A comedy of protests

Posted: January 19, 2012 in arts/culture

As the first instalment of the 2012 strike season that has seemingly become a tradition in the annual calendar of events in the country came to a rather surprisingly close last Monday after six days of protests, rallies, and demonstrations laced with snippets of creativity, invectiveness and entertainment, a whole load of issues other than the bone of contention among the warring parties to the conflict itself, stood out.

Indeed, as the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) sued for cessation of hostilities partly much to the dismay of most civil society groups, and interestingly to the relief of others, it has become rather apparent that Nigerians share a lot in common with their African brothers in the northern region, particularly Egypt, in their general psyche and attitude and character traits in their conducts during civil protests.

The January protests against the removal of fuel subsidy by the federal government on the first day of the month of the New Year brought with it an unprecedented reprisal protests and demonstrations by Nigerians, the organised labour and civil society groups which remarkably adopted the ‘Occupy’ theme as general platform for protests indicating that Nigerians were not only abreast of global trends but were shifting methods of agitations in line global best practices in protests, sort of.

The contentious issue of fuel subsidy is not the occupation of the piece, however, the ingenuity of the protesters and the methods adopted and employed to convey and register their protest is also a pointer as to what to expect in the coming instalments of protests.

Before now, demonstrations against government policies had always toed the path of violence and wanton destruction of lives and properties in the same way as they were always short lived as they tended to end rather abruptly in the same ferocity as they started.

Many have posited that the record continuous six-day longevity of this protest was to a large extent sustained by the noticeable role played by comedy. Basically, it was not war song chanting alone that drove the protests rather the ability and craftiness by some creatively minded Nigerians to direct attention to the lighter side of the very serious issue at hand.

The technique though hardly intentional had the singular force of sustaining interest while also firing up the angst of Nigerians against the government policy.

In addition, while the live entertainment and stage performances by notable artistes which sustained the endurance and mood of the protesters dominated the various rallies that held at different points in the country including in Lagos at the Gani Fawehinmi Park, Ojota (rechristened Nigeria’s Tahrir Square), the comedy shades ruled the media sector.

At the rallies, placards like Oga Jona, if Patience can make one correct sentence on live TV without a grammatical error we will accept subsidy…gbam!! were held out to add to the comedy of the protest.

Others would hold a tape recorder before a ram to capture the hilarity of the fuel subsidy episode. And as one protester joked around, Yoruba names like Abisubsidy, Olufunmisubsidy Majekosubsidize mi) are bound to enter names list.

“I think the Hausa should also consider a name like Babansubsidy”, he said.

According to Mr. Jekwu Ozoemena who would jokingly quip during one of the rally points, that after this protest new Igbo names are likely to emerge. “Chukwubusubsidim-Male (meaning-God is my Subsidy), Nkechisubsidilanyi-Female(meaning-the one that God has subsidised for us/His subsidy is more than sufficient for us.”

“Chinwesubsidi-Female (meaning-God owns All Subsidy), Subsidibuifeoma-female(meaning subsidy is something good), Chukwuemekasubsidi-male (Meaning-Thank you Lord for subsidy), Chinasubsidisikasi – Unisex (meaning God subsidises the most), Chukwukasubsidi – Unisex (Meaning God is greater than subsidy), Nkesubsidinye – Female (born as a result of subsidy), and Ikesubsidi – Male (the power of subsidy).”

Aptly put, the comedy that went on at the various rallies and protest points were simply ingenious, to say the least, without rubbing the serious off from the issue at stake.

The role of the arts in the protests, as innovative as they were provided not only much needed interludes to the heated and tense atmosphere that had pervaded the country, but also saw Nigerians digging in deep to reinvent themselves in their attempt to make the event count.

Many in government have expressed worry that if the present trend in protest is allowed to gain a footing, the next wave of protests may take months to resolve going by the success and ease the last one settled in among the protesters.

Indeed, the role of the arts and in particular entertainment, has assumed new levels such as for it to be accorded its rightful place in matters of national development and also in aggregating contributions to national growth.

It also went further to underscore the school of thought that had ranked Nigerians as the happiest people in the world for them to find a lighter side to an issue capable of causing worse consequences in other climes.

