Nigeria: A nation divided by hashtags, two protests with half momentum

For most Nigerians it has always been the worst of times; who seats on the Aso Rock throne seldom matters. When it does, it is to the extent that it reminds ordinary Nigerians about what they share with the President or Head of State—language, tribe, region, or a piece of the national cake. That common trait influences perception on where the buck of their suffering stops.

The national cake is mostly rents collected from crude oil in Niger Delta. A share in this cake—usually gained through political appointments, civil service employments, contracts or constituency projects —will shield recipients from suffering.

For a nation of 180 million, only few people can possibly be direct, or indirect, beneficiaries of Aso Rock’s largesse. Majority expect government policies to create, in that quintessential Nigerian phrase, the enabling environment for them to eke out a living; to thrive.

So if the Nigerian Labour Congress (NLC), the union for most workers, call for a protest against a particular policy or action of government, which negatively impacts on the quality of life, it is certain to get widespread support from across the country. Sometimes though, it is citizens themselves who begin the protest and NLC joins to provide leadership.

This was the case in 2012, with Occupy Nigeria Protests.

On the 1st of January 2012, former President Goodluck Jonathan’s led government removed the subsidy for fuel. As a result the pump price of petrol increased by over a 100% from N65 to N141.

The next day, Nigerians occupied the streets of Lagos, Abuja, Benin, Kano, Ilorin, in protest. By 4th January, NLC had issued an ultimatum saying it would go on strike indefinitely if the subsidy weren’t reinstated. After twelve days of protests, government changed its position, and the pump price was dropped.

Social media played a huge role in the success of the 2012 protests. It could be said that on social media, people spoke with one hashtag—#OccupyNigeria.

Three years after OccupyNigeria, elections held, the incumbent president lost.

Roughly two years into the tenure of President Muhamadu Buhari, the winner of the 2015 elections, popular Nigerian musician and entertainer Tuface Innocent Idibia, called for protests against the dire living conditions in Nigeria.

A day to the protest scheduled for 6th February, Mr Idibia opted out, saying the One Voice Nigeria protest is ‘‘under serious threat of hijack by interests not aligned with our ideals. The point I’m intent on making is not worth the life of any Nigerian—I mean, it is a fact motivated by the need to demand a better deal for the ordinary Nigerian’’.

The hashtags Tuface’s decision or the planned February protests spawned is indicative perhaps of how divisive the 2015 elections were. Also, it shows whether people think the buck stops at the current president’s table. And if it doesn’t stop at his table, why.

Two hashtags have emerged, #iStandwithNigeria and #iStandwithBuhari. They are in seeming opposition to each other.

Proponents of #iStandwithBuhari do not imply that they choose Buhari’s interests over that of Nigeria. They are simply reframing the issue. They are saying those on the #iStandwithNigeria side are not protesting the inability of Buhari’s led government to solve problems of poverty, unemployment, or the recession. They are saying the #iStandwithNigeria side is protesting something less painful, the loss of 2015 elections.

Indeed, some people on the #iStandwithNigeria made a point of saying they were protesting against economic conditions, not against the government. Economic conditions are a force majeur. It is unclear to whom this group directs its protests at. Is it to the government?

There are others, a majority perhaps, on the #iStandwithNigeria side, protesting the government’s handling of the economy and how negatively people have been impacted upon by it.

If the February 2017 protests do not gain traction, it is because of these divisions.

The economic conditions for which 2012 happened have not changed. A good case can be made, that the economy has even taken a turn for the worse.

So why is there apathy to the current protest? It is only the first day, is an optimist’s answer.

The pessimist would point to NLC’s failed strike in May 2016, which asked the government to revert the price of fuel back to N86.50.