It was about 10am on Monday, 9th January 2012 at the Gani Fawehinmi Park, Ojota, a.k.a. Freedom Park. Nigerians had begun to converge on the rally ground for a showdown with a government that had for too long proved insensitive to the plight of the people and irresponsive to their aspirations. I had just arrived at the park with some young members of the Save Nigeria Group. T-Shirts branded Kill Corruption, Not Nigerians could be seen on quite a few protesters. A few others adorned themselves in various shades of green. The atmosphere was charged with the music of the legendary Fela Anikulapo Kuti, “Basket mouth won open mouth againeeo …” amplified by the speakers mounted in the middle of the park. On the platform, a few metres from the speakers, Emi Aluta had already taken over some megaphone bearing protesters who greeted the growing crowd with shouts of “Greatest Nigerian Peopooo!” “Great!” the people responded. “Ever conscious Nigerian Peopooo!” “Great!”
As I looked around, my eyes fell on the statue of late Chief Gani Fawehinmi behind the protesters on the platform. At that instance, tears welled up in my eyes and I fought to keep them back. Memories of the struggle for justice and the personal sacrifice of the late Senior Advocate of the Masses pulled my emotional strings. The fact that what Fela and Gani fought for in their lifetime had also brought my generation to the streets made me ask “when will the struggle end?” I wondered if Nigerians were ready to last the distance. In the meantime, the living icons of the struggle and the brand names for protest, Yinka and Joe Odumakin mounted the platform and the microphone replaced the megaphone. As more Nigerians began to troop in, little did we know that what began with a small crowd was going to be the greatest gathering of Nigerians in protest against oppression since the history of this nation; little did we know that Nigerians in their millions were going to rise up to be counted; little did we know that the Gani Fawehinmi Park was going to be the epicentre of the tremor of people movement that would shake the nation in five unforgettable days.
The battle line between the people and the government had been drawn on Sunday the first day of January 2012. Nigerian families of different faiths across the nation were in the peak of the New Years’ Day celebration. For Christians who had defied the Boko Haram bomb scare, the previous night had been one of intense prayers in the so-called Cross-Over services as they trusted God for a fruitful and prosperous year. Muslims had also entrusted the year into the hands of the Almighty in expectation of a peaceful and blessed year. Even the non-religious, some in sober reflection and others in drunken stupor, hoped that the new year would offer to them as individuals and families as well as to the nation, a better lot than the out-gone year. In churches that Sunday and the night before, some expressed this hope in such songs as “everything na double double, na double double… “. But while God was eager to answer the prayers of Nigerians speedily, the human agents who would administer the national blessing had a different agenda. The announcement by the Petroleum Product Pricing Regulatory Agency (PPPRA) on the removal of subsidy ensured that the cost of living and the hardship of Nigerians would increase “double double”. Transportation cost skyrocketed. Prices of staples including garri and other basic necessities quickly responded setting the stage for what appeared to be the fulfillment of the “prophecy” by a Nigerian that Nigeria’s revolution will be caused by garri.
When the government first muted the idea of subsidy removal, Nigerians pleaded with the President Goodluck Jonathan-led administration to desist from it. To justify its position, the government insisted that the N1.3 million subsidy payments as at October 2011 which amounted to almost a third of the annual budget was unsustainable and was being enjoyed by only a few Nigerians. It claimed that the long-term benefit of subsidy removal far outweighed the hardship it would cause initially. These claims were challenged by the likes of Professor Tam David West who insisted that fuel subsidy did not exist. In the sermon, The Simple Arithmetic of Fuel Subsidy, Pastor Tunde Bakare, the Convener of Save Nigeria Group, indicted the government for the corruption and laziness that has forestalled domestic refining of crude oil leading to the dependence on subsidized importation of petrol. As Nigerians increasingly stood against the proposed move, the term “revolution” became the buzzword and analysts made reference to the Arab Spring which had upturned the political landscape in the Arab world. In defiance, President Jonathan said he was ready for mass revolt and subsequently began to strengthen anti-riot agencies ahead of any. However, at a Town Hall meeting organized to clarify the matter of subsidy, the trio of Petroleum Minister, Dezziani Allison-Madueke, Finance Minister, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala and Central Bank Governor, Lamido Sanusi promised Nigerians that subsidy removal would not be sudden. Therefore, Nigerians were shocked when the New Year’s Day celebration was interrupted by the announcement by PPPRA. We had been lied to.