 

During the period of the protests, blogs and websites on the internet were replete with hilarious pictures and write-ups on views and positions by parties. Nigerians employed pictures which could themselves be go for installation arts in terms of theme expressed.

Nigerians used pictures to interpret their opinions though hilarious, but which served to bolster already held views in line with the pictures such that even opposing views of members of the public appreciated the creativity while enjoying the thought behind the works were compelled to sheathe their swords.

It was a campaign to win the soul of the media fought on the canvass of comedy and art, a genre readily welcomed by Nigerians regardless of creed and leanings. Comedy and entertainment broke the fear barrier in Nigerians, hence, the mass attendance at the various rallies called by the organized labour.

However, Nigerians are not alone in the mannerism of spicing their serious agitations with comic presentations which at first appear to register a low dose of seriousness but which also on closer inspection only served to sustain the mood of the people and by extension prolonging resistance.

The fuel subsidy protests once again brings to the fore the enormous potential of humour and the comedy industry which already is thriving in a country like Nigeria where there is huge market for their products in the people who have even learned to convey their protests through the medium of comedy for the sustenance of the cause.

When last year, Egyptians flocked daily to the Tahrir Square to demand the resignation of then President Hosni Mubarak from office, comedy equally played a significant role in sustaining their agitations mostly because Egyptians like Nigerians are believed to also appreciate comedy.

Egyptians roared into the street, kicking off their revolution with chants of “Hosni Mubarak, the plane is waiting!” a nod to the deposed Tunisian leader Ben Ali’s embarrassingly swift liftoff to Saudi Arabia.

The longer Mubarak stayed, the more the jokes piled up, much like the growing mound of trash in the centre of Tahrir Square. Protesters renamed both the garbage pile and the toilets “National Democratic Party headquarters” — a reference to Mubarak’s party, the real headquarters of which was destroyed by protesters. When Vice President Omar Suleiman denounced the protesters’ “foreign agendas,” young people showed up to the square with plain blank notebooks, Salem says. “Whoops,” they told one another, “I left my ‘agenda’ at home.”

When state television accused protesters of being foreign agents, paid with fistfuls of Euros and meals from Kentucky Fried Chicken, one protester filmed his comrades enjoying their “KFC”: humble sandwiches of bread and cheese. And that $100 bribe? “I transferred it to Switzerland,” one grinning man tells the camera, falafel in hand.

As Egyptians took to social media to spread news from the demonstrations and encourage others to join them, the humour rampant in the street made it into those social media dispatches as well. Many tweeted in English, and thanks to translation software and human translators, the whole world could get in on the joke.

“Photographs from Tahrir of people carrying hilarious signs went viral within minutes of posting,” observed Adel Iskandar, 33, a media scholar and lecturer at Georgetown University. Sharing a laugh, often in real time, created “a sense of solidarity and camaraderie among those who supported the cause.” Who could not identify with the simple “Leave, my arm hurts”? Or, as the days wore on and on, “Leave, I want to shower/see my wife/shave/get married.”

The jokes themselves often played on or through new media and its tropes. A faked “Installing Freedom” screen grab showed files being copied from a folder labelled /tunisia, overlaid with the error message, “Cannot install Freedom. Please remove ‘Mubarak’ and try again.” (A later version of that joke announces “Installation freedom has finished successfully.”)

Not every punchline was contemporary. One that was circulating on email dredged up ancient animosities:

    Dear Egyptian demonstrators, Please do not damage the pyramids. We will not rebuild.

  -The Jews

“Humour is the default response to everything in Egypt including state repression,” says Egyptian-British journalist and blogger Sarah Carr, who reflected, “Interestingly, the tougher circumstances get, the more the jokes increase, which explains why Tahrir Square was essentially a comedy explosion.”

As events appeared to crescendo — particularly the evening of what was expected to be Mubarak’s resignation speech — the jokes rose to a fever pitch.

Mubarak’s eventual departure on February 11 signalled neither the end of strikes nor the end of jokes in Egypt.

According to Iskandar, who is originally from Cairo: “Not only can I not imagine a revolution in Egypt without jokes, I cannot imagine anything in Egypt without jokes. The day Egyptians stop joking or laughing is the day they have nothing to worry about.”

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