I Remember When We Occupied Nigeria, By Prof. Jibrin Ibrahim
On Wednesday, the Government raised the price of petrol to 160 naira a litre, the third increase in a few weeks. Since then, there had been massive complaints and calls for action. The phrases – Occupy Nigeria, Enough is Enough, Revolution Now and Days of Rage have been trending in the social media. It is not only fuel that is at issue, electricity tariff too has gone up and food prices are galloping. The NLC is meeting to plan its response and Nigerians are calling on President Buhari to resign. We all remember that in 2015, in spite of a consensus in his party, the President refused to raise the price of fuel arguing that the masses would suffer too much and that is his problem today. After five years, he raises prices without addressing the complementary parts of the solution we proposed in 2012, fix the refineries, produce fuel locally and stop the deep-rooted corruption in the fuel subsidy regime and in government.
Nigerians have a consensus on only one issue – government must provide for cheap fuel and we do not want to know how or at what cost it is done. We believe that our only benefit as citizens of a petroleum rich country is cheap fuel and we have been always ready to struggle for it, or are we? I have seen social media messages attacking leaders of the 2012 Occupy Nigeria movement for keeping quiet this time – have they checked out of the struggle? I was one of the leaders at that time and it was indeed a great struggle, or was it?
We called ourselves BLUF – Building Leverage and Unity on Fuel Subsidy Struggle and released a CITIZENS’ CHARTER OF DEMANDS on 5th January 2012. We lamented that on New Year day, President Goodluck Jonathan broke his bond on creating conditions for Nigerians to enjoy a breath of fresh air by increasing the pump price of petrol (PMS). By his act, Nigerians were guaranteed to suffer extremely high costs for transport, food and other essentials. We argued that: “It is a policy decision aimed at deepening poverty and the suffering of Nigerians.” This fact is even more true today. We angrily declared that as Nigerian citizens we were ready to confront the President’s bluff that he could make us suffer as he pleased and get away with it. We insulted him for being the lap dog of imperialism and servile to the IMF and the World Bank. Nigeria, we asserted, was a sovereign and democratic country and its citizens have the right to direct the President to do what they want, rather than his own agenda. The President has the Constitutional obligation to promote the rights and welfare of Nigerians and removing fuel subsidy was a contravention of it.
Our Charter drew attention to the fact that the price of petroleum products has been increased, at that time, eighteen times in 26 years starting from a raise in the pump price of petrol from 3.15 kobo per litre to 20 kobo per litre in April 1985. All the attempts by successive governments to remove so-called “fuel subsidy” failed because Nigerians resisted the imposition of more suffering. We were on the barricades for four days with our allies in the NLC and we had two representatives in the negotiating team until the real night for negotiations to which we were not invited. They negotiated and called off the protests and the first time we heard that Occupy Nigeria had ended was on NTA. Today, I remember, Muyideen Mustapha, the first protestor to be to be killed in Ilorin on 3rd January. Over the next three days, 15 other Nigerians were killed in Lagos, Maiduguri, Kano, Benin and Gusau as we successfully occupied Nigeria. No one remembered these martyrs during the midnight negotiation.
The Jonathan Administration had argued that the amount spent on fuel subsidy was so large that it had forced the Government to abandon its development goals in addition to accelerating indebtedness. Our response was that the reality was that the ‘fuel subsidy’ was the greatest fraud in our nation’s history as monumental amounts of money was being criminally paid out to government cronies who return the money to their political godfathers. One person who consistently agreed with our position was a certain opposition politician called Muhammadu Buhari. Today, fuel subsidy has been removed under his watch and it is in this context that the President has a lot of explanations to make to Nigerians. After five years under his watch, how come things did not change for the better.
When President Buhari was sworn into power in 2015 and he decided to take the portfolio of the petroleum ministry, our understanding was that he was committed to solving the fuel subsidy regime issue by reviving the refineries and producing sufficient fuel locally. He ordered for the refineries to be fixed, the contracts were issued but the goal of local production was not achieved. While Nigerians were wondering what happened to the 2015-2016 contracts, it was recently announced that new contracts have been issued to revive the refineries once again. I wondered why the new contracts were being issued when the Dangote refinery has reached an advanced stage and we now KNOW that no government can fix the refineries – and don’t ask me WHY, I have no idea. My previous knowledge was that if there was one person who could do it, it was Buhari, but now we know differently.
Today, Nigeria is broke and there has been a massive further reduction in revenue inflow. It is very difficult to maintain petroleum subsidy and if the country persists along that line, the cost in terms of other needs, including public sector salaries would be too high. The electricity sector has been in deep crisis since the privatisation and government has been subsidising the GENCO’s and DISCO’s for the past seven years so I understand the decision to increase charges. The reality today however is that the economy is in deep crisis, millions of Nigerians have lost their livelihoods, the cost of living is unbearable and what people remember is that our President promised us that he would fix these problems and he has not. In consequence, there is much anger in the Nation and the demands for accountability are therefore justified.
It might well be that the anger in the country might lead to another Occupy Nigeria movement. The question however would be whether a positive outcome would emerge. Maybe. What we know however is that the culture of corruption has become very resilient and when governments try to fight it, corruption fight back, often with great success. Nonetheless, let our resolve be to maintain the struggle and identify new ways and means to combat corruption.