Following the use of social networks in the ongoing protests for restoration of fuel subsidy, EVEREST AMAEFULE reports that the Internet has transformed and sustained the quest for social change in the country
When a young Tunisian, Mohammed Bouaziz, burnt himself on December 10, 2010 as a result of economic hardship, little did he know that he was setting off a wild fire that would consume three heads of states and threaten the position of another half a dozen. The fire has not been extinguished.
Analysts have been assessing the role of the social media in the pro-democracy protests in the Middle East and North Africa that have been dubbed the Arab Spring.
Although there is no agreement of opinion on the exact role of the social media in the Arab Spring, most experts and observers ascribe a significant impact to the struggle.
While many Nigerians and organisations, including the ruling People’s Democratic Party, had ruled out the possibility of demonstrations in the style of the Arab Spring in Nigeria, the announcement of fuel subsidy removal by the Petroleum Products Pricing and Regulatory Agency on the New Year day had sparked off demonstration on the streets the following day.
While the amorphous demonstration commenced on January 2 through the call and mobilisation of civil society organisations, the protest has acquired a life of its own in several cities and has been dubbed “Occupy Nigeria”.
The decision of the organised labour led by the Nigeria Labour Congress and the Trade Union Congress to begin a nationwide strike on January 9 had added impetus to the protests against the removal of fuel subsidy.
As Nigerians gathered on the streets and parks in several cities of the country, the social media have played a great role in recruiting participants and reinforcing the conviction of those who believe in the cause of the protests.
Imam Okochua, a largely quiet Lagos-based lawyer, has thrown away the garb of quietness and put on that of an activist since the removal of subsidy from petrol became an issue. He is not only active on the street but has been very active in the social media. According to him, the social media have provided effective tools for mobilisation as well as encouraging protesters.
Okochua said, “The Internet gives us very effective uninterrupted flow. We may not have access to newspapers, radios and televisions. We may not even have the money to make all the necessary calls. The Internet is a cheap medium for mobilisation. With the Internet, you don’t even have to go to the street and risk being shot by the police who would accuse you of shooting them first even if you have not handled a gun all your life.
“My aim in Internet advocacy is not to win those that have taken a hardened stance against the course. There is nothing you will say that will convince them. My objective is to give ‘ammunition’ to those who already believe in the course but may not have enough reasons. For those ones, we offer them more comprehensive reasons why they should remain involved.
“There are those who also sit on the fence. We tell them why they should be involved. I am proud to say that I have been able to convince a lot of them. In fact, some of them have posted findings of their own that are better than mine.”
Okochua believes that without the Internet, the protests could not have been as effective as it had been.
An Abuja-based public servant, Mr. John Musa, also has a similar conviction.
According to him, each succeeding day of the protest has seen a larger turn out because of effective mobilisation through the social networks.
Okochua added, “The Internet is a social medium where people say nearly anything. It is a medium where serious analyses are done. We can add humour or joke to get attention. At the end of the day, we pass serious information more than what could be done by the conventional media.
“Occupy Nigeria is the dream we have cherished for a long time – a peaceful pressure on the government to come out clean.”
According to him, the first demand of the movement is a return of fuel price to N65 per litre; the second demand is that the Federal Government should attend to the security crisis in the country.
He said, “It is quite unfortunate that the President publicly stated that the enemies he has been asking us to join him in fighting has infiltrated his cabinet. He should either deal decisively with them or leave that position. I wonder what he would have done if he was George Bush when Al-Qaida struck America. Perhaps, he would have asked them to come and take over the government.
“The other thing is that the government must show seriousness in tackling the corruption they have called cabal.”
Bruno Anyika, a young man in his late 20s, exemplified the use of social networks in the struggle. As the Abuja protesters dance to rhythms of the late Fela Anikulapo-Kuti on Thursday, Anyika was busy on his BlackBerry, tweeting and posting pictures on the Facebook.
He said modern communications technologies offered him and his friends the opportunity of reporting and giving instant information on the status of the protest from their locations.
Anyika said, “As we did during the elections, we have the opportunity to report and give update to friends. This also helps us to mobilise our friends to participate in the struggle. We have contacts on the Facebook and the Tweeter. Those that are following us on the Tweeter get the tweets. That helps to keep the momentum.
“We have to ‘occupy Nigeria’ for our unborn children. You can see that the majority of the people here are young. Our parents could not stand up for us. That is why we are where we are today. So, we need to stand for our own children.”
He also alleged that the authorities planned to block the use of social networks during the protests until civil societies raised the alarm.
Anyika was obviously referring to rumours that made the rounds in the social media that Nigerian Communications Commission had sealed a deal with telecommunications operators to block services to BlackBerry during the period of the protests.
In a statement, the Director of Public Affairs at NCC, Mr. Tony Ojobo, said there was no truth in the allegation, saying that operators should, without failure, continue to offer services to BlackBerry subscribers in the country.
Ojobo had said, “The attention of NCC has been drawn to the information making the rounds that it had at a meeting agreed with CEOs of telecommunications networks to shutdown BlackBerry services in order to deny Nigerians the use of that very important social network.
“The management hereby states categorically that there was never such a meeting, nor was there ever a resolution to shut down BlackBerry services. The public is please advised to disregard such information.
“The commission enjoins the network operators to continue to provide all telecommunication services, including BlackBerry services without fail.”
Apart from individual postings on the Net, the Occupy Nigeria Movement has a collective page on Facebook. The Facebook page already had 2,768 members and 70 photos as at Thursday when our correspondent visited it.
Another Occupy Nigeria USA-Abuja-Atlanta-DC-New York page on the Facebook had generated 1,182 members and 49 photos. On the pages, members give situation reports, encourage others and vaunt.
On Occupy Nigeria Movement Facebook page, Mr. Gbadeyan Babalola, wrote, “Great Nigerian people, I salute your courage. Let us keep up the spirit of revolution; God will give us victory.”
Mr. Olu Famous wrote, “At last, government now appreciates the power of the people.”
Similarly, Emmanuel Iji reported, “Protesters take over NTA 2 Channel at 5, Ahmadu Bello way, Victoria Island, Lagos, forcing the station to broadcast protests.”
To show that the fuel protest has acquired a life of its own, Occupy Nigeria has already made a debut on Wikipedia, a popular online dictionary.
The dictionary says, “Occupy Nigeria is a series of protests that began in Nigeria on Monday, 2 January 2012, in response to the fuel subsidy removal by the Federal Government on Sunday, 1 January 2012.
“With the majority of Nigerians living on less than $2 per day, cheap petrol is viewed by many Nigerians as the only tangible benefit they receive from the state, hence the widespread disapproval.
“In addition, the economy is heavily reliant on crude oil (amongst other reasons, due to absence of essential infrastructure and services such as constant electricity). A consequence of this is that other seemingly unrelated items are tied to the price of fuel as has occurred from previous price hikes. Due to the absence of stable electricity, gasoline generators are a common energy alternative for small businesses and residences.”
As anti-fuel protesters have taken to the social networks to express their anger, government officials and appointees have also taken to the same to explain their own side of the story. Such explanations are often trailed by hot arguments and accusations and often ended in deadlock.
Whatever would happen to the Occupy Nigeria in the cyberspace is a matter of conjecture. However, one thing is sure – the history of agitation for social change can never be the same in Nigeria again.
This is some dimension of transformation that Jonathan could not have conceptualised in his transformation agenda.