I want to wear the accolade of ‘Protester-in-Chief’, PIC. All of life is one large protest. Generally, we seek the good and avoid evil. We want to drown evil with a lot of good: we spend our time doing good avoiding evil in whatever form it comes to us. In the process, we do not think of evil as such in our actions: that would not be proactive. Evil has no space in our character. From time to time we fail, and something untoward enters in our thoughts which may gain control of our soul. For a while we consider evil as something acceptable, even mellifluous. If we are not careful, we begin to take pleasure in our new-found delights and soon swoon into the depths of corruption. With faith, with determination, with resolve, we come back to our true self and pursue the good.
We wonder, where is Nigeria headed to – to the rocks of transformed oil blocks, to forlorn forests of our ancestors of bye-gone years, or to a future to fulfil our yearning destiny? I live in the village of my fathers and I tell those I often chastise just how lucky they are: that if you have no one who corrects you, keeps you on your toes, tells you where you were wrong, and shows you the light, you are a most unfortunate person. I am not convinced they understand me. But it was not always like this. Corrections make the person. Their personality can be read off a book of the corrections they have received and to what measure they have put them to good effect. We may ask, in what ways has government put to use the corrections they have received through protests?
The great French painter Eugene Delacriox’s masterpiece, Liberty Guiding the People depicts a beautiful woman, her bosom bare, waving the French flag leading an army of revolutionists. I interpreted this painting to mean, women give birth to revolutions, protests, leading to order in society. In colonial times, the imperialists did as they wished, protest or no protest. In 1929 what is described as Women’s Market Rebellion, was touched off by imposition of direct taxation on women and the introduction of new local courts especially of warrant chiefs who, as they saw it, danced to the obnoxious tunes of the colonialists. Women all the way in Calabar, Opobo, Umuahia, Owerri organised themselves in their thousands into a formidable fighting force from village to village, town to town, in protest, marching through forests to the colonial masters. In all, 51 women and 1 man were killed over the period of November to December 1929. But they had won the fight: women’s taxation was abolished.
In 1949, the coal miners of Iva Valley, Enugu, who were poorly paid, demanded salary increases and better conditions of service. Rather than respond positively, the colonial masters wantonly massacred many of them. The shooting led to mass protests of Nigerians, the fight for independence was still in its infancy but the killings provided fodder for nationalists in the fierce struggle for independence. The Zikist Movement, 1946-50, a youth wing of NCNC, of young indefatigable revolutionaries, including Anthony Enahoro, Fred Anyiam, Oged Macaulay, Raji Abdallah, Osita Agwuna and Mokwugo Okoye, stood out to fight for the beleaguered Nigerians who had no voice, calling on them to mobilise and be ready to run their own government according to their own designs. The colonial masters, who saw this as an affront and a threat, charged them to court for sedition. They were found guilty and sentenced to fines or imprisonment or both. In 1950, the Movement was proscribed. But it was clear: protest is personality.
Protests pave the way of victory for many who bare their teeth ready to bite off the ears and tongues and lips of their apparent oppressors. Will we ever forget Mrs. Funmilayo Ransom-Kuti. She formed an organisation of over 20,000 individuals, most of them women. She rallied them against price controls which hurt women merchants. In 1949, she led a protest against the Alake of Egbaland, alleging abuse of authority by the Oba who had been granted authority by the colonial government to collect taxes. He subsequently relinquished his crown for a time due to the protest. Mrs. Ransom-Kuti successfully saw the abolition of separate taxes for women. Later, her children, in particular Fela and Beko, continued in her noble tradition of protests and defiance of military authorities. In 1978, she was thrown from a second-floor window when Fela’s house, Kalakuta Republic, was stormed by armed military personnel. She lapsed into a coma in February 1978 and died on 13 April, 1978 as a result of the injuries. She taught us with her life: Protest is Freedom; Protest is Character; Protest is Personality.
