Tag Archives: Saro-Wiwa

The Spillover Effect of Occupy Nigeria

The powerful emergence of Occupy Nigeria could have profound implications for the human rights mobilizations that previously existed here. There is an extensive women’s health movement that focuses on lowering maternal mortality rates through building women-only hospitals and conducting public health education campaigns (a darling cause of several First Ladies here). Child rights campaigners have aligned with government agencies to try to stop the use of child labor, namely families sending young children to work as vendors and beggars. Several civil society groups focus on improving accountability and transparency among state officials, a challenging feat in a country where corruption pervades the highest levels of the federal government. To a lesser extent, there is also a nascent LGBTQ rights campaign by groups such as The Initiative for Equal Rights that have received virulent criticism, creating an anti-gay rights legislative backlash over the last year. How will Occupy Nigeria, far more poignant and widespread than any of these other movements, impact previous human rights causes?

The strength of the anti-oil campaign in the Niger Delta has fluctuated since it emerged twenty years ago. It was at its strongest in the mid-1990s under the direction of Ken Saro-Wiwa, but it then faded after his execution and with the increased repression of the Abacha regime. After the implementation of the new democratic constitution in 1999, it revived itself when women in Rivers and Delta state became increasingly involved in largely peaceful protests against oil companies. The most well-known is the occupation of Chevron’s Escravos site by 600 Itsekiri and Ijaw women who halted production there for 10 days in the summer of 2002. The following January dozens of Ijaw women in Warri blocked a river leading to a proposed Naval base in protest against government neglect and as recently as 2010 Shell closed two flow stations for several days due to a women’s sit-in. In January 2012, women from the Kolu-Ama community protested by setting up a roadblock to a Chevron office, demanding the company put out an offshore platform fire.

Although these women’s anti-oil movement has been overshadowed by Occupy Nigeria in the last month, I think that ultimately the Niger Delta mobilization benefits from collective action for other causes because of a “spill over” effect.

The Spillover Effect of Occupy Nigeria II

No social movement exists in isolation. Social movements constitute and are constituted by sympathetic and oppositional mobilizations. One movement can alter subsequent movements externally by affecting cultural and political conditions, and internally by changing the individuals, groups and norms within the later movement.  Organizations with hybrid identities – those whose organizational identities span the boundaries of two or more social movements – are especially vital to creating this spillover.  Thus, Occupy Nigeria is in part a product of the anti-oil movement and a comprising force of it as well.

Social movements cannot be labeled as “successes” or “failures” aside from their impact on policy.  Even when a movement is inactive like Occupy Nigeria, it may still function as a training ground for activists and as well as an engine for shaping ideologies. First, all collective action allows participants to “practice” resistance. Organizing for various related social changes over several decades is the rule rather than the exception for activists, as studies of the American civil rights and African independence movements illustrate. Not only do movement veterans continue to mobilize at higher rates than nonveterans for other causes throughout their lives, they carry their political lessons and perspectives that shaped their collective identity with them. An early social mobilization may act as a training ground for participants and leaders who bring their experiences and expertise to a later mobilization that may enjoy success as a result of their know-how. Additionally, an early mobilization not only teaches participants, it can also refine new leaders who become key players later on.  A low-level participant in an early movement may become a leader in a subsequent one, e.g. Malcolm X was a member of the anti-Korean War mobilization before leading the radical wing of the civil rights struggle. Such spillover in expertise furthers tactical innovation as well, as activists learn which methods of activism are most useful. The 2002 peaceful takeover in Escravos led to oil labor strikes by men in various sites of Delta State, as activists had learned that impeding production was the most powerful tool in gaining the attention of the state and oil companies.

When several different campaigns necessarily interact, even those that eventually end or become dormant, a stronger social movement community emerges. In Nigeria, the Kebetkache Women Development and Resource Center has programs for environmental protection, local conflict resolution, and human rights awareness campaigns, with the idea that all three causes help to improve the status of women in southern Nigeria.  Hybrid organizations such as Kebetkache are well-positioned to use inter-organizational networks in order to allow activists from one movement, e.g. environmentalism, to participate in another, e.g. peacebuilding.  This transfer of individuals reifies a collective identity and serves the organizational maintenance needs of the movement. This social movement community also gives activists a more structured way of staying involved in future campaigns.

Second, nearly all collective action shapes both internal and external ideologies to some extent. An early social mobilization may make intangible but important strides in altering participants’ consciousness about the salience of its cause and the causes of other movements. Even a mobilization that does not stimulate policy change can still heighten prospects about what sort of change is possible; the act of shared rights-claiming can raise expectations of future success.  This rights-claiming is also a process through which activists ossify their shared identity and relationship with one another, relationships that are pivotal in other mobilizations.

Aside from affecting the consciousness of movement members, even short-lived movements alter popular consciousness about reform on a larger scale. They have an ability to alter public discourse regarding their cause and frame the way outsiders view their issue. A series of challenges to the status quo, even challenges that have no direct effect on policy, may make some outside of the movement more open to change. Additionally, collective memory is such that contemporary ideology provides us with the lens through which we view the past. A later success for the same or similar cause may lead us to believe that a past “failed” movement was more “successful” than it really was. This can be seen in the way that history may heroize movement leaders, Saro-Wiwa and the Ogoni rights mobilizations for example.

Lastly, for two social movements that co-exist simultaneously, the emerging salience of one may leave the struggling other with more time to devote to re-assessing strategy and resources. In other words, it can take the heat off a movement that has received backlash. LGBT activists in Nigeria have said that Occupy Nigeria has beneficial to them because it has shifted attention away from their cause as they still try to recover from the passage of a federal anti-gay marriage bill last year, one that enjoyed widespread support across the country. The Executive Director of the Improve Male Health Initiative has called Occupy Nigeria a “blessing” because it has bought the organization more time to shore up resources while attention is focused on the fuel crisis.

So, simply because Occupy Nigeria is not on the streets does not mean that it is not functioning.  Those who have “practiced” resistance will carry with them those experiences in future political activism. They constitute a larger community of activists with a collective identity. Ebbing overt activity and influence is sometimes helpful in giving movements the opportunity for re-assessing strategy, tactics, and collective identity. Moments of inactivity provide special impetus for movement-to-movement linkages as beleaguered activists and organizations pool their strength against powerful opponents. Even during periods of low activity, movements both endure and impact other movements through organizational forms that maintain culture and ideology.