Occupy Nigeria, Port Harcourt, Day 2

Tuesday’s march was perceivably different from that of the first day, and it could be felt even before the demonstrators left Isaac Boro Park. It was less dynamic, less enterprising, and frankly, less powerful. Whereas Monday attracted a motley group of activists from various demographics, Tuesday was planned by grassroots NGOs in cooperation with the National Labour Congress (NLC), Rivers State Council. Consequently, most of the demonstrators present were professional and male, many wearing coordinating NLC shirts.  People gathered idly inside the park until a few activists began their speeches to help increase the energy level of the crowd.  Large banners began to be hung up and the 300 people gathered on the grass to sing “Solidarity Forever” before they began the walk towards Government House around 10:30 am.

Although there were overall more folks present at this march, the route did not pass any shopping or transit centers, so there was less opportunity for new mobilizers to join in. Protesters walked along concrete pillars that had gone up years ago as the start of a monorail, pillars that had cost millions of dollars but since the public transit project was never completed, they simply served as a reminder of government waste. Despite the lethargic start to the day, people were far more spirited as they neared the Government House.

Police directed protestors into the parking lot first and then back outside the entrance as they waited for the address of the Governor of Rivers State, Chibuike Amaechi.  The governor spoke for twenty minutes on the importance of having affordable fuel and promised to speak with President Jonathan promptly after the demonstration.  He always wanted to dispel the rumor that the President had left the country; he stated that he had just spoke with the President on the phone at 1 am.  The Governor and the President do not historically have a harmonious relationship so some of the protestors around me wondered aloud how the two were negotiating during the crisis. Before ending his speech he also asked, using the term “beg,” that the national strike be ended as soon as possible, a suggestion that we met with jeers by the crowd. When he left his stage the protesters simply dispersed, guided along by the strong police presence.

I had two reactions to the demonstration.  The first was what I would call the “professionalization effect” caused by the NLC’s involvement.  Whereas the previous day was more active and emotive, Tuesday was characterized by most waiting around for directions from NLC leaders, perhaps even hesitancy in acting in way that would shame the NLC.  As is true in all countries, national labor union leaders here have come far from their working class background.  The nature of their work negotiating with those in charge naturally makes them take on the forms of communication of those in charge.  They are trying to reform an arrangement of power from within that arrangement of power, and that changes the nature of their activism. They became less like resistors and more like politicians.  The presence of the NLC took the movement from the grassroots level and for better or for worse, placed it in the hands of labor leaders who are seasoned negotiators.

Second, I was surprised at how obliging demonstrators were in dispersing after the governor’s speech.  I heard murmurs around me echoing my surprise, with people wondering aloud, “That’s it?” Demonstrators put their signs down, they stopped handing out flyers, there was no more singing, and most quickly began discussing unrelated topics. The crowd from the previous day was not so amiable (but certainly not aggressive either). A colleague reminded that they did not want to give the government an excuse to use violence on the marchers, nor did they want an ugly confrontation to threaten the legitimacy of their movement.  She was speaking to the value of reform from within the system. But there are many who might ask, what is the purpose of social mobilization if it is not disruptive?  Change does not come about by heeding the directions of those in power. There are merits to both models, the first being an evolutionary one alá MLK and the second a revolutionary one alá Malcolm X. It appeared though that those who are leading the Occupy Port Harcourt movement have yet to garner an agreement on which one they want to follow.

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