We have to learn to suffer that we may be winners in the end. The University College, Ibadan, was as excellent as they come in all things considered worthy for human wellbeing, particularly in knowledge and character. When in 1957, fences erected on the ground floors of the halls were broken, an unheard-of precedence of mountainous proportions was set in Nigeria’s bruised library of student protests. Since its foundation in 1948, this would be the first time the students would fiercely protest against a matter they found gruesomely offensive to their refinement and grandeur as the best of Nigeria. We were rusticated and returned to College about six weeks later. We all wrote individually to obey all College rules and regulations.
During the 1960/61 academic year, the National Union of Nigerian Students, NUNS, under the leadership of Osita Okeke, the president, marched on The House of Representatives, Lagos, demanding the abrogation of the Anglo-Nigerian Defence Pact waiting to be passed into law. The students gained access to parliament, disrupted the meetings, and took away some vital files. The police unrelentingly descended on them and dealt them heavy blows. Osita returned to Kuti Hall, his head wrapped in bloody bandages, his shirt and pants torn. He wore them sagaciously with the air of a conquering knight. The pact was suspended in the meantime. In 1961, the University College Ibadan Students Union, under the presidency of Abidoye Babalola, returned to Parliament in Lagos and finally gave the Anglo-Nigerian Defence Pact a final burial, marked by pandemonium in the chambers, police rough-handling of students who returned with bruised faces and broken noses. Students had proudly and courageously shown their mettle. Protest is personality.
Protests define the person. On the night of April 14-15, 2014, 276 mostly Christian female students were kidnapped from the secondary school in Chibok in Bornu State, the responsibility for which was claimed by Boko Haram insurgents. Swiftly, Oby Ezekwesili, a former Vice-President of the World Bank and former Minister of Education, swung into action with an organisation Bring Back Our Girls (BBOG), with Aisha Yesufu as co-chair, in determined and sustained protest of the kidnapping. Every day, BBOG led a resolute protest at the Unity Fountain across from Transcorp Hotel, Abuja. To date, 107 had been released, 112 still missing, 57 having escaped. To drive home her message of fighting for the soul of Nigeria, Ezekwesili announced she would run as the presidential candidate of Allied Congress Party of Nigeria in the 2019 elections. Unfortunately, she could not bring her dreams to fruition as she had to withdraw from the election on 24 January 2019.
We have Nelson Mandela protesting apartheid and suffering long solitary confinement in defiance of the ignoble laws and perpetration of injustice and murders on his people. He stands taller than most mortals of the twentieth century. And there is Steve Biko who was shot and killed in Soweto. Protest is personality. Will we ever forget Tai Solarin, master protester of all time, who was severally jailed for criticising the military for human rights abuse? In 1983, he was arrested in his home and held in prison, after his release had been ordered by a Lagos High Court judge. Not only was he not released he was transferred to Maidugiri prison in May and held for several months before he was allowed to go home. Before this, in 1971, we have the infamous, deleterious and obnoxious killing of Kunle Adepoju a student at University of Ibadan when students of Nnamdi Azikiwe Hall were protesting the poor conditions of their meals. Recently, Premium Times of 10 September 2020 had a story that journalists from Premium Times, Sahara Reporters, Cable TV and Galaxy TV were attacked and arrested for covering protests over hikes in fuel prices and electricity and the deregistration of their party, Social Party of Nigeria. The Supreme Court on 14 August 2014 gave a unanimous landmark ruling in a case brought by Gladys Ada Ukeje upholding the rights of a female child to the inheritance of her late father’s estate. Ms. Gladys in going to the courts to protest an age-old tradition, defines her personality.
In her long history as an independent nation of six decades, Nigeria has witnessed an apparently unaccounted number of protests. Each time, it had seemed that the people had learnt one lesson or two in the process. As for the government, whether it learns anything remains a fact yet to be ascertained. Perhaps if government duly learns its lessons from the message drummed home to her through protests, the Nigerian polity could have had more reasons to smile today. It would have looked back to see how many steps it took right due to its willingness and openness to learn from the people. Where government had often failed to yield to protests, it could also look back to see the missteps recorded on account of it lack of clarity, sincerity and the will to do. A lot of times, government perhaps had said nowhere it out to have said yes, only because it paid attention to the personalities leading the protests rather than the merits of the issues being protested.
Prof. Mark Nwagwu
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