Late last year, we ran a piece on the documentary Fuelling Poverty, a 30 minute crash course on the politics, implications, and significance of #OccupyNigeria and the fuel subsidy protests of January 2012. Made by Ishaya Bako and backed by the Open Society Initiative for West Africa, the film deftly exposes Nigeria’s failed social contract. But now, though it apparently took the ruling PDP a while to become aware of it, it’s illegal to watch or disseminate. The National Film and Video Censors board, whose members are all appointed by Goodluck Jonathan, announced the ban last week. With the ruling party’s popularity falling fast, it seems Fuelling Poverty was too politically damaging for Nigerian citizens to see. Now, “all relevant national security agencies are on the alert” to ensure that the film is neither exhibited nor distributed.
The news is sadly consistent with the state of press freedom in Nigeria in the fifteen months since the fuel subsidy protests. In February and again this month, journalists who had written editorials critical of Goodluck Jonathan were harassed and intimidated. The government has shut down a radio station which criticized the way it handled a vaccination campaign. Now, as Jean-Paul Marthoz writes, “Editors think twice, reporters do not dig deeply, columnists choose words carefully.”
But in banning the film the government is brushing up against the 21st century limits to its jurisdiction. The decision to issue a ban suggests that the government doesn’t quite understand the internet; it’s possible that a ban will spread the video more rapidly (though as of writing, it had only 50,000 views). YouTube won’t take it down, and a touch of scandal can help media and information go viral. Here we are, for example, writing about it again.
Amidst hints that Goodluck Jonathan is considering another attempt to fully remove the subsidy, the government has a serious stake in the control information. Perhaps, even if it does not quite understand the internet, it understands how important it is to millions of cell phone users, increasingly using smart phones with data packages and internet access.
One year later, the long term impacts of #OccupyNigeria are unclear. Yes, the price of petrol is N97 a liter instead of N141, but none of the fundamental characteristics of the social contract have been addressed adequately. None of the more radical demands of the protests have gained traction. The government and business figures at the heart of the fuel subsidy scam continue to avoid serious consequences. Perhaps worst of all, the government has not reinvested the subsidy money in a way that has meaningfully affected the lives of the people.
However the people will not tolerate it forever. Though the same self-criticisms many Nigerians employed in explaining why there was no revolution in January 2012 applies today, another protest would at least endanger the PDP’s hold on the state. Knowing that, Goodluck Jonathan has ripped a page out of the playbook of his military predecessors, beginning to show the slightest signs of desperation.