Apparently, the government had reasoned that they would be dealing with the so-called resilient Nigerian who had earned the reputation of going through without fighting back when pushed to the wall or who, at the worst, would throw tantrums for two days through a labour-organized strike but would eventually accept his lot and “leave am for God”. They did not realize that Nigerians had discovered another “r” in their national identity – resistance to tyranny, which, in the words of an American patriot, is obedience to God. President Goodluck Jonathan was so busy pushing Nigerians to the wall that he failed to see the handwriting on the wall. And so was born what Pastor Bakare had described as the “Nigerian Harmattan”.
The Occupy Nigeria movement had begun the week prior to the SNG-led protest. Young Nigerians, inspired by the Occupy America movement had taken to the streets of Abuja in protest. These young protesters decided to remain in the streets till the government responds to Nigerians. On the night of Sunday January 8th, messages on twitter revealed that both law enforcement agents and thugs were deployed to scuttle these early protests. It was in spite of these threats that Nigerians dared the oppressors and headed to Ojota.
The Save Nigeria Group and its allies had been strategic in aligning the flag off of the Ojota rally with the commencement of the nationwide strike by the labour unions. This gave Nigerians the opportunity to make their voice heard. On the first day of the rally, groups of protesters marched to Ojota from different parts of Lagos and Ogun states. The Gani Fawehinmi Park became the point of convergence for many other protesting groups including labour groups. At the same time across the nation, from Kano to Enugu and from Benin to Abuja, the entire nation was brought to a standstill as the people took to the streets. Protests also sprang up in Nigerian embassies in various countries across the world. However, SNG had raised the bar by identifying corruption as the most pressing issue to be tackled beyond fuel subsidy removal.
Certain developments made the Ojota rally remarkable the first of which was the fulfillment of prophecy with bewildering rapidity. Immediately after the elections, when Goodluckism was at its crescendo and President Goodluck Jonathan was the darling of many Nigerians, Pastor Bakare had prophesied the advent of a spirit of ill-will among Nigerians in relation to the president. As Nigerians took to the streets a few months later, Goodluck Jonathan became the most vilified president in recent history. Whereas the internet generation berated him online, the Ojota rally provided the platform for other Nigerians including market women, frustrated young people and groups of various religious persuasions from white garment wearing Christian groups to Ogun worshippers to rain curses on the president. Some showed their wishes towards him by laying effigies of him in coffins. Others demonstrated their perception of him by depicting him with a branded goat. The protesters went ahead to give the president a new name – “Badluck Jonathan” and insisted that every speaker refer to him as such. However, the leaders of SNG, out of respect for the office of the President, declined to adopt that name and tried to keep the protest issue based.
As Nigerians trooped out in their numbers, the protest ground became a venue for the biggest and freest musical carnival in Nigeria’s history making a child’s play of Star Mega Jamz. Whereas organizers of major musical shows pay guest artistes millions of naira, the Ojota rally was a free star-studded show as musicians such as Femi Kuti, Seun Kuti, Kwam 1, Idris Abdulkareem, Ras Kimono, Olumaintain, Saheed Osupa, Tony Tetuila, Prince Wadada and many others took their turns on the stage. Upcoming artistes also had their chance on the stage. The new stage erected by SNG on the second day provided the needed space. Confounded by this deviation from the settlement culture, pro-government agents took to propaganda by alleging that SNG had hired musicians. The government had begun to feel the heat. The Ojota ground also attracted the best of Nollywood such as Jide Kosoko, Desmond Elliot, Clarion Chukwura Abiola and Foluke Daramola. The exhilarating reception of these celebrities by the people was an attestation to the weight of influence commanded by entertainers. The protesters shouted and applauded thunderously as some of these celebrities who had endorsed Jonathan during the elections made u-turns. The most notable of these was Daddy Showky who said he was ashamed to have toured the nation with the president.
As the days went by, speaker after speaker, from Femi Falana to Frederick Fasheun and from Chris Nwokobia to Shettima Yerima, mounted the podium. Most touching was the fact that the wife and son of the late patriot, Chief Gani Fawehinmi, under whose symbolic shadow we stood as it were, played prominent roles at the rally as Mrs. Ganiyat Fawehinmi and Mohammed Fawehinmi showed up every day to address the crowd in spite of the physical challenge of the latter. The Kutis, Femi and Seun, as well as the mouthed Dede Mabiaku, brought back memories of the phenomenal Fela. The baton had truly passed to the sons. Fela’s song, Basket Mouth had been an appropriate welcome, as the Ojota rally became a parade of “basket mouths” speaking truth to power without equivocation.
