Dissent of the Depressed

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On Monday, the economically distressed masses of Nigeria – home and abroad – took to the streets to protest the failure of the President Muhammadu Buhari administration to effectively tackle the excruciating living conditions in the country. Gboyega Akinsanmi reports on the marches

On March 31, 2015, President Muhammadu Buhari was declared winner of the 2015 presidential election. For many Nigerians, it was as if a saviour had come. Three reasons explained Buhari’s messianic perception. First, the former President Goodluck Jonathan administration had incurred public disapproval due to its failure to defeat the Boko Haram insurgency and rescue the abducted Chibok girls.

Similarly, the Jonathan administration had become synonymous with corruption and impunity, which former chairman of National Human Rights Commission, Dr. Chidi Odinkalu, said was then a huge national burden. Besides, Nigeria was then plagued by acute infrastructure deficit, especially in the oil, power and transport sectors, which many citizens believed Jonathan lacked the political will to resolve.

Disappointment
But 20 months after Jonathan relinquished power, Buhari’s public approval has dropped significantly owing to his failing to address the deepening economic crisis for which the previous administration incurred the wrath of the masses. Like the 2012 protests, Nigerians came out last week from Oyo to Abuja, Osun to Enugu, Delta to Kano and Lagos to London, among other places, to protest against what they perceived to be the administration’s misgovernace that caused so much hunger and penury among the masses.

Expectedly, the Nigeria Police banned the #IStandWithNigeria protest just after a hip-hop star, Mr. Innocent Idibia, unveiled his plan to lead a nationwide protest on February 5. Citing threat to his life, Idibia dropped the plan about 24 hours to the protest. But Idibia’s decision did not stop civil society groups – Enough is Enough and One Voice Nigeria – from embarking on the nationwide protest.

Emboldened by sections 39 and 40 of the 1999 Constitution, Nigerians from all walks of life defied the police order and took to the streets to protest poor governance and the economic policies of the federal government. Despite extensive public approval Buhari enjoyed before and after his election, the groups believed the Buhari administration had failed to fulfill electoral promises he made to Nigerians.

Justification
For the ruling All Progressives Congress, however, there was no reason for the protests. But credible economic indices tend to justify the decision of the masses to protest what they described as the failure of the ruling party to bring about change 20 months after it came to power. Rather than evolving pro-people policies, they alleged, the government kept blaming the previous administrations.

But at the time Buhari assumed office, according to the National Bureau of Statistics, Nigeria did not enter into recession until the first quarter of 2016. But the economy had shrunk repeatedly since Buhari took charge. Its growth slowed down by 2.84 per cent in the third quarter of 2015 and by 2.11 per cent in the last quarter of the same year. By the first quarter of 2016, it slid by 0.36 per cent.

Effectively, in the second quarter of 2016, Nigeria entered into recession with a 2.06 per cent contraction. Similarly, an NBS report showed that the country’s national economy further contracted by 2.24 per cent in the third quarter of 2016. Given the unabated foreign exchange crisis, there are fears that the economic conditions may become worse.

Since Nigeria slid into economic recession mid-2016, its story has not largely been the same. From 9.6 per cent in January 2016, the NBS reported, inflation rose to 18.55 per cent by December 2016. Likewise, unemployment surged to 13.9 per cent largely due to record job losses and relocation of some companies, which economists ascribed to the economic policies of the Buhari administration.

Food prices rose by at least 75 per cent, though it differed state by state. Also, the civil society groups claimed the cost of living “is already unbearable under the Buhari administration.” Likewise, according to the NBS, the country’s foreign direct investments fell by 53 per cent in 2016. By inference, the fall suggests a loss of investors’ confidence in the country.

Failed Promises
For Nigerians, the Buhari administration is another case of failed promises, which Odinkalu argued, had become “recurrent in the last 60 years of our statehood.” One after the other, Odinkalu explained the failure of the previous administrations to ensure stable power supply, revamp decrepit infrastructure, create opportunities for the youths and end the regime of corruption and impunity.

Odinkalu cited the failure of Buhari to fight dispassionately and fearlessly. He said the Buhari administration came into power to fight corruption. Yet, he said next to the president “is the man now known as the Grass Cutter General of the Federation. Nothing has been done about the Secretary to Government of the Federation, Mr. Babachir Lawal. Fire the SGF! Fire the grass cutter!!”
He explained, “It was because he promised a lot. Then, Buhari got into power and he has never addressed us. When he wants to talk to us, he gets into a plane; travels abroad and starts gossiping about us. Are we so useless that our president cannot address us? Are we so idiotic that our president cannot tell us that things are hard?”

