On Monday, hundreds took to the streets to demonstrate against a wide range of political and economic grievances with the government. They say this is just the start.
As the morning sun rose on the streets of Abuja this Monday, Ndi Kato put on a black t-shirt, grabbed a marker pen and piece of cardboard, and left home. She scribbled the words “For southern Kaduna stop the killing” on the makeshift placard and made her way to Unity Fountain in the heart of the capital.
Soon, the 27-year-old activist was surrounded by hundreds more people, many of them singing, chanting, and carrying a wide variety of signs. “Buhari: Is this the change you promised us?” read one placard, while another stated: “We are graduates, we have no job, no accommodation and no livelihood”.
Similar scenes were taking place simultaneously across other cities in Nigeria, including Lagos, Oyo, Benin, Uyo, and Port Harcourt. Tagged #IStandWithNigeria, the national protests were triggered by the ongoing economic crisis in the country, and demonstrators took the opportunity to air grievances, ranging from the rising cost of food, to lack of quality education, to unemployment, to ongoing corruption, to the erratic electricity supply and more.
“The country is in ruins,” said Kato. “Nothing is going right. There is a lot of injustice and extrajudicial murders.”
Omowunmi Afolabi, a management consultant based in Lagos, explained: “I joined this protest because I represent the voice of everyday Nigerians whose reality have been distorted.”
— Yemie Fasipe (@YemieFash) February 6, 2017
— Basil (@basilabia) February 6, 2017
“The government is making life more difficult”
President Muhammadu Buhari took office in June 2015, elected on a wave of optimism and promising to tackle insecurity, endemic corruption and power shortages head on. But nearly two years on, many Nigerians have lost confidence in his administration.
Last year, Africa’s second largest economy slipped into a recession for the first time in over 20 years. And inflation reached an 11-year high of nearly 19%.
A major reason behind Nigeria’s economic problems is the slump in global oil prices and the slowdown in production due to attacks on pipelines by militant groups in the Niger Delta region. Nigeria relies on crude oil for almost 70% of government income.
But several analysts also argue that the government exacerbated the situation. In particular, many point to the administration’s delays in devaluing the naira, which left many businesses struggling to get foreign currency to pay for imports.
This has had severe knock-on effects for many Nigerians. For example, Nathan Onu, a building engineer in Abuja, says he joined Monday’s protest because he believes “the government is making life more difficult”.
“I have not built for anyone since March last year,” he said. “Drive round Abuja, you hardly see any building projects going on. People are looking for food not building. As of a result…my job suffers and when it suffers the resultant effect is on my family.”
“A tweet is not what we want”
President Buhari has been in the UK on medical leave for over two weeks now. He was expected back on Monday, but extended his absence to await the result of tests, though what the medical checks are for remains hidden from the public.
This means that Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo is the acting head-of-state, and on 6 February, he responded to the #IStandWithNigeria protests in a series of tweets.
To those who are protesting, WE HEAR YOU loud and clear.
— Prof Yemi Osinbajo (@ProfOsinbajo) February 6, 2017
You deserve a decent life and and we are working night and day to make life easier.
— Prof Yemi Osinbajo (@ProfOsinbajo) February 6, 2017
“To those who are protesting, WE HEAR YOU loud and clear,” he began on the social media platform. “To those who are on the streets protesting the economic situation & those who are not, but feel the pain of economic hardship, we hear you”, he went on, adding: “You deserve a decent life and and [sic] we are working night and day to make life easier.”
Some protesters may have been heartened that their demands were being listened to. But others such as Afolabi were unmoved. “A tweet is not what we want from the presidency. We need a national address showing us a roadmap out of this mess,” he said.
On Monday, there had been some concerns that the demonstration would not happen after the Nigerian musician Innocent Idibia (better known by his stage name 2face), who had originally initiated the protest, cancelled the march citing fears over security.
But nevertheless, hundreds of protesters took it upon themselves to march in several cities around the country. And it seems that this is just the start.
Enough is Enough, a coalition of young Nigerians demanding good governance, has called for further demonstrations if the government doesn’t address the issues raised by the protests. Meanwhile, the Nigeria Labour Congress and Trade Union Congress announced that they will protest in Lagos and Abuja tomorrow on 9 February. The two trade unions said they will work together to organise a “National Day of Action Against Corruption and for Good Governance”.
Further protests have also been mooted. For instance, Chidi Odinkalu, a former chairman of the National Human Rights Commission who attended the Monday protests, told African Arguments: “Today we are here with a yellow card. On May 29, if things are not better, we will come with a red card.”
For the #IStandWithNigeria protesters, the road ahead may be long. But the energy and success of Monday’s demonstrations has encouraged them to keep up the pressure on Buhari’s government as the economic crisis continues.
“I felt the power of the people,” said Kato. “Even young people who don’t care about political issues came out, and for the first time I felt like Nigerians were determined. We can change Nigeria and we are coming together to do just that.”
Linus Unah is a Nigerian journalist based in Enugu, Nigeria.