It was May 1989. I think it must have been on the 24th of May or so. I remember it was a few days to my birthday. I was in my final year at the University of Benin. It was in the hey days of the Ibrahim BadamosiBabangida regime. The Structural Adjustment Programme had just been introduced, and Nigerians were struggling with the logic of belt tightening and its attendant pain in the midst of what everyone believed should be plenty. The hunger and anger were palpable.
News was making the rounds that Ebony Magazine had published a story alleging that Ibrahim Babangida, Nigeria’s president, was stupendously rich.
In a handbill, which was very widely circulated across the nation, Ebony Magazine was reported to have purportedly accused Babangida of stashing Nigeria’s wealth in his private accounts abroad. He was also accused to have sent his children to study in Zurich, Switzerland, while his wife allegedly owned a massive business empire abroad. All of this at a time when he was asking the nation to “tighten its belt”.
The University of Benin had a vibrant Students’ Union Government as well as an active Academic Staff Union. It also was known to have some strong left leaning academics and a good number of Marxist or Marxist-leaning persons.OgagaIfowodo was Secretary General of the University of Benin Students Union,and was quite popular with the student population.
You couldn’t blame us. Ogaga is blessed with the gift of the garb, apart from the fact that he was and still is a great writer. Ogaga knows how to weave words into animate objects. Add to that the fact that something about Uniben made us rebels with a cause. It didn’t matter to which group you belonged, whether the Christian Union or the PalmwineDrinkards Club or the Sigma Club, Uniben students just were non conformists. Period. Now with the benefit of hindsight, I wonder if there had been something in our water?
Anyway, so off we marched. In those days, we marched because we believed in a cause. Rightly or wrongly, we marched with commitment. Nobody needed to mobilize us. No government official or opposition party member needed to give us transport or ‘pure water’. We believed, and so we marched. At our cost and at our own risk.
I remember preparing food in my room in Hall 1 ahead of the protest so that when we returned there would be nourishment, and did they deal my pot a hard blow. Everyone sacrificed something.
It was an anathema for government officials or politicians to be part of the protest even remotely. Even an innocent affiliation or seeming support for government in those days could earn one dire results.
Like the case of Mike Uyi at the University of Ibadan the day before the Benin riots.
On May 23, a students’ parliamentary meeting was disrupted at the University when someone shot a teargas canister sending everyone scampering for safety. Before the disruption, the students had gathered to discuss a case of Mike Uyi, alleged to have been a student in the faculty of education for 10 years. In those days, there were rumors of certain students being paid agents of government and staff of the SSS on campus, and God help you if students had reason to suspect you in this wise. Such was Uyi’s case.
I cannot tell now if they were right or wrong, but suffice it to say that the students said Uyi was an agent of the State Security Service (SSS), and for that reason asked that the school authorities expel him. Theyinsisted thathe must have been the brain behind the disruption of their meeting. At this time, Uyi was the national president of Students Peace Movement of Nigeria and also the leader of another group known as Peace Commando. The students marched to Uyi’s room at Sultan Bello Hall, packed out his property andburnt every item. Hours after the incident, the students’ affairs officer of the university wrote a query to the Students Union, on the burning of Uyi’s property. The Union replied the query and gave the authorities a 72-hour ultimatum to expel Uyi or face dire consequences.
Protests are good. They keep government on its toes. They help the populace participate and ideally should lead to accountability and good governance. That is the ideal.
But protests must have a theme. They must also have a goal and clearly-defined outcomes. A protest is not a tea party nor is it playing house. When a protest doesn’t articulate clear goals and expected outcomes, it may end up as a mere storm in a teacup serving no one, and yielding little.
As the memories flood back, I ask myself if we have made progress in our nationhood and citizenship. I wonder if our democracy is in danger of a shipwreck or if, per adventure, we might be able to navigate out of the treacherous and murky waters of self-serving propaganda.
It is possible, and it must be that there is a higher goal we can and must seek as citizens.
It is certain that the responsibility to save our nation and ourselves lies in our own hands. As Cassius said in Shakespeare’s Julius Ceaser, “the fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars but in ourselves that we are underlings,” and might I add, tossed up and down by every wave of propaganda.