In the past few months, the world has been shaken by popular revolutions in the Arab world, which was started when the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi, a frustrated young man in Tunisia caused a tipping point in the airing of discontent which people had towards their government, especially on economic matters. Suddenly, the then president, Zine Abidine Ben-Ali found himself out of a job for the first time in 23 years and hounded out of the country. The revolution crossed over to Egypt and Hosni Mubarak, president for 31 years and close US ally in the Middle East and the only Arab country to formally recognize Israel was also removed by the revolution. He battled hard, and even ordered the crushing of the protesters, in which about 800 people were killed. Alas, he couldn’t hold out for long. Now, he and his sons are facing trial for their actions.
The revolution didn’t end there. It started in Morocco against the monarchy, but King Mohammed IV quickly approved some constitutional changes that gave more freedom. President Saleh Ali Abdullahi has been battling to hold onto his 21-year government, Bashar al-Assad is not also giving up on the presidency bequeathed to him by his father, while as I write this, rebels in Libya, which are giving armed backing to their own revolution, supported by NATO troops, have just entered into Tripoli and are gradually taking over. We are seeing the end of Mu’ammar Gadhafi after 42 years.
I remember the day when Hosni Mubarak was removed. I had this feeling of disbelief; it was too good to be true. I couldn’t believe it was happening; that people, armed with nothing but resilience and unity could stand up to a dictator and win. The world over was captivated by the uncommon courage displayed by the Tunisians, then the Egyptians. Since then, many other countries have been inspired to their own revolutions, albeit with very little success: Gabon, Uganda, Malawi, Senegal, etc. In fairness to the Senegalese, they made President Abdoulaye Wade rescind on his own third term bill, which was what the result they wanted.
Here at home, a lot of people, especially online have also been calling that Nigerians rise up against our government and carry out our own revolution. But how practicable is an Arab-style revolution here? I did a lot of micro-blogging about this on Twitter in January, but I am now going to coalesce all my thoughts here:
To start with, I am not a fan of revolutions as carried out in the Arab world. I am not saying that the situation doesn’t call for them, but from history, such revolutions are very capable of being hijacked by opportunists. Colonel Gadhafi came into a power via a bloodless coup, a peoples’ revolution against King Idris in 1969. Today, the revolution is against him. Revolutions work on people’s emotions and channel their discontent in a way that logical thinking is overridden. A friend of mine once said, “Collective intelligence can be very low”, and I agree. Crowd mentality is put to work. Woes betide the people should the revolution be led by a firebrand ‘radical’, who in truth is an opportunistic, power-hungry person. Adolf Hitler. Josef Stalin. Napoleon Bonaparte. All were leaders of revolutions, even though Hitler was elected. Yet, all became dictators and left their countries worse than they found them. The results of the revolutions in the Arab world would have to be carefully managed lest they are also hijacked by some self-seeking opportunist.
Secondly, revolutions make the people believe that the problems for which they are revolting against the government can be solved immediately. Poverty, unemployment, corruption, lack of political space, etc. are all genuine reasons to fight against the government so that they are solved. However, solving them takes time. It needs a genuine solution consistently implemented over time. Doling out salaries to every Nigerian above the age of 18 by the government might be a good idea to sell during a revolution in order to solve poverty. And in that situation, few people would pause to think about whether the idea makes sense or not, because emotions are riding high at the time. But in the long run, would such an idea be sustainable? How much value does it add to the economy? All these necessary questions and debate would not take place.
We have already seen this happen in Egypt, where there has been a few protests post-Mubarak complaining about the slow pace of reforms since he was removed. However, building a democracy is not a day’s job. In fact, a democracy is a continuous on-going project, not one with a finish date. It is a journey, not a destination. It is more than just elections. It also involves a free and vibrant press, strong political parties, a working justice system, civil society organisations and the works. Democracy is about building strong institutions and these things take time. Ultimately, democracy is about letting the people know that they have the power and engaging them to be active in the affairs of the country as much as possible.
Thirdly, very few people have paused to ponder on why the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt were almost instantly successful, and yet, they have dragged on for almost forever in Syria, Yemen and Libya. An article in The New York Times provided my answer for me. In the words of the columnist, Egypt and Tunisia have been able to achieve true nationhood, in which the people saw themselves first as Egyptians and Tunisians before their tribes, and even their religions. One of my favourite images from the Egyptian episode of the revolution was one in which protesters were at Tahrir Square in Cairo when it became time for the Islamic prayers. While the Muslim protesters prayed, their Christian compatriots formed a ring around them facing the tanks of the military. This is an evidence of the nationhood that had been formed, that even the long-standing tension between Muslims and Christians (called Copts) in Egypt was overcome to face a common foe. This kind of nationhood does not exist in Libya or Yemen, which is why we see some people fighting to protect the incumbents due to tribal affiliations. It also does not exist in Iraq, one of the many reasons why the removal of Saddam Hussein, rather than lead to progress, caused an implosion and sectarian strife.
