OOTC: Why We Must Ignore Those Who Say Protests Don’t Work In Nigeria, By Chude Jideonwo

People gather during a protest against the scrapping of oil subsidy at Gani Fawehinmi Park, Ojota in Lagos on January 12, 2012. Nigerian oil workers vowed Thursday to begin shutting down production of Africa's top crude exporter, piling intense pressure on the government ahead of talks on the fourth day of a nationwide strike. AFP PHOTO / PIUS UTOMI EKPEI (Photo credit should read PIUS UTOMI EKPEI/AFP/Getty Images)

Protests don’t lead to perfection. Protests instead lead to solutions, however imperfect. Or at the least they lead to a shared frame of understanding, and an important articulation of public views.

“I was really hopeful about the February 2face protests,” a friend of mine told me over lunch just recently. “And terribly disappointed when he chickened out. It was the one protest I decided I would go out for.”

Then she added the clincher: “Because for me I don’t think protests in Nigeria are effective, and I don’t like to waste my time tying headbands and taking selfies.”

My response, first, to this sort of outlook is always simple: Ignore those who take selfies and use protests to boost their street credibility. At least they stand up to be counted. Do what you should and what you can on your own part, and let everybody’s effort lead to some progress.

But more than that, there is something even more important that must be pointed out: it is absolutely and completely not true that protests in Nigeria are not effective.

There are some examples from recent history.

In 2006, associates of President Olusegun Obasanjo decided that he needed a third term in office, and began to lobby and arm-twist legislators to manipulate the constitution to deliver this extension of tenure.

The civil society said, hell no! The entire nation was galvanised to reject it. Public protests took over the country. The fever strongly enveloped the National Assembly and despite rumours of ‘Ghana Must Go’ bags changing hands, the legislature decided to take action.

The entire constitutional reform was thrown out of the chambers, and the immoral campaign became was dead on arrival.

Protests did that.

In 2010, when our president, Umaru Musa Yar’Adua went missing and a cabal around him refused to admit his vegetative condition and hand over power peacefully to his vice president, it was a series of public protests headlined by the Save Nigeria Group that forced action on the issue.

The Save Nigeria protests inspired a series of other protests, including what was my first involvement in national civic action, convening and working with friends and associates to hold the #EnoughisEnough protests. It remains one of the most pivotal moments in my own personal history.

As many of the actors in that drama have admitted, the public outpour provided the social context and confidence for our legislators to make up a Rule of Necessity and force a transfer of power. And Nigeria’s democracy was saved again.

Protests did that.

In 2012, the Nigerian government decided, as usual, to increase the pump price of fuel without regard to the sensibilities of many Nigerians. A coalition of labour unions and civil society groups stepped unto the streets and demanded a reversal of that price increase. Even further, they demanded that government waste be fully and finally addressed before any other discussion could be had.

No matter what people unhappy with that movement say today and irrespective of the fact that the protests attracted opposition politicians (which is not a problem since opposition politicians, after all, are also Nigerian citizens), that protest ended up pushing back the price of fuel, leading to a public inquiry into our oil politics and putting the restructuring of its mechanics at the centre of national attention.

Whatever changes Nigeria has today in its oil politics, including the ultimate change of the government that oversaw its most obscene manifestations, were sown in the midst of the now famous #OccupyNigeria movement.

Protests did that.

In 2015, when the Nigerian Senate began to play around with a funny piece of legislation called the Frivolous Petitions (Prohibitions, etc) Bill, nicknamed the #SocialMediaBill, which ultimately sought to stifle free expression on social media platforms through the back door, it was the social media outcry, driven by much-derided hashtag protests that eventually created the national movement against the bill.

It helped in no small part that the Senate president is especially sensitive to public opinion expressed via social media. Speaking at my organisation’s event at Social Media Week 2016, he eventually confessed to the public pressure mounted on the national legislature due to this. The Senate threw the bill out weeks later.

Protests did that.

In 2017, after students of the Ladoke Akintola University of Technology had been home for nine of months, some brave ones decided enough was enough and organised protests all the way to the office of the governor of Oyo State, where they forced him to address them. Videos from that protest, where he petulantly dismissed them, emerged all across the media in the country, leading to a public outcry against the governor and focusing national attention on the plight of the poor students condemned to abandonment by their own government.

This particular example, in fact, warms my heart because I happened to have met many of those students, who had to ignore the trenchant voice of cynics seeking to point them towards the futility of their actions. The helplessness they felt in those months was heart wrenching.

Within a month of finding their voices through public action, the governor was put under immense pressure, and the school was quickly reopened for exams. They have now finished their exams.

One of the students sent me a triumphant message nearly a week ago: “After everything, we are finally done with our exams.”

I smiled.

Protests did that.

When the Chibok girls were kidnapped in 2014, and the incredible #BringBackOurGirls movement came into being, there were many who insisted that it was a waste of time, that the girls had been sold to countries including Niger or Libya. Even a former president insisted that there was no way the girls would be found.

The Sambisa Forest was a hole, they insisted. The protesters were wasting their time.

