A Nigerian documentary about the government's removal of a fuel subsidy last year, which sparked the country's Occupy Nigeria protest, has gone viral on the Nigerian blogosphere after authorities banned the film.
The 30-minute documentary “Fuelling Poverty” chronicles the protests, which took place in January 2012, as well as takes a critical stance on poverty and corruption in Nigeria. After the film premiered in December 2012 in the capital city of Abuja, director Ishaya Bako submitted it to Nigeria's National Film and Video Censors Board (NFVCB) for approval.
News website Premium Times reported that not only did the board ban the documentary, it also warned Bako in an April 8, 2013 letter from attempting to release it independently:
But in an April 8 letter to Mr. Bako, exclusively obtained by PREMIUM TIMES Friday, the agency prohibited the distribution and exhibition of the documentary in Nigeria, saying its contents “are highly provocative and likely to incite or encourage public disorder and undermine national security.”
The letter, signed by the NFVCB’s Head of Legal Services, Effiong Inwang, warned the film maker against violating the order, saying “all relevant national security agencies are on the alert. A copy of this letter has been sent to the Director General, Department of State Services and the Inspector General of Police for their information.”
The entire documentary, which has more than 43,000 views, is available on YouTube:
The government's decision to do away with a fuel subsidy just after the New Year holiday in 2012 under the pretense that it wanted to free up funds for other development projects caused gas prices to to increase by between 120 and 220 percent for the country's already poor population. The Occupy Nigeria movement was quickly organized to protest the move. The protest took different forms in various places: marching and chanting anti-government songs on major streets, blocking of highways, converging in a park where various civil society groups and celebrities addressed the protesters who afterwards were entertained by musicians.
The blog Africa is a Country took a look at the documentary's content:
Kicking off with an introduction from Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka, the short documentary Fuelling Poverty amounts to a very brief Nigerian Fuel Subsidy 101 course. In thirty minutes, it covers the history of the issue and methodically explains how the government (encouraged by the IFIs, by the way) failed its people. By removing the subsidy as it did, the government shocked the informal economy and made life more miserable for a huge segment of the population. Subsequent investigations into the complex workings of the subsidy regime revealed a massive corruption cover-up to the tune of US $7 billion annually.
Written by Ishaya Bako, produced by Oliver Aleogena, and funded by the Open Society Institute for West Africa, Fuelling Poverty looks good, sounds good, and says all the right things. Its interviews, featuring those affected by the subsidy removal and those that participated in Nigeria’s nationwide protests in January 2012, are affecting. The fuel subsidy was, as the film argues, the only real social spending the government did. Its removal cast a wide net.
The Nigerian blogosphere has been abuzz since the news of the the film's censorship was made public. With stiff opposition to the news.
Eze Onyekpere, a Nigerian lawyer and social commentator, wrote in an op-ed piece for Nigerian online newspaper YNaija that the film board had overstepped its bounds by muscling free speech, a right enshrined in the Nigerian Constitution:
This prohibition order raises a lot of issues of public interest and indeed national security. First, one would have expected to hear from the NFVCB that the film makers misrepresented facts or lied on any score in the presentations. Such a power to prohibit the public exposure of films, documentaries and cinema productions must be based on empirical considerations and not on the whims and caprices of a few individuals who claim or want to arrogate the powers of the God head to themselves. Come to think of it, Section 39 of the 1999 Constitution entitles every person to the freedom of expression including freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart ideas and information without interference.
The first claw back clause guiding this provision is that nothing shall invalidate a law that is reasonably justifiable in a democratic society for the purpose of preventing the disclosure of information received in confidence, maintaining the authority and independence of the courts or regulating telephony, wireless broadcasting, television or the exhibition of cinematographic films.
The second claw back recognises restrictions upon persons holding office under the Government of the Federation or of a State, members of the armed forces, police and other security agencies established by law. It is my submission that none of these foregoing provisions justifies this embarrassing encroachment on the right to freedom of expression.
Onyekpere further argued that the video is not a threat to national security, as claimed by authorities, but that argument is only a ruse to justify tyrannical action:
The mere assertion by the NFVCB that the documentary is highly provocative and likely to incite or encourage public disorder and undermines national security is not enough to ban a film. Such a reason reminds one of the decrees and orders of discredited military juntas who held Nigeria by the jugular. That assertion needs to be proved and must not run contrary to reason. Nigerians did not resist military dictatorship only to be en-shackled by bodies like the NFVCB. The poser is; what exactly encourages public disorder or undermines national security? Is it the stealing of trillions of naira with impunity, the refusal to prosecute thieves or the reportage and comments of the stealing? By this action, the NFVCB is not only encouraging stealing of public resources but venerating impunity. The documentary, on the other hand, seeks to undermine impunity and fight corruption by educating Nigerians of the harmful effects of mind-boggling rape of the public trust.
Zainab Usman echoed the analysis on her blog Zainab’s Musings:
I am yet to identify what is so provocative about the documentary that put the Nigerian government on its toes. A good chunk of the film is based on content analysis of media reports available at the click of a button on the internet; footage from widely publicised proceedings of the Nigerian Parliament, the National Assembly, and from interviews with policy makers all freely available on the Internet. There is no leaked or stolen classified information, no interviews with people pleading anonymity, nothing suspicious or speculative… all the information and general themes are widely discussed online and on the streets. What is so inflammatory about this film, it is not clear. Perhaps it’s the use of Fela’s songs as soundtracks that pissed off the powers that be. I heard on the grapevine (unconfirmed) that the film maker has gone underground.
But the action of the censorship board only ignited the curiosity of Nigerians, promoting its viral spread, according to Usman:
Ironically, the move by the government to ban the documentary from TV stations in Nigeria, simply fuelled people’s interest in it – those who had never heard of it prior to this incident and others, like myself, who only just got round to watching it. Now the film has gone viral! Nigerians are sharing the link to the YouTube video via Blackberry Messenger, Facebook, Twitter and other social media tools. Soon, counterfeit DVD copies will be sold freely at traffic jams in Nigerian cities. Thanks to the internet, the days of media censorship are long buried in the past.