Of citizenship, protests and responsibilityWritten by Ibim Semenitari
“Protests are good. They keep government on its toes. They help the populace participate and ideally should lead to accountability and good governance. That is the ideal. But protests must have a theme. They must also have a goal and clearly defined outcomes. A protest is not a tea party nor is it playing house. When a protest doesn't articulate clear goals and expected outcomes it may end up as a mere storm in a teacup serving no one and yielding little.”
It was May 1989. I think it must have been on the 24th of May or so. I remember it was a few days to my birthday. I was in my final year at the University of Benin. It was in the hey days of the Ibrahim Badamosi Babangida regime. The Structural Adjustment Programme had just been introduced and Nigerians were struggling with the logic of belt tightening and its attendant pain in the midst of what everyone believed should be plenty. The hunger and anger were palpable.
I was in my final year at the University of Benin at the time. News was making the rounds that Ebony magazine had published a story alleging that Ibrahim Babangida, Nigeria’s president, was stupendously rich. In a handbill which was very widely circulated across the nation, Ebony magazine was reported to have purportedly accused Babangida of stashing Nigeria’s wealth in his private accounts abroad. He was also accused to have sent his children to study in Zurich, Switzerland while his wife allegedly owned a massive business empire abroad. All of this at a time when he was asking the nation to “tighten its belt”
The University of Benin had a vibrant Students’ Union Government as well as an active Academic Staff Union. It also was known to have some strong left leaning academics and a good number of Marxist or Marxist leaning persons. Ogaga Ifowodo was Secretary General of the University of Benin Students Union and was quite popular with the student population. You couldn't blame us. Ogaga is blessed with the gift of the garb, apart from the fact that he was and still is a great writer. Ogaga knows how to weave words into animate objects. Add to that to the fact that something about Uniben made us rebels with a cause. It didn't matter to which group you belonged, whether the Christian Union or the Palmwine Drinkards Club or the Sigma Club, Uniben students just were non conformists. Period! Now with the benefit of hindsight, I wonder if there had been something in our water.
Anyway May 24th was one of those days. The build-up was palpable. It was planned to be a mass action across all campuses but somehow not everyone climbed on the bandwagon at the same time. We were going to march against impunity and the temerity of government to ask us to tighten our belts while they lived large. Mba nu, we no go gree. So off we marched through the streets of Benin and up to the military administrator, then Col. Tunde Ogbeha.
My guardian, Prof. Johnson Ekundayo, and his wife (God bless their awesome souls), had sent Ema to go looking for me. They didn't want me out on the road, but for where, I was already out before anyone could shout Ibim. This was about our future and we just wouldn't sit back and not take action.
But let me back track. Up till time, no one had seen this copy of the Ebony magazine upon which we based our protest. No one had even seen a photocopy of it, but the propaganda had taken on a life of its own and even the most intelligent of us got carried away. I still remember how the very respected Tai Solarin was also sucked in by the same story. He it was who purportedly had proof of the said magazine. Later on, Solarin told reporters that he only repeated what he was told was published by the magazine. Talk about the dangers of propaganda!
Anyway, so off we marched. In those days we marched because we believed in a cause. Rightly or wrongly we marched with commitment. Nobody needed to mobilize us. No government official or opposition party member needed to give us transport or sachet(pure) water. We believed and so we marched. At our cost and at our own risk. I remember preparing food in my room in Hall 1 ahead of the protest so that when we returned there would be nourishment, and did they deal my pot a hard blow? Everyone sacrificed something. It was an anathema for government officials or politicians to be part of a protest even remotely. Even an innocent affiliation or seeming support for government in those days could earn one dire results.
Like the case of Mike Uyi at the University of Ibadan the day before the Benin riots.
On May 23, a students’ parliamentary meeting was disrupted at the University when someone shot a teargas canister sending everyone scampering for safety. Before the disruption, the students had gathered to discuss a case of Mike Uyi, alleged to have been a student in the faculty of education for 10 years. In those days there were rumours of certain students being paid agents of government and staff of the SSS on campus and God help you if students had reason to suspect you in this wise. Such was Uyi’s case. I cannot tell now if they were right or wrong but suffice it to say that the students said Uyi was an agent of State Security Service (SSS) and for that reason asked that the school authorities expel him. They insisted that he must have been the brain behind the disruption of their meeting. At this time, Uyi was the national president of Students Peace Movement of Nigeria and also, the leader of another group known as Peace Commando. The students marched to Uyi’s room at Sultan Bello Hall, packed out his property and burnt every item. Hours after the incident, the students’ affairs officer of the university wrote a query to the students union, on the burning of Uyi’s property. The Union replied the query and gave the authorities a 72-hour ultimatum to expel Uyi or face dire consequences.
Those were the days when according to Captain Elechi Amadi “men were men and women were won by those who deserved them”.
I thought about the May SAP riots last week Monday as the nation reverberated with protests.
Protests are good. They keep government on its toes. They help the populace participate and ideally should lead to accountability and good governance. That is the ideal.
But protests must have a theme. They must also have a goal and clearly defined outcomes. A protest is not a tea party nor is it playing house. When a protest doesn't articulate clear goals and expected outcomes it may end up as a mere storm in a teacup serving no one and yielding little.
Citizenship is a responsibility and good citizens insist that their government act responsibly. Sometimes in an attempt to do that good citizens could get carried away and may even become victims of propaganda or in the case of the Ebony magazine story, fictitious tales. But that doesn't take away from them their right to speak and to be heard. It just means that as they grow older they learn to ask a few more questions and double-check the stories, like the students at the University of Lagos did when they received the same handbills in 1989. The SUG in Unilag agreed to protest but not until they had double-checked the allegations and done some fact finding. Unfortunately, however, government played into their hands by arraigning 95 students of the Lagos College of Education (LACOED) before an Apapa Magistrate’s Court. They were charged with the murder of two policemen during a riot embarked upon by the students a week earlier. But the students discovered that the said policemen were actually alive so this was a trumped up charge. Even worse, the accused 95 students were not admitted to bail by the magistrate, who ordered them to be remanded in prison custody till the following month. It was the LACOED ‘95 trial that became the catalyst that made the UNILAG students to join in the mass riot which was later branded ‘the anti-SAP riot’.
As the memories flood back I ask myself if we have made progress in our nationhood and citizenship. I wonder if our democracy is in danger of a shipwreck or if per adventure we might be able to navigate out of the treacherous and murky waters of self-serving propaganda. It is possible and it must be that there is a higher goal we can and must seek as citizens. It is certain that the responsibility to save our nation and ourselves lies in our own hands. As Cassius said in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, “the fault dear Brutus is not is our stars but in ourselves that we are underlings,” and might I add, tossed up and down by every wave of propaganda.