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Recalling The Fuel Subsidy War Of 2012

UZOR MAXIM UZOATU e-mail: maxim.uzoatu@theunion.com.ng

Nigeria had a spectre of the Arab Spring when the President Goodluck Ebele Jonathan regime removed the fuel subsidy on January 1, 2012. 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 antigovernment 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 sunup to sundown, the many classes of Nigerians converged at the square, telling truth to power.

The opposition vicepresidential 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.

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.

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