The government had argued that the removal of fuel subsidy would free up funds for other public services, including health, education and infrastructural projects, and that the liberalisation of the fuel industry would benefit the economy on the long run. According to government officials, the primary beneficiaries of the subsidy were wealthy Nigerians, who used more fuel than the poor, and some of whom allegedly profited from selling the subsidised fuel outside the country. Fuel subsidy was considered by many Nigerians as one of the few benefits they received from successive governments, which they largely viewed as corrupt and inefficient to successfully manage the affairs the country. Nigeria is one the world’s largest producer of oil, but it imports most of the refined petroleum products its people use. Also, the per capita income in Nigeria is one of the worst in the world. Therefore, many citizens did not trust their leaders to spend the funds freed up from the subsidy removal on other public services as the government had promised. The subsidy removal had led to an increase in the cost of Premium Motor Spirit, otherwise called petrol, from N65 per litre to N141 per litre.
However, today, petrol is sold for about N145 per litre after the current government under President Muhammadu Buhari in 2016 increased its price from N86.50, saying that it was the only way out of the exorbitant prices of N150 to N250 Nigerians were subjected to at many filling stations across the country. The current administration had also identified many social protection programmes in the 2016 budget to cushion the effect the hike might have on Nigerians, but there was no protest when that happened.
The 2012 Occupy Nigeria, which was organised by Save Nigeria Group, seems to be one of the most coordinated and widely participated protests in the history of Nigeria. In this interview with ADEMOLA OLONILUA, a major player in the mobilisation of the protests, who was in charge of logistics and other tasks, Yinka Odumakin, talks about how it was done
How did the Occupy Nigeria movement in January 2012 happen?
It was not something that was planned. At the time, there were consultations going on between the government and groups to resolve issues concerning the proposed removal of fuel subsidy and we had a town hall meeting in Lagos, where Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala (Coordinating Minister for the Economy) and the rest of them were in attendance. However, suddenly, we heard the news that government had increased the fuel price. And this issue had been going on for a long time because I remember the first time I participated in this subsidy issue was when I was a student at the University of Ife in 1986. There was a time the then military dictator, Ibrahim Babangida, increased fuel price from 42 kobo per litre to 60 kobo per litre. We did not know that we had not seen anything yet. It happened that we were having our convocation in the university around December in 1986 and Babangida was meant to pay a visit to the school, but he sent a representative in the person of Admiral Patrick Koshoni, who was his Chief of Naval Staff. We protested the increase in fuel price on that day and chanted several slogans, especially one from Haruna Ishola, which we made a remix of. It was a peaceful protest but it became horrid towards the end of the convocation as the students did not allow Koshoni to leave with the then governor of Oyo State, Tunji Olurin, so the soldiers had to use tear gas to disperse the students and in anger, the students began to throw stones at the soldiers. It became so rowdy that Koshoni had to abandon the helicopter that brought him to the university sports centre and leave in Olurin’s car. A few days after that event, the government banned the students’ union activities there because of what happened. Since the school authorities had no one to hold responsible, they picked me up because I was the editor-in-chief of the campus magazine and we heavily criticised the government. They picked up about 10 of us from my editorial team and some other two persons. The 12 of us were suspended without any formal hearing from the school board. We went to court to challenge the suspension and we won in court.
What aided your victory in court?
I remember that our lawyer was Femi Falana and he was still a pupil at a chamber. When we got to court, the university had hired a Senior Advocate of Nigeria, Professor Kasunmu and he came with about 12 lawyers who had with them big books, while Falana came with a small bag and he was alone. When Falana stood to speak, he said that they were relying on the university handbook. He cited that in the university handbook, the university had the right to discipline any student; it could suspend or expel any student but it had a condition, which was that the student had to be found guilty of an offence. He stated that we were neither tried nor invited or accused of doing anything wrong; he argued that it was a ‘violent violation’ of our human right. After his argument, the university’s counsel had to plead with the court to allow the school to go back and follow the due process but Falana got up to argue that equity does not allow a person to be punished twice for an offence and by suspending us, we were already punished, and so we could not be punished again. That was how the judge ruled that the case must not be visited again and we continued with our education.
That was my first encounter with subsidy in 1986 and since then, the thing continued to the point when President Muhammadu Buhari said that anyone that talked about subsidy was a fraudster. So, when it happened in 2012, we felt we could not keep quiet so we met at the Save Nigeria Group office in Ikeja, Lagos. At the meeting, we had in attendance Pastor Tunde Bakare; my wife, Joe Odumakin; Femi Kuti; and Seun Kuti. I think KWAM 1 (Fuji musician, Wasiu Ayinde), was also in attendance and about 30 other people. We discussed the issue, analysed it and realised that we were not subsidising the fuel but paying the price for corruption and that the time had come for us to handle the matter once and for all. We decided to have a protest to let the government know our grievance and the theme of the protest was ‘Kill Corruption, not Nigerians’. We chose Gani Fawehinmi Freedom Park for the protest.
