Book Excerpt: Soursop by Temidayo Ogan

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“So sorry,” Soji replied, as they congratulated each other on their admission. They were buried in the internet chat for about three hours before signing off.

For the remaining two weeks to the school resumption date, neither Soji nor Moji had the time to chat online. They were busy preparing for school. Exactly five days to the resumption date at the University of Port-Harcourt, the entire nation was hit with the sudden news of fuel subsidy removal by the Federal Government. The issue of deregulating the downstream sector of the oil industry had been a national debate for years, even long before the death of Thomas, Soji’s grandfather. The Benjamin Government had proposed the removal of the fuel subsidy but the Organized Labour had openly disagreed with the move and condemned the proposal.

To explain the reason behind the government’s proposal, the managers of the national economy and the petroleum sector organized a town hall meeting in collaboration with the media. The meeting was an effort to present an action plan for the programme to the Nigerian people. The Organized Labour and other stakeholders were invited to the meeting and it was broadcast live on national television and radio stations. Unfortunately, the meeting did not produce any positive result because the government representatives were unbending and the Organized Labour was equally unyielding.

Soji was not really bothered about the hullabaloo the national debate was generating. His main worry was how he would resume and sufficiently cope in school financially.

One day to the school resumption date, Soji was in the supermarket purchasing some items when he heard a shout from behind. He turned around to focus on the direction of the voice. He saw a gentleman screaming at the top of his voice.

“This is not going to happen! A child that says that his mother will not sleep must also prepare to stay awake too! If we talk about the issue, we shall die. If we refuse to say a word about the same issue, we shall die also! So why not talk about it and die?” He yelled.

Everybody in the supermarket was curious to know what his point was. Then he began to shout the more. “You can’t just wake up and remove the fuel subsidy while negotiation is going on! You can’t betray us just like that! One does not eat a hot soup in a hurry. How can you shave a man’s hair in his absence?”

Soji walked quickly to the man and asked him what prompted his statements but the man brushed him aside and continued his tirade.

“You have stepped on the cobra’s tail and you must be ready for a fight! My people, you are here buying and selling while the Benjamin government has just officially announced the removal of the petroleum subsidy. In fact, fuel stations have begun to adjust their pump prices immediately! You can go and check for yourself. These people want to kill us! They do not have any regard for the common man who voted them into power. This is very sad, not when the masses are beginning to understand the issue and are only making some necessary requests. This is a betrayal of trust and it is corruption too!”

Upon hearing the news, Soji dropped all he had picked from the shelves in the supermarket and ran towards the motor park in Abama Town. At the Motor Park, Soji dipped his hand into his left pocket and brought out an unsoiled Fifty Naira note, to pay the bus conductor for his fare, as usual. But this time he was taken aback when the bewildered bus conductor gave him the sermon of his life.

“O boy, make you stop that!” He bellowed. “You be stranger for Naija, abi? You no know say subsidy don go and transport don increase, abi? Abeg your money na 200 Naira! Fuel don change price. One litre na 140 Naira now, no more sixty five Naira! For Abeokuta, the rock city, Fatai just return and he buy petrol for 200 Naira per litre. Oya commot for road if you no get wadada to pay. Even for Warri, the oil city, the price don change too.”

Soji was speechless after listening to the ranting of the conductor. He reluctantly dipped his hand into his pocket again and brought out a 200 Naira note. However as he was about to hand over the money to the bus conductor, some boys appeared at the Motor Park chanting, “We no go pay o! We no go pay! We go dey trek, we no go pay!” Soji immediately withdrew his hand and joined the group. They remained at the Motor Park for another one hour with intensified singing and shouting. Their action almost erupted into a fight when the bus drivers and conductors accused the group of disrupting the free flow of their business. The Motor Park executives intervened and stopped the uproar. The group later dispersed with everyone walking away in different directions.

The excitement of the previous day’s action at the Motor Park and the sheer fun of walking the long distance home motivated Soji to turn on the television very early in the morning to watch the news. No sooner had he turned on the television than he heard the breaking news. The Organized Labour was calling out its members nationwide for a mass strike action, threatening a shutdown of every sector of the economy. The markets and fuel stations were not going to be left out.

