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A Two-Phased Approach To Political Protests

Much has been made of the cancellation of the planned protests spearheaded by music star, Tuface Idibia. I thought people expected too much from the young man obviously because of the ‘noise’ on social media calling people out to protest hardship in the country. If you listened to the ‘noise,’ much of Nigeria would have been grounded on Monday with protests. There was good ground to believe this would be the case, afterall people are pissed with soaring prices, a dithering government and growing anger against a government that has squandered the goodwill that swept it into office. If the backlash against Tuface when he backed out of the protests about twenty-four hours before they were due to start is anything to go by, then you would be correct to say there were some who were willing to join and indeed anticipated the protests. Some even suggested that issues raised were beyond Tuface and that they would go ahead without him. For instance, EnoughisEnough (EiE) Nigeria, the coalition behind the “I Stand With Nigeria/One Voice Nigeria, issued a statement to say the protests would go ahead as planned.

With the sparse turnout recorded as the protests kicked off in Lagos, Ijebu Ode and Abuja on Monday morning, I am convinced that as is the nature of all slacktivists, the only contribution by those protesting Tuface’s announcement of the cancellation was limited to Facebook posts and Tweets.  It confirms the argument that there are activists who are willing to march regardless of perceived threats and those who are willing to support a cause only if it does not demand any serious effort.

That cancellation may have surprised some but not me. The real surprise would have been if the organizers managed to paralyze socio-economic activities as it happened during OccupyNigeria. I will say more about this in a while.

I reckon Tuface and his associates sought to use social media to rally people for the protests but perhaps they overrated the effectiveness of this approach. Social media have been used in this manner before but the results have been mixed. The Arab uprising is the best we all hold up as an example of the potency of the new media in organizing political protests but there is a growing body of evidence to suggest there were underlying currents that fuelled the agitations.

No doubt, the Arab uprising has inspired protests in other places including in Nigeria as we saw in 2012. OccupyNigeria as we know began as a protest against increase in fuel prices when government scrapped a fraudulent subsidy scheme and has become a reference point of sorts because of widely-held belief that organizers succeeded in shutting down the country using social media as the main tool for organizing it. Just how true is this belief? Is there any empirical evidence for this belief? I am tended to believe that those claims are overstated. In a detailed study of OccupyNigeria, I did not find enough to convince me otherwise. That study, conducted in 2013/2014 as part of my MA Social Media programme at the University of Westminster, provided the material for the insights I am about to share here.

Activists I spoke with in the course of the research agreed that social media is useful but has its shortcomings. First, they believe that offline and online mobilization is crucial to organizing protests and that getting people to march requires more of face-to-face communication. Some, like Yemi Adamolekun, whose group, EIE (Nigeria), played a major role in organizing the protests, said, it was normal to record  lower response rate when the mobilization is mainly online. Bypassing the street-level organizing that is the hallmark of protests is a big minus for social media-driven protests at least in one respect – movements need those face-to-face engagements by activists to jell.

Second, there is also a general belief amongst activists that social media helped to amplify and sustain whatever happened offline. ‘We also used the social media to explain in simple terms to our people to see the reason why they have to be part of the struggle,’ Remi Omowaiye, who was instrumental to organizing some of the protests outside Lagos told me. Third, the activists noted the fact that social media was useful in taking the protests out of the control of much-distrusted Nigerian Labour Congress (NLC) and the Trade Union Congress (TUC), and thereby making it difficult for them to cut deals with the government.

So, just what did OccupyNigeria have that was missing in this protest? Here are a few of the reasons why Tuface and his associates struggled to ‘pull the crowd’. First, recall that the 2012 protests started as spontaneous response by angry Nigerians to the fuel price hike and for the first few days were without any organization at all. Whatever coordination, offline or online only came a week later when general nationwide strikes were called by labour and when SNG had set up the platform for the Ojota Rallies. Moral – people will march when their pockets suffer direct hit. Second, the protests of OccupyNigeria must also be seen as the coming together of disparate forces, only united in their call for good governance and opposition to the government of President Goodluck Jonathan, rather than a movement that grew from the Internet. Those protests brought activists, labour unions, civil society groups, politicians and other prominent Nigerians together to in protest against the government action. The present administration, in spite of everything still enjoys some level of goodwill and is far away from Jonathan’s low of January 2012. From the second week of the protests starting from January 9, OccupyNigeria was driven by influencers – bloggers, music stars and politicians amongst others. Offline, the decision of the Save Nigeria Group to ‘do something’ about government’s policy led to a meeting held on January 3, 2014, which had in attendance leaders of the group as well as Nigerian music stars like King Wasiu Ayinde Marshal, Femi Kuti, Seun Kuti, Ras Kimono and 9ice (Odumakin, 2014). That meeting agreed to start rallies on Monday January 9, 2014 and for symbolic reasons, the Freedom Park at Ojota, named after late activist, Gani Fawehinmi was picked as the end point for all marches. Apart from Omoyele Sowore, publisher of Sahara Reporters, Charly Boy, Seyi Law, other influencers including Tuface stayed away from this protest, in sharp contrast to this protest. Lastly, the live coverage of OccupyNigeria from Ojota by private broadcasters like TVC and Channels appeared to have encouraged many other people to join, but this time the protesters were not even allowed access to that location.

In conclusion, in spite of the euphoria of using new media to organize protests against the government, there is little evidence that they can produce real change. Cases like that of former Governor Adam Oshiomhole of Edo state who was forced to recant his insult on widow and then offer her a government job after the video of the encounter surfaced on the Internet.

look like all motion without movement. No doubt such incidents like many of its type, would otherwise have gone unnoticed but whether using social media to expose such incidents would produce the kind of radical changes that Nigerians want and how soon this can happen remains to be seen. Which is why I feel sorry for the organisers of these recent protests. The forces that combined to produce OccupyNigeria appeared to have been uninterested in these ones and might in fact have worked against them. The heavy-handed approach of the Nigerian Police force against the organisers of these latest anti-government protests contrasts sharply with the carnival-like atmosphere of Ojota during OccupyNigeria. And for me, that is telling.

The signs have been there really – that social media as tool for political activism in Nigeria has severe limitations. Activists may need to discount the ‘noise’ on social media in their planning and combine the two phases of mobilisation – online and offline – to achieve any meaningful result.

 

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