The protesters ignored them, organising in Lagos, Abuja and everywhere else, attracting the attention of a global elite, and making this into a cause celebre that caught immediate fire across the world, keeping the Nigerian government on its toes till this day

And, one by one, the Nigerian army began to recover the girls. As of today, more than 100 of them have been recovered following the three-year campaign by these resolute protesters. The issue has refused to leave the front burner. The girls continue to be on the top of minds. And the girls continue to be rescued to grateful families. This has never happened before in Nigeria.

Protests did that.

When Ibrahim Babangida cancelled the results of the free and fair elections of 1993, what do you think it was that ultimately made it untenable for him to remain as Head of State, forcing him to step aside from an office he had held for a decade and hurriedly handing over to an Interim National Government?

Moral suasion? Of course, it was public protests; the millions of people, especially across South-West Nigeria who poured into the streets constantly for days and weeks and demanded that he step down, release MKO Abiola and allow democracy take its course.

Protests did that.

Protests weakened the Sani Abacha government severely, providing an international consensus that assailed his government throughout its life cycle, delegitimising his sham election process, and today destroying his personal brand; his image standing as a global cautionary tale for any other deranged players seeking to hold Nigeria hostage.

By the time he passed away and the nation heaved a sigh of relief, it had become apparent that military dictatorship had reached its logical conclusion. Nigerians had had enough.

The atmosphere of constant public protests made it impossible for the new military government to do anything else but midwife a process that returned Nigeria to democracy.

Since 1999 when democracy returned, Nigeria is yet to look back, whatever the problems we have encountered. We are a free nation, with an evolving democratic tradition, and an open society. That is no small achievement.

Protests did that.

Yes, protests don’t always give the exact outcomes that we desire, and they don’t directly lead to the concrete action that is required, but so what? That is not the job of protests.

The role of protests is to provide the pressure or give popular validation for those with power to make the necessary decisions, whether they be in the executive, legislature or judiciary.

Failed or symbolic protests are not an excuse not to protest, just as failed governments are not an excuse to abolish government. Systems fail, but systems are important.

Martin Luther King Jr did not live to see Barack Obama become president but it didn’t invalidate the line of causation from the protests before and after him and the eventual institutional downfall of racism. And he lived long enough to see the Voting Rights Act come alive.

Nation building and social engineering are fundamentally long term designs. Institutions are not built overnight. Success is not a one-off activity. Success is a sum total of failures, mishaps and achievements.

Protests are not to be judged by their ability to earn immediate goals but how they sustain the movement towards big targets.

Where they appear to fail, lessons are leant, knowledge is added, and the march continues. Small wins lead to pockets of validation that then aggregate into big wins.

Those who insist that protests are useless and voting is the only thing that matters are either naïve or disingenuous.

If voting were the only mandate of citizens, then everyone from Nelson Mandela to MLK must have been stupid. In fact, MLK must have been doubly stupid to lead any protests because the vast majority of the elected leaders – who could make the voting decisions in congress – were in fact enablers of a racist system. He led citizens to make that change happen, outside of the voting process.

Governance and citizenship are not solely about elections; they are a cycle of activities including dissident and debate.

It is important to point this out to those, comfortable in cynical inaction, who gleefully point out the errors, contradictions and fault lines of public protests.

“Activism is internally contentious by nature,” Jia Talento wrote in the New Yorker in January about the Women’s March in Washington. “Organisation is always tedious, and that’s just fine.”

Protests don’t lead to perfection. Protests instead lead to solutions, however imperfect. Or at the least they lead to a shared frame of understanding, and an important articulation of public views.

Democracy is not instant noodles. It is not even beans. It is an endless process of choice, dissent and accountability.

“Of course it’s difficult to pull together an enormous group of women who may have nothing in common other than the conviction that a country led by Trump endangers their own freedoms and the freedoms of those they love,” the New Yorker piece noted. “That conviction is nonetheless the beginning of the resistance that those planning to attend the march hope to constitute. The march has lately taken firmer positions: the organizers have booted a pro-life group from their list of partners, and released a firmly progressive three-page policy statement that advocates for reproductive freedom and economic justice for women, as well as immigration reform, police accountability, and union rights for all. Conflict, unsurprisingly, continues to intrude, even with the demonstration looming: on Tuesday, the Women’s March edited a statement of support for sex workers’ rights out of, and then back into, its platform.

“Still, at a time of emotional paralysis and civic dissolution, the reminder that radical change is even possible is reason enough to bring people to their feet. As the poet Eduardo Galeano wrote, utopia is illusory: ‘No matter how much I walk, I’ll never reach her.’ But the idea of a future marked by equality and respect will make hundreds of thousands walk.”

The sum of all this is simple: if anyone tells you protests don’t work, disregard them. Ignore them. They quite simply don’t know what they are talking about. And they are not the kind of people you should be paying attention to, either in the first place, or at the end of the day.

Chude Jideonwo is co-founder and managing partner of RED.

Office of the Citizen (OOTC) is Jideonwo’s latest essay series.

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