Evidently, we also do not have that sort of nationhood yet in Nigeria. If a revolution should start, we are bound to see the tribe, or region of origin or religion to which the president belongs to rise up to defend him. Of course, our media-for-hire would spin a story of marginalization and other conspiracy theories against him. In the end, it will be a futile effort. The writer, Chimamanda Adichie wrote an article in The Guardian UK about young Nigerians who were making changes via activism preparatory to the last general elections. She made reference to the Enough Is Enough movement and the What About Us youth-focused presidential debates, of which she was an anchor. However, someone made a comment which goes forth:
“There is one Nigeria and many Nigerias. There are also many types of Nigerian youths. The Nigerian youth Chimamanda is referring to are bright young things – well educated, overwhelmingly Christian and overwhelmingly from Southern Nigeria. They are hopelessly naive. Their knowledge of Nigeria is confined to Lagos and Abuja (which they don’t even understand fully). They have little interaction with (and see no need to interact with) anyone outside their neat little circle.
My gateman, Sanni is a different type of Nigerian youth. He cannot read or write in English. He went home for two months because his only child died, probably from a preventable disease. I tried convincing him to send his daughter to school if his wife gave birth to another child – he did not see to send a female to school.
The youth Chimamanda refers to cannot / does not / is not interested in speaking to youth like Sanni in a language he can understand. But even the most corrupt Nigerian politician learns how to speak to simple folk in language they can understand.
Late last year, more than a thousand people in Northern Nigeria died from cholera. Most people in Lagos neither bothered to know nor cared. The same attitude was displayed when hundreds of children died from lead poisoning in Zamfara State.
Why am I saying all this? I believe that social change is possible in my lifetime. But it will take more than bright young things jetting in and out from the UK and the US to land in Lagos and Abuja to speak big English words. It will take men and women of courage who devote time and energy to understanding the peculiarities of the Nigerian nation. Men and women who will discover that elusive common Nigerian voice.
Nigeria is neither Egypt nor Tunisia. We are more like Cote d’Ivoire and Sierra Leone. Let us think deeply about that.
I recall the governor of one of the Northern states telling a news reporter to write anything he wanted to write about him because “after all, less than 10% of the people in my state read newspapers”.
We are up against grizzled political veterans who like to keep the masses compliant (i.e. poor, uneducated and uninformed). We are also up against the Western powers that are happy to see our politicians loot the National treasury provided the oil flows.
We are up against a lot. May God help us.”
This is a first step we need to achieve as a country: becoming a nation, where we shall place Nigeria above our tribal, regional and religious affiliations. I dare say that if we do this, more than half our problems are solved. I say this because the political class and our elite use our sentiments to gain access to public office and loot our treasury, and whenever action is taken against them, they use the same sentiments to get away. I have watched in disdain how corrupt ex-governors like James Ibori and DSP Alamaseigha have been defended by people because ‘he is their son’, or how banking reforms are always rubbished against the then CBN governor with sentiments just because some people have lost out.
Lastly, in many ways, we as a country are having our own revolution. A revolution does not just mean forcibly overthrowing a government or social order with a new system. It also means a radical change in the way things are done, a dramatic and wide-reaching change. I remember last year chatting with a friend on Facebook who was a running a campaign to get young people to vote using popular entertainment and celebrity influence called Cool2Vote. In the course of our conversation, I asked him if there was another job he did, which he said no, as the campaign was his full-time job executed with personal funds and support from friends. I was impressed. It was among many of the youth-led activism we have been seeing since last year, from the protests by Enough Is Enough to end the presidential stalemate during Yar’adua’s illness to how they mobilized young people to vote using social media; to bloggers and writers and public commentators airing their views about the state of affairs in the country and so on and so forth. Never before have young Nigerians been so involved in contributing to political change in this country, and it is just the beginning. This is revolution too, and a better one at that. That is because this is way more sustainable, and it is more innovative and thoughts-led, compared to street protests which are a channel for expressing over boiled emotions and trivialise the solutions to deep protests. It was the same thing the brilliant journalist, Tolu Ogunlesi, writing in his column in NEXT expressed. Unfortunately, a lot of the commentators were too naïve and emotional to understand his views.
We have to remember one thing: the Arab world is fighting for the freedoms we have; the freedom to openly debate whether we should have a revolution or not and not be hounded into jail; the freedom to start a newspaper and freely express our opinions; the freedom to vote in elections. We have to keep reminding ourselves that even though we are not there yet, an Arab-style revolution would be taking several steps backward. We have already started on a good cause. Building a vibrant democracy takes time and consistent effort. It is about building strong institutions and the right psyche in the people. These things cannot be done overnight.
Let us keep this in mind.
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