Martin Luther on #OccupyNigeria

If Martin Luther King Jr was around, what would be his take on the current situation in Nigeria? Quoting from a letter in which he responded to a statement by some white religious leaders, I hope to give a sense of his presence and lessons for the #OccupyNigeria Movement. The letter will be quoted and then commented on for clarification and how it affects the current Nigerian situation.

At the time of writing this letter, Martin Luther was in prison in Birmingham (a city) which is not his abode.

 Martin Luther on Unity

I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial “outside agitator” idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider.

Martin Luther left Atlanta and went to Birmingham to support the just cause because of their interrelatedness. This economic attack on the Nigerian people has got them to finally see that interrelatedness which goes beyond tribe and religion – the strongest common denominator today which is economic status. It is very easy to hurt (or allow to be hurt) another person when you don’t perceive the interrelatedness between you. There is always interrelatedness in this universe.

Martin Luther on Focus of Reform

You deplore the demonstrations that are presently taking place in Birmingham. But I am sorry that your statement did not express a similar concern for the conditions that brought the demonstrations into being. I am sure that each of you would want to go beyond the superficial social analyst who looks merely at effects and does not grapple with underlying causes.

Martin Luther was addressing the condemnation of the demonstrations that were then taking place. Similarly here we have government officials condemning the planned NLC (Nigeria Labour Congress) strike (on 9th Jan 2012). The government went as far as employing unprofessional approaches to get a court to condemn the strike as illegal. The president came out making promises which he seems to be undermining even at the time of making those speeches… all for what? Because of the effect of the government’s inconsiderate decision: which is a Nation Wide Strike. As in America’s situation (as in the above letter), we see that they are focusing of the effects and not the cause. Like Martin Luther, we should continue to put emphasis on the cause of this (be it corruption or just arrogant government officials).

Martin Luther on the Importance of Non-violent Campaigns

My Friends, I must say to you that we have not made a single gain in civil rights without determined legal and non violent pressure.

Martin Luther on How to Achieve Non-violent Campaigns

In any nonviolent campaign there are four basicsteps: collection of the facts to determine whether injustices are alive, negotiation, self-purification, and direct action. We have gone through all of these steps in Birmingham.

We have established that there is injustice in this situation (I hope you agree). We know that as on 6th Jan 2012, the government’s plan was to have all the weight of the subsidy-removal be suffered by the masses and by none of their officials (at least not directly). That was the first stage. Negotiation is still taking place between the government and other unions; second stage. We have started seeing direct action in the form of #OccupyNigeria movements; fourth stage. What about the third stage, self-purification? I have met people who are prepared for the worse that could happen and I have met others who (according to me) don’t seem so.

we started having workshops on nonviolence and repeatedly asked ourselves the questions, “Are you able to accept blows without retaliating?” and “Are you able to endure the ordeals of jail?

Preparation is important, very Important. What are you prepared to do? Answer that question and then let it inform how far you are ready to go. The #OccupyEagleSquare movement for example in Abuja on 6th jan 2012 was a good example. It was agreed that some would stay the night while some will go back home at 7pm. A speaker there emphasised the importance of having a plan and sticking to it: “Let us not be like the government, let us be organized”. If you have a sense of the Nigerian government, that is an inspiring statement because I doubt if anyone wants to be like the government.

Martin Luther on Giving them a Chance 

The letter was written at the time of local election, here are some of the characters. Mr Boutwell is the new official being voted in and Mr Conner is the despised official going out.

One of the basic points in your statement is that our acts are untimely. Some have asked, “Why didn’t you give the new administration time to act?” The only answer that I can give to this inquiry is that the new administration must be prodded about as much as the outgoing one before it acts. We will be sadly mistaken if we feel that the election of Mr. Boutwell will bring the millennium to Birmingham. While Mr. Boutwell is much more articulate and gentle than Mr. Conner, they are both segregationists, dedicated to the task of maintaining the status quo. The hope I see in Mr. Boutwell is that he will be reasonable enough to see the futility of massive resistance to desegregation. But he will not see this without pressure from the devotees of civil rights. My friends, I must say to you that we have not made a single gain in civil rights without determined legal and nonviolent pressure. History is the long and tragic story of the fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily. Individuals may see the moral light and voluntarily give up their unjust posture; but, as Reinhold Niebuhr has reminded us, groups are more immoral than individuals. We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.

A very vocal argument being thrown from supporters of the subsidy removal (as planned by the government) is that we should give the plan a chance before protesting. Sorry to bring this up but there is a striking similarity with the argument for supporters of Mr President during the election. If it were a different President (one not given a chance earlier) it might be easier to give it a chance. But some easy truths can be derived from Martin Luther’s statement “New administrations must be prodded about the same as the outgoing one before it acts”, too bad we didnt do the same to the previous administration. Again, Martin Luther (quoting Niebhur) reminds us that groups are more immoral than individuals. #OccupyNigeria is a battle between the masses and a “group” of government officials. May be we can substitue that “group” with “cabal”; not the mysterious cabal that have been stuffed in our ears.


This post is not to establish infallibility to Martin Luther King Jr, nor to assume that the exact practices they employed during the civil rights movements applies to the Nigerian Situation. The post derives lessons from the historical struggle and principles which I believe apply to peaceful protests.


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