It is rare to get such a large number of people to participate in a protest in Nigeria. How did the Occupy Nigeria protest achieve that feat?
Honestly, I must say that we did not plan to have that kind of crowd that the protest attracted. Even if you plan a protest for about four years, I doubt if it would achieve what we were able to achieve in the five days, during which we shook Nigeria. At the peak of the protest, there were Nigerians in the Diaspora, who were buying tickets to come back to the country because they believed that the final showdown had come. On the first day, we had a good turnout. By the second day, it became something else and that was when musicians and other Nigerians from all sectors joined in the protest. Everybody started showing up and it became a big carnival for those oppressed in the country. By the third day, the crowd became unmanageable and on the fourth day, we were already having fears that there would be a stampede. I have been involved in protests for over three decades, but I have never seen that kind of crowd. At a stage, if you drop a pin at the venue, it would drop on someone’s head. It was that protest that made me believe that there is hope for this country because as large as the crowd was, people were bringing lost mobile phones to us on the stage. This is to show how safe the protest was without police protection. No one was mobilised to that venue with money.
But till date, some people believe that the crowd was rented…
I heard this same rumour but it is a total misconception. I disbursed the money spent for that protest and I can tell you for a fact that we spent about N7.3m for those five days. We spent money on the equipment we used throughout the period; we paid about N500,000 daily on the sound system. We paid for the banners and other logistics. On the fifth day, all we had spent was N7.3m. It would be wrong to think that we paid people to join the protest. If we had paid for the crowd, there was no way they would see missing phones and alert the organisers; that is the kind of discipline that was there. In fact, in the crowd, we saw people who could not participate in the protest, so they were buying water for the participants. They did this on their own. With each passing day, the protest kept growing to the extent that by the fifth day, we were afraid that there would be a stampede. And if that had occurred, it would have defeated the purpose of a peaceful protest and we would have played into the hands of the government. If there had been a stampede, deaths would have been recorded. Up until that time, the government could not pick any one of us up because we did not destroy any property and it was a peaceful protest.
But how exactly were you able to raise N7.3m for the protest since you said it was not sponsored?
My role during the protest was a coordinator of the rally. Pastor Bakare was the convener of Save Nigeria Group and we worked closely together. I was in charge of the logistics during the rally. The bulk of the N7.3m came from Pastor Bakare but we did not go to anybody for money. In fact, there was a prominent Nigerian based in Belgium, the late Ambassador Antonio Deinde Fernandez, who learnt about the movement and felt that Nigeria’s liberation had come. He called us to tell us that he was sending a huge amount of money; the amount of money he wanted to send was something that would make people shake but we told him not to worry because we did not need it. There was no question of sourcing funds from anybody and no one was given money to participate in the protest. Aside from paying for the sound system, we gave out money to the people that were coordinating security there like the bouncers as they were professionals.
Were the objectives of the protest achieved?
I would say that it was achieved in a way because it showed that social mobility in Nigeria was not frozen and that what people needed was leadership. They just needed people that would guide them along the right path. If it were a political rally, they would spend up to N1bn.
But Nigerians are still facing hardship. At the time the fuel price was increased to N87 per litre, now it is N145. Why was another protest not staged?
Unfortunately, a lot of the civil society players who we knew many years ago have kept quiet. It is as if they have even left the country. We also now have a quasi-military regime in place that is selling a culture of fear into the lily-livered. Look at the Shiites protests, they were massacred. We all saw what happened to Daily Trust some days ago whereby soldiers took over their offices because of a story which they did not say was false. Our society is increasingly becoming militarised and unfortunately, we are calling it a democracy. My fear is that instead of having another Occupy Nigeria, we would have total chaos and anarchy one day. It would be so unmanageable that Nigeria would become ungovernable. I pray that day would not come because even those who are not part of the problem would become victims of the problem. When you do not have the middle class in a society that pushes out activists and leaders that people can talk to, when a day when the people decide to act on their own comes, you would see trouble.
Some Nigerians would see Occupy Nigeria protest as hypocritical because things were not this bad when it was organised in 2012?
The society is not like that; you look at the forces on the ground. In 1986, we led a protest in Ife to fight the government for planning to remove subsidy. But if the government wants to increase the fuel price to N1,000 now, would you hear anything from our campuses? In those days, when things like this happened, students took charge and the town would join before the labour congress would now take over. A few days ago, I saw a young man riding a Mercedes Benz with the number plate, NANS. Our society has broken down. With everything happening in our society, when last have you heard students complain about something going wrong? In those days, when the government brought out its budget, the analysis would start from the campuses. We would hold budget analysis sessions and would invite people to dissect the budget, but when last did you hear about happening on our campuses?
Would you ascribe your observation to the fact that Nigerian youths are docile in nature or corruption has found its way into the students’ union bodies in universities?
