Thursday, January 19, 2012

The Truth Behind the Noise

Welcome to 2012, everyone. First, I must apologise for my long absence last year. Things have been tough for the girl – but she’s looking ahead to brighter days. It may be a positive self deception, but it helps me sleep at night.

So as you may or may not know, for the first few weeks of the year, Nigeria was rocked by a series of protests sparked by the removal of government subsidies for petroleum. Overnight, the prices of fuel, food, and transportation more than doubled and the National Labour Congress called a nationwide strike which paralysed the country for nearly two weeks.

Thousands of people took to the streets across the country. Friends and acquaintances eagerly joined – one person I know camped out in front of the National Assembly for days screaming herself hoarse. For a week, I was glued to the news channels, following the many breathless rumours of impending societal collapse. Yet, something bothered me about all this agitation.

It wasn’t that it was unjustified. The government used a flimsy pretext and very shaky economic arguments to raise the cost of living on a people who mostly live in poverty while doling out millions in luxuries to themselves. It was more than time that people rise up in protest. What bothered me was not the why, but the how of it.

Maybe it was just me, but the protests smacked of populist manipulation. I watched half-literate protesters who, when asked why they were protesting, were unable to articulate their positions. That’s not surprising. People are angry – tired of a government that keeps making life more difficult for them – but because most Nigerians are poorly-educated and ill-informed, many had no idea what, specifically, they were protesting against.

And this is what the leadership of the Nigerian labour movement used to its advantage. That’s why they called off the strike after getting only minimal concessions from the government – the price is now N97 per litre instead of N65 – and securing cushy government appointments for top members.

In the meantime, the government’s official fuel price is not being uniformly enforced and prices of other commodities have yet to go down. In this country, once prices are raised, expect them to stay that way.

But what really angered me about this strike was how a certain sector of the Nigerian population – those well-heeled children of our political and social class – were all too happy to jump on the protest bandwagon. I watched in disbelief as young people driving shiny imported cars, dressed in expensive “protest chic” outfits and spent the day taking pictures of themselves with their Blackberry phones at various protest sites.

This wasn’t about anger for these people, for many of them, it was a fun day out. Protest is the “in thing” and they didn’t want to be left out. At the end of the day it wouldn’t matter if fuel ended up costing as much as N200 because they can afford it. These people live in a social media echo chamber – accessible to a small minority mostly located in the big cities of Lagos and Abuja – where they have been lulled into thinking that they’re making a difference. They aren’t. Not really.

To me, there is a profound disconnect with reality when a group of people believes that they are on the forefront of curing the nation while simultaneously benefitting from the very disease that caused all this woe in the first place.They protest vigorously against corrupt leaders while at the same time jockeying for a place at their table and happily accepting any oil money that filters down to them. It is a hypocrisy of the highest order – and they don’t even realise they are doing it.

I am convinced that there is a rot eating away at our society, destroying us from the outside in. This rot of corruption has seeped deep into our consciousness. I see it in the way we treat ourselves and each other. I see it in the way we value material wealth over merit or moral character. It’s like we live in a fishbowl that has grown so murky with grime for so long that we can’t remember what it was like when the water was clean.

And rushing out to express our anger is only one step towards fixing it. More than ethnicity and religion, Nigeria is divided between the haves and the have-nots – and these two groups don’t live in the same reality. Corruption helps to fuel this divide because it makes us selfish. We want to get as much as we can as quickly as we can when the opportunity presents itself – and damn the other guy. This means that those who have the most power to change the system have the least incentive to do so, they will happily criticise the system they are benefitting from.

That is not to say there aren’t true reformers working to effect genuine change in the country, but they are few and far between. Some civil society activists have called for continued protests, but no one has really heeded them.  Plus, there are soldiers roaming the streets of Lagos to ensure that no real move toward change takes place without a fight.

So yeah, the protests are over and we are all going back to business as usual. Tomorrow when the government does something that’s selfish, short-sighted and destructive, you can be sure that the internet activists will be there to “protest,” but whether this will really change anything is anyone’s guess.

Perhaps living in Nigeria has made me cynical, but me, I’m not going to hold my breath.