Friday 18 January 2013

Amid bleak future, memory of truncated hope in pictures

By Tajudeen Sowole
Although it was cut short by intimidation from armoured tanks rolled onto the streets of Lagos, the memory of last year’s protests against increase in fuel pump price keeps reverberating in the visual arts circle.

The latest of such celebration of the people’s power was seen in a just-held photography exhibition by Kunle Ogunfuyi, titled Flash Back On Nigeria Protest: A Lagos Account, at National Museum, Onikan, Lagos.

Under an allied group, Joint Action Front (JAF), the Nigerian civil societies such as labour organisations and human right groups had, on January 1, 2012, started gathering people towards what is now known as ‘Occupy Nigeria’. It was a prompt response to the shocking news by Petroleum Products Pricing Regulatory Agency (PPPRA) that the Federal Government has removed subsidy on premium spirit (petrol), therefore shooting the pump price by 116% at N141 per litre.

Since the two-week protests were brought to an end in mid January 2012, some art-related events focused on reviewing the uprising, have been held across Lagos. For example, performance artist, Jelili Atiku, had a show titled Nigerian Fetish in Ejigbo local community. Also, at the Centre for Contemporary Art (CCA), Lagos, works of artists such as Uche James Iroha, Andrew Esiebo, Victor Ehikhamenor, Emeka Ogboh, Atiku and Chinwe Uwatse were analysed and discussed by art critics and culture promoters Toyin Akinosho, Jide Bello, Toni Kan and Joke Silva within the context of the ‘Occupy Nigeria’ protests.
A section of the Gani Fawehinmi Park gathering during the protest captured by Ogunfutyi
  Ogunfuyi’s Flash Back On Nigeria Protest: A Lagos Account is a revisit of one memory, which Nigerians had wanted to use for a peaceful, but drastic revolution, possibly in the Arab Spring model. The photo-journalist’s body of work, 52 in number, summarises the protests as a two-week anger of the people against an insensitive and irresponsive government. In a day-to-day presentation of his captures, Ogunfuyi’s show welcomes you, from the left side of the gallery, with pictures of JAF’s gathering of people at Ojuelegba through Jibowu. “This started on the same day, January 1, 2012, after the news of the increase in pump price broke out” he stated, noting that it was a “prompt response,” from the people.

Indeed, about the same period, protests have been reported in some parts of the country, outside Lagos. “Yes,” he agreed, but his lens could not reach those areas. Further into the gallery, the photographs capture how the momentum of the Lagos protest increased day by day, leading to confrontation between protesters and policemen at a few spots. For example, one of such shots presents a scene where three armed mobile policemen descended on a protester. “This happened at Maryland. He was brutally beaten and taken away, but I don’t know what eventually happened to him,” Ogunfuyi recalled. But something is wrong with the photographer’s presentation of the work: his claim of “police brutality” as captioned in the catalogue of the exhibition is not really visible in his capture of the scene.

And as Gani Fawehinmi Park, Ojota, became the point of rally for what has been described as the largest gathering of protesters in Nigeria’s history, Ogunfuyi’s lens did not miss one of the bloodied scenes outside the suddenly famous park: a young man, said to have been shot by a stray bullet, was being lifted away by other protesters, possibly for treatment.

Other captures by Ogunfuyi include addresses at the Ojota gatherings by prominent people such as Femi Falana, Pastor Tunde Bakare and Prof. Pat Utomi. And more in the outburst of the people come in placards inscribed with ‘Tackle Corruption, Not Subsidy Removal’; ‘Put Politicians on Minimum Wage & Watch How Fast Things Change’; ‘Cut Government Waste NOT Fuel Subsidy’. Perhaps, more incendiary and hitting the nail harder is the inscription on sweatshirts ‘Kill Corruption NOT Nigerians’. 
  Most crucial parts of the protest, which for a long time could have a traumatic effect on the people, instructively, were among the works on display. In curatorial term, they are three, ending the protest: Pictures 48, 49 and 50 show how Falana and others asked “the protesters to go for a weekend break and return to the park on Monday.” However, image 51 representing the war-like posture of the authority was a shot of one of the many army tanks rolled out by government, which in clear terms explained President Goodluck Jonathan’s response to the demand of the people. Picture 52, a deserted Gani Fawehinmi Park “taken on Monday,” completes the end of the protest.

However, picture 51, a capture of a military tank at the Gani Fawehinmi Park, seems to have, perhaps, successfully silenced the voice of protests, even one year after when it is still glaring that the fraud known as fuel subsidy scam is yet to be corrected. And JAF, surprisingly, in the wake of recent fuel scarcity and contradictions over another round of subsidy payment kept silence, but found energy to organise an unnecessary, but deservedly failed-protest over okada restrictions in Lagos.

People have been asking: what has the government done with the N32 difference after president Jonathan increased the pump price from N65 to N97 per litre if we are still paying for subsidy? Recently, N161.6 billion supplementary budget for subsidy payments was said to have been approved by the National Assembly.

If JAF truly represents the civil society, then it needs to step up its game and revisit the root of the oil subsidy scam, particularly towards the 2015 election. Reason: cost of Jonathan’s 2011 presidential election campaign, which according to sources, far exceeded previous spendings, the stipulated amount in the 2010 electoral act has a link to the fuel scam. Sub-section 2 of the 2010 electoral act states that “the maximum election expenses to be incurred by a candidate at a Presidential election shall be One Billion Naira (N1, 000, 000, 000).”
One of Ogunfuyi's captures of protesters' demand

  During the build-up to the 2011 election, Prof. Pat Utomi had chided the civil society for not probing into what has been widely criticised as excess use of money, particularly public fund, by Jonathan’s campaign team. Utomi was quoted: “In America, every contribution for campaign funds must be accounted for. But in Nigeria, you can write an NNPC (Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation) cheque and it does not matter, because the civil society has failed us. That’s not democracy.”

As a photographer, the Occupy Nigeria protest, perhaps, offers Ogunfuyi an opportunity to continue his art of documentary. But beyond this, what exactly does he hope to achieve with Flash Back On Nigeria Protest: A Lagos Account? “I hope that our society may reflect on issues surrounding policy making and how it affects people.”

Chairman at the exhibition’s opening, Prince Yemisi Adedoyin Shyllon in his remark noted the “lack-luster management of the Nigerian economy and the misplaced priorities of governments and its leaders”. He argued that the mismanagement oozes in “widespread public squandering of our national resources” by public office holders.

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