But Where Shall We Occupy?

When the ‘Occupy Movement’ began with protesters venting complaints about the economy in a New York City park about four weeks ago, only few people could have predicted the current reverberations across the globe. Today, from London to Tokyo, people are massing to protest the widening gap between the affluent and the poor of their societies while denouncing corporate greed and the failure of their governments to decisively intervene on behalf of the people. Whatever may be the motivation for what is fast becoming a global winter of discontent, what is not in doubt is that too many people are frustrated by their economic circumstances and they are finding a sort of release in the streets.

Even in the United States where it started, there is no specific agenda driving the Movement that has no clear leader but while it is still too early in the day to ascertain what the Occupiers actually stand for but it is increasingly becoming clear that the real culprit is government. The sentiment on the street in most countries is that government is no longer working for the people, that it has been hijacked by vested interests and that those at the helms of affairs do not care about the plights of the downtrodden.

It goes without saying that we have our frustrations here in Nigeria both with corporate greed and the corruption and inefficiency of government. In the last couple of years, so many people have been ruined with some sent to their early graves as a result of the activities of bankers who raised money from the Capital Market then converted it into personal use. While bankers entrusted with money looted the vaults, the unsuspecting investors were left short-changed. Against the background that we are running a rent-dependent economy, it’s very clear that in our own peculiar environment, there may really be no demarcation between the Private Sector and the Government. But we don’t even have to go that far as we can all see it in the fuel subsidy conundrum and the unholy alliance that leads to the nation paying out to a handful of people more than it invests in capital budget every year.

In my intervention on the issue last week, I used the metaphor of a couple that has a bedroom issue to deal with to argue for ending the fuel subsidy regime which, no matter their posturing, marketers and their collaborators in government don’t actually want. I got so many interesting reactions out of which I have carefully selected two published below. But one thing is very clear: Selling removal of subsidy is not an easy job. A senior professional colleague, Mr Bisi Olawunmi argued that while my position may make sense at least theoretically, “the lack of government credibility with regard to benefits from previous hikes impedes its acceptability. At least you entertained us with your beautiful prose.”

However, I was not writing to entertain. I am very worried about the future of our country as many people are, but what I fail to accept is cynicism and defeatism. I am sure that if they ever look beyond our shores, those in government will be saying to themselves that it cannot happen here. Surely, nobody is going to occupy Aso Rock or the National Assembly or any of our state government houses! That is the only way to explain why some top government functionaries will still be calling for more states (oil money to share!), and that also accounts for why there is no genuine intention to cut down on waste in government. But no one should be under any illusion about the state of our nation today: With many Nigerians at their tethers’ end, when the masses of our people are frustrated enough to really ‘Occupy’, I hope someone is clever enough to understand that they are not likely to do so with Twitter and Facebook.

Notwithstanding I am also mindful that even in these tough times, we should look beyond today. On Sunday, I learned a profound lesson while watching on television the flood in Thailand that killed several people and displaced hundreds of thousands. In the midst of the tragedy, a big alligator was rescued and so much effort was put into getting it back to its habitat. As I watched the drama, I commented: “If it were in Nigeria, that alligator would land in the pot.”

Then a friend sitting by my side replied: “That is because we care too much for what we will eat today that we hardly bother about tomorrow. Even in the midst of their difficulties, those poor people (in Thailand) are also aware that there are people coming after them. But in Nigeria, we are too much obsessed with the now.”
How true! I hope that in trying to fashion out solutions to our problems, we will also spare a thought for tomorrow.
• This piece was first published in THISDAY on 20th October 2011

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