Chika Unigwe on #OccupyNigeria


A key element of political struggles on the continent, is the role of diasporas. #OccupyNigeria has benefited from their input with protests in London and Brussels and through sites like #SaharaTV. In Europe, specifically Brussels, one of the key personalities has been novelist Chika Unigwe who has been living in Belgium for over thirteen years. Unigwe has been a remarkable presence in mainstream media, particularly in Europe, over the past two weeks, fronting Nigerian diaspora protests while feverishly linking back to ‘occupy protesters’ in Nigeria. We asked Unigwe about the visibility of artists and entertainers in #OccupyNigeria, what media she checks to keep up with the protests, who are the “dissatisfied young people,” what role do social media play, and how do political leaders (apart from “Badluck” Jonathan and his irritable finance minister) stand to benefit or lose from their stance on the protests.A charter member of the new generation of Nigerian writers — Unigwe’s second novel, “On Black Sisters’ Street,” was published in English in 2009 to good reception in the mainstream Western press. Back in Belgium, her 2005 novel De Feniks (The Phoenix) is marketed on her website as ‘the first book of fiction by a Flemish author of African origin.’*

You live in Belgium. You have made Belgium your home. How do you look at what is happening in Nigeria at the moment?

If home is where the heart is, then Nigeria is more of a home to me than Belgium where I have lived for over thirteen years. I’ve never been able to disengage form Nigeria, not mentally at least. What’s happening in Nigeria at the moment is a revolution of sorts, led by a generation that’s been let down, royally, by the government, and who feel that they have nothing else to lose.

The removal of the fuel subsidy (and its consequences) was the straw that broke the camel’s back but it’s not the only reason why people took to the streets to protest against a government that seemed increasingly blind to the sufferings of the common man. What the removal of the fuel subsidy did was to awaken Nigerians that the time to demand change was in the present, not in the future. Even those who did not know the finer details of the subsidy removal knew that they were suddenly paying two, three times more for commodities in the space of 24 hours. The protests gave everyone a chance to show, and to articulate their anger at the way the country was being run. The Occupy Nigeria protests were about asking for a more responsible government. They were about asking for greater accountability from our leaders.

Never before had Nigerians poured out all over the country, and in the diaspora as well, to protest against a government. Never before have Nigerians taken a huge interest in where and how the country’s wealth is being disbursed. Everyone knows the breakdown of the 2012 budget. Whereas before people felt distant from the ‘government’, many felt hopeless against this faceless ‘government’, now we, ordinary Nigerians, feel that we can have an impact. We feel that the street too has power. And hopefully we have awakened the government to that fact too.

Fronting the protests in images and reports we got to see on the web were artists and entertainers (musicians like Seun Kuti, Nollywood actors…) while international media were quick to publish op-eds by or to do interviews with Nigerian authors about Occupy Nigeria (Chimamanda Adichie in the NYT, Okey Ndibe for Sahara Reporters, Wole Soyinka on the BBC and Chinua Achebe in the CSM). How much ‘weight’ do these figures actually have in Nigeria, for “the common man,” as you refer to the protesters?

When I say the common man I am using it very loosely, and in essence very broadly too to define anyone outside of the government. Protests in Lagos had Funmi Iyanda, a celebrated documentary maker and social activist, Femi Falana, Seun Kuti and so on on the streets alongside market traders and mechanics. So these figures are also ‘common men’ and they have articulated our protest to the wider world. They have credibility in Nigeria as well regarded writers, and their pieces in international media supplement (and complement) the efforts of those on the streets. They go hand in hand. In a way they are ‘occupying’ too. And they ‘are’ occupying in the present tense as it’s still very much a part of us.

Your observation about the ‘present tense’ made me re-read Nkem Ifejika’s BBC piece. “This was [the dissatisfied young people’s] movement. While the unions were prepared to accept a compromise of 97 naira (about $0.60; £0.40) per litre, young people wanted much more.” Who are the “dissatisfied young people”? And how do they relate to the Unions?