It is not only the students’ unions, look at the labour union and the way it is handling the minimum wage issue, which is in the interest of workers. The reason why the society is pacified sometimes is because our leaders are taking up the issue but the moment it gets to a point where there is no one between the society and the government – the day we resort to self-help – there would be chaos. I pray that our situation does not get to that point before our leaders rise up. Look at the way the police invaded the Senate, that is a coup, but the case is dead. Look at what our vice president is doing all over the place, visiting market places and giving people money and they are saying that is how they are spending the Abacha loot (money recovered from funds allegedly looted by a former military dictator, General Sani Abacha). How many people have benefitted from the Abacha loot? Is it a coincidence that it is during our year of ‘change’ that vote-buying became a phenomenon? It is under a President, who went to the Supreme Court on three occasions to fight that the previous elections were rigged, that vote-buying is going on unofficially.
Many people believe that the fact that musicians performed during the Occupy Nigeria protest made it look unserious. Do you agree with them?
I think it was a great addition and it was one of the things that led to the success of the protest because they had their admirers and what they brought was what those of us in the arts industry call arts for life’s sake. Most of the artistes that came to sing political songs had been singing about other things like women and money, but all of a sudden, they deployed their talent for social mobilisation. That was a great achievement for us and the country. It showed the power of the artistes. When they had the governorship election in Osun State and based on my belief, Senator Ademola Adeleke won, part of what contributed to his success was Davido. He had powerful concerts across the state and that showed the power of arts. If we had a serious government, we should use this as a tool to transform the society. The power and influence that the entertainers had over their fans was part of what contributed to the success of Occupy Nigeria. I pray that a day would come when we would tap into this to build our society. I pray for the day entertainers would go to all the corners of the society to mobilise people for a real change and use the hold they have on the people that love them to change the society.
During those five days of protests, a lot of insults were hurled at the former President, Goodluck Jonathan. Was that really necessary to pass the message across?
It was a festival of the oppressed and the disenchanted and when that happened, all kinds of outburst would come out but give it to Jonathan; nobody was arrested unlike what we have today. In fact, if we have that kind of gathering today, government would move tanks to the venue. Look at what they did to the Shiites; they killed them mercilessly. Some people cannot kill animals like that let alone human beings. I recall that in 2015 when Jonathan was leaving office, AIT had a programme and I was invited as a speaker. I said that our country would be lucky if the next President to succeed Jonathan would have his temperament because he remains the most abused president of Nigeria but nobody went to jail and no one was killed because of it. Look at what they are doing to Senator Dino Melaye today; when the All Progressives Congress was campaigning in 2015 and Melaye was in their party, he went everywhere and there was nothing he did not say against Jonathan and there was no consequence. Can someone do that today?
Occupy Nigeria protest ended abruptly when the government sent soldiers to disperse the protesters. Do you think that was the right thing for the government to have done?
No, it was not. The soldiers did not just come like that, instead; we decided after the fifth day that we should have a break. Also, we nursed this serious fear that there would be a stampede, so we decided to have a break and return. It was while we were on break that the soldiers took over the place before we got back. Prior to that, all through the period, we were not harassed by any law enforcement agent. You cannot dare to hold a protest for a day with this government in power. For instance, see the people they were using, like Bring Back Our Girls, that used the Unity Fountain, Abuja. Many of them did not know that they were being used. They were used as part of the APC propaganda in 2015; they danced all day while protesting but there was never a day that Jonathan ordered that law enforcement agents should disperse them. Recently, they were flogged out of the place. That shows you the quasi-military administration that we have now. We have got to a point that Miyetti Allah Cattle Breeders Association of Nigeria has come out to announce that this would be their government for the next four years. It shows that this country is in trouble.
Your wife is an activist like you. How are you two able to manage your home?
We are doing well. I am a political activist while my wife is a social activist. We have managed our home front for about 22 years now, so if God could help us all through the 22 years, then He would be with us for the rest of our lives.
Was it activism that made you fall in love with your wife?
Yes, we met during our activism days. There would be other things but the activism was what brought us together.
Don’t you ever nurse the fear that you or your wife could be picked up at any time based on your activism and this could leave your kids vulnerable?
God has helped us so far. However, whenever I do something for the society, God has a way of repaying me. In this society, you do not need to be an activist for harm to come your way. In fact, there are a million and one things that can happen to you in this society.
Would you ever quit activism?
For me, I have been doing activism since my A level days. I wrote an anonymous article and for weeks the school authorities began to look for the writer. That was when I knew the power of activism and since then, I have been fully involved in activism. I do not think I would change as we try to make Nigeria better; that is a lifelong passion. Nothing can make me change except we have a society that is settled and then we could deploy our skills in raising the next generation through mentorship. But it is a lifelong passion to see my country doing way better than it is doing today.
Apart from activism, what do you do to put food on your table?
If you depend on activism to put food on your table, then you are in trouble. I have a radio station in Ibadan and I also have a farm. As of today, I have the only ostrich farm in the South-West. We are doing a lot of things on the farm. If you do not have any other business apart from activism, you may sell out.