined products per day. But currently we produce only 24, 000 barrels per day while our consumption is estimated at 410, 000 daily. So we must import the rest and when the naira dances “kokoma” dance as it is doing now, we sweat even though we are not the dancer.
Now let’s compare oranges with oranges. Kuwait is an oil producing country like Nigeria. It has a population of four million. Nigeria has 180 million. Kuwait has a refining capacity of 936, 000 but is capable of refining a million barrels per day. It only consumes 345, 000 barrels per day and exports 680, 000 barrels daily. Its economy is sprinting. Ours is on its back. There are two strands of shame in our situation; (a) that we allowed our refineries to go to seed over the years and did nothing to improve our refining capacity. (b) that this government that inherited this mess has shown no evidence that it knows the way out of this petroleum wilderness. It is not building a new refinery and it is not selling the grand old dames. It is not offering private sector operators generous terms to encourage them to build new refineries, 18 of which had been approved years ago. It is simply pouring water into a basket.
Apart from Alhaji Aliko Dangote who else is building a major refinery? What is the nexus between local refining and the high cost of goods Nigerians are complaining about? The answer: if you need dollars whose value you don’t control for importation of petroleum products and the dollars are in short supply you are in trouble because those who import it must make profits, obscene profits. So Nigerians are now between the rock and the hard place and the talk about price control is pure “balderdash,” apologies to Mr. Babachir David Lawal, Secretary to the Government of the Federation. You cannot control the price of something that is not even available.
The other day my friends and I had to do the arithmetic of the stomach based on the N5000 that the Federal Government is doling out to the poorest of the poor. Good gesture by the government but let’s interrogate the statistics. Breakfast for one: bread N30, tea N20 total N50; Lunch for one: garri N50, soup N50, no meat, total N100; Dinner for one: rice and stew N80, no meat, grand total for one person per month=N6,900. This computation is a minimalist’s approach to food consumption at a food-is-ready restaurant. It takes no notice of family members or of other needs except food. It takes no notice of how vitamins and minerals can feature in the equation for balanced nutrition. It excludes the cost of pure water and transportation and medicine and other life-enhancing condiments. The consolation here from the beneficiary’s point of view is that half bread is better than none.
But even this half bread is reaching only a small fraction of the population. The rest are simply left to their devices. Government officials have been assuring us that the recession won’t last long, it will soon be over and that they feel our pains. These are reassuring words but what is the evidence? The roads are horrible so farmers cannot move their products to the cities easily. We talk of railways but where are they? We crow about high rice production but did you see the long rice queues in December and the high cost? Have you tried to buy diesel recently? N280 per litre. Do you have “NEPA” in your area? I don’t have it in mine. It just vanishes without trace and we are told we have spent N2.7 trillion on it since 1999. We’ve been airing our grievances like jewels but not much is happening. It didn’t seem that the government cared a whit.
When I learnt of the Innocent Idibia-inspired protest I knew that Nigerians were ready to unspool their anger and were not willing to continue to shrug wordlessly and later intone “God dey.” The protest did not explode in a towering rage but the point was made that enough is enough. Even though the Police twisted the slim arms of Mr. Idibia, the candle had been lit. After just one hour of announcing the protest on his facebook account, 21,000 views popped to say well done to the pop icon. That is a small measure of the bigness of the prevailing discontent and if some APC politicians believe that protests achieve nothing they are grossly mistaken. Even in this country the evidence is there that stiff-necked governments have been forced by the power of placards to retrace their steps.
Last year, the Super Falcons won the women’s version of the African Cup of Nations in Cameroon but the football authorities kicked them on the shin instead of giving them a warm embrace. Their allowances and bonuses were withheld. The girls sat in their hotel in Abuja for days without any deal. They decided to go on a road show with the accompaniment of placards designed to bite. Utilising the admirable vigour that has given them a premium place in African football, eight championships out of ten, they trooped out, ready to tackle any opponent on their way to Aso Villa and the National Assembly. By the force of their placards and their guts, they got their goal: they were paid the next day.
When President Umaru Yar’Adua was sick, a self-serving cabal in the Presidency blocked his deputy, Goodluck Jonathan, from acting as President. It took the irrepressible Wole Soyinka, the Save Nigeria Group, Enough is Enough and other placard wielders to get the National Assembly to give Jonathan the job through the so called Doctrine of Necessity.
A documentation of our protests will show that Nigerians have caused a reversals to a small or large degree, of several obnoxious government policies through protests: Ali Must Go, the SAP protests, various petrol price increase protests, ASUU and NLC protests etc. If these protests did not fully achieve their objectives they at least aroused the consciousness of Nigerians on those issues.
However, this nation has been an unheralded beneficiary of the power of protests right from independence. At independence, Nigeria and Britain had signed an Anglo-Nigeria Defence Pact. Members of the opposition led by Obafemi Awolowo felt the pact which gave Britain the right to establish a military base in Nigeria would compromise our sovereignty. But the government ignored them and went on to sign the pact. About 1000 students from the University College, Ibadan (the present University of Ibadan) picked up the gauntlet, came to Lagos and stormed the parliament at the Race Course asking for the abrogation of the defence pact. On January 21, 1962, an announcement came from London that both countries have decided to abrogate the pact. That was the power of protests.
Protests are the antidote to irresponsible, unresponsive and nonchalant governments. They remain the citizen’s armour against oppression, dictatorship and injustice. The Police in Nigeria is unwilling to accept that protests are an integral part of citizenship and governance. To every protest they have a stock answer: hoodlums will hijack it. They have been saying the same thing for decades. So the question is if the police know that some hoodlums want to cause trouble what is the duty of the police? This excuse coined by the police against protests is threadbare now. The recent protest was mounted by two groups in Abuja, one for government and the other against government and no riot occurred. In Lagos, only one group protested at the National Stadium, Surulere. No “wahala.”
From the success of the last protest, it means the protesters were peaceful, the police did their job well by simply being present and if hoodlums did not hijack the protest it means they gave a roar of approval as something that can make their lives better. The protest is a warning that the government should step up to the plate and deal with the economy that is unglued, to say the least.