I suppose what Nkem means by it being a “dissatisfied young people’s” movement is that it was spearheaded mainly by young people. The same young people who feel the most let down because through the Enough is Enough movement, they campaigned for Goodluck to take over while [former President] Yar Adua was ill (and when he eventually died). Goodluck is the first Nigerian president with a PhD. A lot of people were excited by this, particularly young people who saw in him the potential for a different kind of leadership.

The Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) and the occupiers have different goals as far as I can tell. The NLC’s focus was on reducing the fuel subsidy and once they reached a compromise with the government, they were willing to put an end to the strikes. It should be noted that the NLC also came on board only after the OccupyNigeria movement had started.

In another piece (for CNN), Tolu Ogunlesi briefly refers to the internet as providing “a platform for the accumulation and direction of the anger and frustration. While it may be true that the internet is currently being used only by a minority of Nigerians, it appears that that minority is more significant than we all assumed.” If it is only a minority using the internet, whose opinions about the protests are we reading in the popular social media? And again: who, then, are “the dissatisfied young people”? Does that “minority” reflect “the young people”? Is it a dissatisfied middle-class youth? Any-class of youth?

Whose opinions are we reading on social media? The opinion of those with access to computers and the internet. Cyber cafes are very popular in Nigeria and so I am wary of ascribing quantity to the group with access to social media. Don’t forget that for a very long time, cyber cafes in Nigeria have been notorious for being hang-out areas for (young) people involved in internet scams. Many of these people are not middle class.

However, the success of the Occupy Nigeria movement is that it managed to go beyond the cyber world. People with access to social media mobilized people without. Word was passed from ear to ear. I spoke to an acquaintance in Nigeria recently who has no access to a computer but who went out to protest because her neighbor recruited her. So even if those with access to social media are mostly middle class, the young people protesting on the streets come from every social strata. The anger, the very palpable anger on the streets is that of a generation united by a sense of betrayal by their government, rather than of a particular class of young people.

On that note: watching and reading up on #OccupyNigeria, I tend to gravitate to the local and international channels that get the most buzz. What are your sources to stay up-to-date on what is happening? Which websites, blogs, or papers are providing the best coverage?

Sources I’ve found useful (on twitter/facebook and from personal conversations) include (but are not limited to): Tolu Ogunlesi, Funmi Iyanda, Chude Jideonwo, Jeremy Weate, Elnathan John (I chat with him almost on a daily basis), Kayode Ogundamisi (who also has a blog), YNaija (and the blog), Nigerian online papers Sahara Reporters and UReports (atrocious grammar but mostly up to date) and Nigeria News Desk.

What do you make of Governor Babatunde Fashola (who is considered something of an exception among Nigerian political leaders) and his dealing with the angry protests?

Before now, Fashola was a popular governor. Yesterday there was a peaceful protest and protesters were dispersed by tear gas. Very, very unfortunate. However Fashola has denied that he asked for a deployment of soldiers to Lagos. A statement I find unusual. He also can’t claim not to know about the dispersal by the police in yesterday’s incident. How can a troop of soldiers occupy a city and the governor of the state say he has no hand in it? Either he is lying or Nigerians are living under a dictatorship.

With Fashola sending out mixed messages, who will be able to rise above the protests? Which Nigerian politicians should we be paying close attention to in the near future? In other words: where to from here?

This is one area I am very wary of speculating on. It is my feeling — and many people’s too — that some politicians are capitalizing on this, riding on the peoples’ dissatisfaction to worm their way into our good books. However I think that of all the opposition leaders, Pat Utomi who has been very active in the movement, and who was leading a group of other activists to protest against the deployment of troops in Lagos yesterday, has the most good will. Will that mean much in 2015? We shall have to wait and see.

*  In 2012, I think it’s fair to say there haven’t been published that many more books by Belgian ‘African’ authors apart from hers — there is the work by Nadia Dala and Rachida Lambrabet, but that’s pretty much it. We’ll write about this another day.

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