Soji stepped out of the living room immediately to inform his family members who were outside the compound enjoying the cool breeze of the morning. As he opened the front door he saw a crowd and became afraid of the possible outcome of the strike action. He suddenly remembered the riots of 1993. The “Dabaginda must go” and the “NKO must come” saga. He remembered how the people’s voices were ignored and how many people were eventually killed in the resistance. He recalled sadly how the struggle ultimately consumed Chief Noshood Kashimawo Olawale Abiola, the object of the mass unrest and the acclaimed winner of the June 12 Presidential Elections. His wife, Alhaja Rudirat, also did not live to tell the story.

The words of an angry young female activist at the Abama Town Protest Rally boomed louder and louder in his head, “If government does not reverse its action,” she had pronounced. “We shall take up the Egyptian and the Libyan approaches to reject its bad leadership! We can no longer be suffering because of bad leadership. We shall fight for our unborn children and reclaim our land. We have been betrayed but not defeated.

The protest continued.The protesters chanted more anti-government slogans aloud as they walked past Soji’s house. “This protest could lead to some people’s death. A dog shouldn’t say there is no danger in the leopard’s bush.” These words had barely left his mind when suddenly the police shot some tear gas canisters into the air and into the crowd. Some people hurriedly dispersed. However the leaders continued to the Liberty Square, defying the police order which forbade being seen in the area. Soon after they arrived at the Liberty Square, the armed police officers arrested them and drove them in a black patrol van to an unknown destination for interrogations before they were eventually released.

Although the protest was stopped in Abama Town and its environs, similar protests continued in Laagus, Okuta, and Beno City. The abrupt removal of the fuel subsidy did not only inflict pains on the masses but it also steered the wheel of anarchy in the country. Soji’s father was watching the entire drama unfold with his small battery-powered radio held closely to his right ear.

He was thinking about the root cause of many national distress situations in Africa and the after effects like the refugees programmes and the challenges related to them. He sorrowfully remembered the story of his grandfather’s experience as a refugee in Cote d’ivoire many years ago and what he was told about how expensive and difficult it will be for any African nation to host Nigerians as refugees, considering the population of Nigeria. He concluded his mind voyage by deciding that war was very expensive and another war in Nigeria at any time would be a global catastrophe. He only prayed for national peace.

By the fifth day of the strike action in Abama Town, the concept of the nationwide strike had taken another dimension. The focus of the strike shifted from the demand for the reversal of the pump price of fuel to 65 Naira to other socio-economic and political issues in the country. A school of thought among the economists in the country was that the cost of democracy was very enormous for a developing nation like Nigeria and they suggested that the structure of the present government should be reviewed in order to reduce the cost of running the government and to alleviate the people’s problems. They felt that it was unnecessary to run a presidential system of government with two legislative arms in an emerging economy.

After all the protests and the killings of unfortunate citizens, the Federal Government and the Labour Congress finally agreed to sheath their swords. The strike was called off and the masses hit the road again in search of their daily bread. The strike action had caused a lot of inflation in the market and many people could not afford the prices of goods and services. The inflation level went up because of the fuel subsidy removal and the strike action which brought the national economy to a standstill for days. Four pieces of tomatoes that sold for 50 Naira and 100 Naira depending the size, were selling for 250 Naira. A loaf of bread which used to sell for 50 Naira suddenly became 200 Naira. Many people became beggars in their own country because of the decisions and shallow reasoning of the egocentric elite group.

In times like these, the people in government and the people outside government needed to admit their failures where necessary and give their words of honour to serve one another without recourse to corruption and aggressive resolutions. Patriotism ought to be paramount in everyone’s heart, no matter their political or religious affiliations. The labours of the country’s past heroes like Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, popularly known as Zik of Africa, Alhaji Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, Chief Jeremiah Obafemi Awolowo, the Asiwaju of Yorubaland and Chief Anthony Enahoro, foremost Nationalist, should not be hastily forgotten.

On October 1, 2000, the weather was calm until about 4:00pm in the evening when the leaves on the trees in the school premises became restless. One would have thought it was going to rain cats and dogs.

“Moji, I never thought we would be meeting each other this soon, on resumption day!” said Soji. “Destiny I say again has orchestrated this.”

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