Odinkalu pointed out a statement the Minister of Works, Power and Housing, Mr. Babatunde Fashola, made before the 2015 elections. Fashola had then said a serious administration could fix power within six months. But after 20 months in office, Odinkalu said there “is still darkness in the land. Poverty is getting worse. We cannot buy bread. We cannot buy food. And we cannot find jobs.”

For Nigerians, also, the protest was no doubt a testament to the public disapproval of the Buhari administration and the ruling party. In Lagos, for instance, the national coordinator of Human Rights Writers Association of Nigeria, Mr. Emmanuel Onwubiko, said the protest was an excellent expression of the people’s determination “to change a system that is not working.”

Onwubiko lamented the failing economy, which he said, had been unduly regulated. He decried the dysfunctional political climate, which he believed, “has not been working. Nigerians, no matter how little they are in number, have come out to be heard by the government and tell it that enough is enough.” He presented major demands, which he said, formed the core reasons for the protest.

As Onwubiko put it, the demands are, “We want transparency in governance. We want to know how much the states are getting. We want to know what happened to the bailout funds. We want to know how much the Federal Inland Revenue Service is collecting. We want to know how much the Nigeria Customs Service made. We want to know how much the Nigeria National Petroleum Company is making. And we want to know how our government is spending it.”

Likewise, a leading actor for the Bring Back Our Girls Group, Mrs. Aisha Yesufu, said the purpose of the protest was “to demand for good governance. Citizens are tired of the state of affairs in the country. A lot of people are hungry.” In Ibadan, the labour groups, student bodies and civil society groups catalogued the woes of the suffering masses and demanded good governance.

Hope
APC national leader, Asiwaju Bola Tinubu, admitted the harsh economic conditions, which he acknowledged the people “are currently facing in all parts of the country.” However, Tinubu defended the Buhari administration. He pointed out that the damage of the last 18 years “cannot be fixed or reversed overnight. Protests will not solve the problems our people are facing.”

Tinubu also admitted that the APC government was a “product of protest,” which ended the rule of the Peoples Democratic Party in 2015. But he appealed for understanding and patience. He assured the gathering of protesters at his Bourdillon home that what the people “are going through now will be resolved. We are going through the historic phase of a country that is promising.”

In every political situation, the national leader explained that there “are always the twists and turns. It cannot be straight all the time. We are all victims. We are carrying placards… I have been a placard carrier since when? This government is a product of protest. But there is a leadership in the land. And we have to live with that for now. Protest will not solve the problem. Will it?”

Tinubu said solution “is in the offing.” But he emphasised responsiveness, re-planning and constructive engagement. He said, “We do not deny the fact that Nigerians are suffering and have the right to protest, but the party and economy must be returned to shape. We are two years into this administration. To make those changes effectively, we have to be patient.”

Acting President Yemi Osinbajo said the federal government heard the protesters “loud and clear.” He said, “We will not relent in its efforts to change the country for the better.” Osinbajo claimed the deterioration of the years gone by “cannot be reversed overnight. We are taking our duty of reviving and setting the economy on the right path seriously.”

Osinbajo admitted that Nigeria “is indeed in a very precarious situation.” Nevertheless, he said the Buhari administration “is not unaware of the sufferings of citizens in the country. We know we are in a serious economic situation. The president is particularly concerned about the conditions of the common man. We hear you loud and clear, and we are determined to turn around the economy.”

But Osinbajo argued that the decades of deterioration “cannot be reversed overnight.” But he acknowledged the fact that Nigerians “have a right to demand for a better economy,” to which he said the Buhari administration “is committed.” In the last 20 months, ‎he said the government had intervened three times “to enable states have enough resources to pay salaries.”

The acting president cited the refund from the Paris Club, which he said, had been given to the states “to cushion the effects of economic hardship. These are funds that the federal government owed the states since 2005.” He cited N500 billion social intervention fund, which he said, was being injected into the economy gradually “to pay N5, 000 a month to the poorest citizens; execute home-grown feeding programme and provide credit facilities to 1.6 million traders and artisans.”