Few days after Ojota was overtaken by military men whose deployment will remain a mystery, as with some things Nigerian, I returned to breathe in the air. As I alighted from the car, a friendly voice said, “be careful sir,” but I wasn’t looking for trouble and it was bright enough for me to avoid any surprise. I walked into the Gani Fawehinmi Park while the new guards of the historic square kept busy few meters away.
Climbing to the summit where Gani Fawehinmi’s statue overlooks the park – which will remain a Freedom Park regardless of how smart history editors are – I felt the rush of emotions as my mind replayed how Nigerians disproved the twin theories of resilience and disunity. I posted a tweet and walked away, to join a meeting that was convened to discuss how Nigerians must seize the moment.
Ojota got the most attention during the January 2012 #OccupyNigeria protests because of the unbelievable numbers that grew inside and around the square each day but anyone who had the rare opportunity of joining more than one protest would understand when I say that the principle of organised chaos was at play. Don’t believe a lie, it wasn’t a group of elite young people who wanted to take over, or a group of political tools; it was indeed an expression of disgust at years of misrule.
I attended Obafemi Awolowo University in Ile-Ife, so I am no stranger to protests. Anyone who joins protests knows that things don’t need much to get ugly. Throw in the sheer size of the crowd at Ojota and the continuum of inclination, and you’ll appreciate how everyone came armed with the same weapon – anger. For some reason, the anger wasn’t abused, and the police(wo)men who stood guard will tell you about the conversations and supply of cold drinks to help quench the common thirst.
Ojota was different. First, there was the multiplication of information. Pockets of people gathered to discuss the real issues. While Abuja kept trying its best to wrap the protests in unfair political colours, true citizens continued to discuss the ignorance and wickedness of a government that was bent on deceiving citizens through misinformation. Now we all know that over N2.6 trillion was spent on fuel subsidies in 2011, even though the lies started at N1.2 (more than 50% discount on the truth). There were also the leaflets and endless drama – all revealing a new level of awareness by citizens.
Then, there was the meeting between social media and street movements. What started with online rants moved on to the streets; a total departure from what the pundits had predicted. There was the popular exchange of tweets that started with few people asking where to meet at Abule Egba and ended up with crowds catching up with each other until about 2,000 people arrived at Ojota to join the protest. Tweets also ended up on placards; who can forget the N1 million for breakfast, N1 million for lunch and N1 million for dinner placard that brought tweets about the Presidency’s almost N1 billion meals’ budget to life.
The media machinery was at its best, as if to announce to New Media channels that it was also alive and in active duty. Outside Broadcasting (OB) vans dotted the Ojota landscape and one of them beamed live images to citizens who could – or would – not join others in Ojota, or anywhere else. I took advantage of these vans to capture pictures (http://www.gbengasesan.com/?p=966, http://www.gbengasesan.com/?p=969, http://www.gbengasesan.com/?p=986, http://www.gbengasesan.com/?p=991, http://www.gbengasesan.com/?p=992) and videos (http://youtu.be/lpzR_1OdNYo, http://youtu.be/hGOOomlIjfg, http://youtu.be/c0hOabgNkVs) that will remain exhibits of how people put to rest the oft-repeated lie that Nigerians would never stay on the streets for too long.
Sadly, people died. They shouldn’t have. I remember a chat with a member of this government that had me raising my voice as if to inform him of what he wasn’t aware of. Many episodes of probe drama and committees later, the lives that were lost cannot be reversed. For a nation whose president is quick to respond to mere inclusion on a coveted list but slow to comment when lives are lost in their numbers, there is the fear that human life is not very high on our list of valuables. But then, one hopes that the depth of our humanity will not be lost to the shallowness of abandoned hope.
At the many Ojotas across Nigeria, hands were joined in solidarity. Ojota was the new facebook as old friends ran into each other and people spent hours on the same site. Anyone who heard the huge crowd sing the national anthem would be a proud Nigerian. The hovering helicopter, which many assumed was a property of the state, also attracted waves of united uproar. The solidarity was probably one of the reasons why the numbers grew; each person returned, strengthened by the beauty of unity.
Each day, as news filtered in about possible compromise by the Labour Union, voices were raised as if to say the negotiations had only one option – outright reversal. Of course, negotiations always have trade-offs. How the discussions between government and the Labour Union ended was shrouded in so much drama, and public outcry was scary. Thankfully, threats against the leaders of the union died natural deaths, though there are talks of the bigger threats – by the State – that brought them to their knees. One day, an insider will write a book about the negotiations. Hopefully, it won’t be one of the history-bending books that Nigerians are forced to accept as accurate representation of history.
Hmmm, some scary things happened online. Who would have thought that the private mobile numbers of hyper-protected public officials could be freely available for retweets? And the false reports too – those recycled pictures, Blackberry broadcasts, forwarded eMails and text messages that only sought to take advantage of uncertainties. As social media channels were used to share information, organise crowds and report activities, they were also available for propaganda from both sides of the divide. After all, social media is just a tool, and it doesn’t take sides.
The same social media channels announced the arrival of the military on the streets of Lagos. Many people trusted a democratically elected government not to desecrate the beauty of people’s rightful protests but Abuja would have none of that. Security excuses were given, leading one to wonder why the same sense of urgency was not applied during earlier incidents that saw the loss of lives in Northern states of Nigeria. Pictures of stern-looking troops took over social media as some of us made our way towards Ojota on Monday, January 16, 2012. Even policemen complained, as one of them asked, “na war we dey fight?”
On Tuesday, January 17, as Temi and I took some time off to celebrate our wedding anniversary and her birthday, we couldn’t help thinking about the events of the days just before the 17th. Nigeria came to a standstill. Many were upset that issues such as Boko Haram’s continued attacks were not met with as much anger as Abuja’s rude hand that touched pockets but I am of the opinion that many factors – including insecurity, government waste (which still continues) and government’s insensitive lie about fuel subsidies – led to the commencement of the protests.
There were many people who came to Ojota because they wanted N65 or nothing, but there were tens of thousands who could afford any pump price increase but hoped Nigeria could use the reset button to correct the errors of Abuja, especially around the cost of government. There were as many reasons as people at Ojota, but the direction of the various shades of anger was clear. Have we learnt from the experience? History will judge. But memories linger.
Each time I use the Ojota route and see the Gani Fawehinmi Freedom Park again, I remember the days when freedom came calling. Democracy is work in progress, and freedom is not a static destination. In fact, eternal vigilance is the price of liberty. One freedom-to-express after another, the unfair relationship between the governed and the governing will get better as citizens learn to go to the polls with their eyes open and senses intact. I remember Ojota, with pride.
This piece appeared in the July edition of Y! Magazine.