Perhaps, most amazing to Nigerians was the spirit of brotherhood that characterized the protest. Not only did it bring together Christians and Muslims as was symbolized when Pastor Bakare and the Chief Imam of Lagos, Alhaji Abdulramon Amodu raised hands in solidarity on the third day, it also brought together the rich and the poor, the educated and the illiterate, the igbo or hemp-smoking area boy and the sophisticated ajebota. The Ojota rally was a leveler. All that mattered was that you were on the side of the people. Protesters bought food and drinks in excess and shared with fellow protesters who, otherwise, were complete strangers. Area boys who are usually the dread of decent and sensitive Nigerians became the friends of the people and protectors of the rally equipment. There were no cases of violence or theft on the rally ground and missing items were found and recovered. This situation was aptly described as Noah’s Ark where the lion cohabited peacefully with the lamb. Only God could have done that!
The rally also revealed the desire of the Nigerian people for leadership that they can trust. In the first two days of the rally, skeptical remarks could be heard from protesters regarding the trustworthiness of the protest leaders. Some others were unwilling to listen to speeches. They could only connect with the musicians. Still others expressed their dislike for Pastor Bakare for no reason at all. However, as they heard him articulate their concerns uncompromisingly and with palpable and transferrable passion, sometimes in the language they could understand, their perception of him began to change. By the third day, the crowd listened attentively to every word he had to say. On that day, a placard that read Tunde Bakare – My Mentor. Goodluck Jonathan – My Tormentor could be seen around the venue. By the fourth day, the crowd had become fanatical about him to the extent of demanding that he be present at the government’s negotiations with labour. When it was rumoured that he had been arrested, there were fears regarding the possible reaction of the mammoth crowd. By the fifth day, his speech was greeted with such thunderous shout that must have sent shivers to the government.
As the crowd grew to the shock of the government, the resolve of the people grew stronger. This resolve was demonstrated in the phrase “N65 or nothing”. Attempts at intimidation were meant with the mantra “no revenge, no reprisals, no rage, no resentment, and no violence” coined by Pastor Bakare. Police surveillance helicopters hovering over the crowd were greeted with shouts of “ole-ole-ole-ole-ole-ole”. Meanwhile, most TV stations which had earlier given the rally live coverage stopped doing so. Apparently, they had been warned. As Aso Rock felt the Ojota-induced tremor, the president’s language changed from defiance to plea. When the Finance Minister appeared on TV on Day 2 of the protests, she was visibly shaken. The CBN Governor admitted that restoration of subsidy would not bankrupt the nation. Rotimi Amaechi, governor of Rivers State introduced a N4 subsidy in Rivers State. When protests were hijacked in some states, curfews were imposed and protests were suspended in those states but Ojota remained peaceful. However, on the fifth day, a two-day suspension of protests was announced at Ojota to allow Nigerians prepare for further protests should labour talks with government continue in a stalemate.
Meanwhile, the Ojota rally seemed to have tied the hands of labour and curtailed their ability to compromise. If any deal was to be reached, a “solution” had to be found to Ojota. By Sunday, intrigues came to the fore. Members of the Governors’ Forum, led by Rotimi Amaechi, paid a visit to David Mark to present a proposal to “resolve” the crisis. Then the governors met Jonathan and his ministers in the presence of Senate President, David Mark. It ended at about past 9pm on Sunday. Thereafter, President Jonathan, together with other government representatives met with Labour. The meeting ended in the early hours of Monday with Labour announcing suspension of street protests and rallies on the grounds of “security reports”. President Jonathan then recorded a speech that was to be broadcast later in the day. Before daybreak, the army invaded the protest ground at Ojota and occupied the place, reportedly dismantling the platform. Jonathan’s speech was broadcast at 7am. He announced security measures. The army then took over the streets of Lagos. Later in the day when it became clear that protests had been successfully curtailed, labour announced suspension of strike. The “security reports” invention had effectively solved for the government and for Labour the “Ojota Problem”. Perhaps, the security threat identified was the fact that the average Nigerian was being empowered with facts that exposed the corruption in the system – facts that, if its hands were clean, the government was at liberty to challenge by constitutional means – in the courts! Many Nigerians, wondering what else had been on the negotiation table, felt betrayed by the Nigerian Labour Congress and the Trade Union Congress.; the labour-leaders were perceived by many as “traitor-leaders”.
Two years later, while memories of those five days linger, the truth is, heads or tail, the Nigerian people are the better for it because we have seen what we are capable of when we decide to take our destiny in our hands. Although the protests were ended abruptly by the government’s flagrant disregard of the right of Nigerians to peaceful protests, with the failure of government to prosecute highly placed individuals indicted in the fuel subsidy scam and with cases of public corruption mounting, it is clear that it is not over yet. As discontent intensifies among the populace, many believe that Nigerians may be bracing up for Ojota Part 2: The Final Showdown.
By Omoaholo Omoakhalen