Last week’s tepid response to the call for nationwide civil disobedience (otherwise dubbed revolution) has raised important questions about the readiness of Nigerians to express popular dissent about the way they are being governed. The organisers said part of the reasons for the planned campaign included frequent unimpeded and systematic kidnapping across the country, the breakdown of law and order, general dissatisfaction with the conduct of the general election earlier this year, erosion of the right of citizens to campaign vigorously against poor governance, and government’s sweeping portrayal of protest organisers as irresponsible citizens violating national laws such as treason.
Treason, we must remember, is a capital offence punishable by death. The depiction of protest organisers as treasonable felons must worry human rights advocates.
Nigeria is in a crucible. Some of the challenges did not start today. Many people are angry with political leaders and their mediocre performance. But the same people, like lily-livered individuals, are too scared to express views that are critical of the government. They have chosen to bottle up their outrage rather than ventilate them in the public domain.
Everyone is grumpy but few can identify the causes or sources of their irritability. The relationship between the government and the citizens remains tense. Every critic of the government is labelled an enemy of the state, or a dangerous person who is conspiring with foreign forces to undermine the government.
We are sitting precariously at the edge of disaster, a breaking point from which it would be difficult to stitch together aggrieved and disenchanted ethnic groups. This much has been expressed by high-profile politicians, as well as traditional and religious leaders. We have reached a dangerous point in which people can no longer talk honestly with their political leaders. And political leaders carry themselves with that arrogant air that tells them they are the only wisemen bequeathed with leadership qualities. The sentiment, expressed long before now, is that the views of ordinary citizens do not count.
How did we get to this point? In genuine democracies, civil society is accorded free space to express itself as long as it is done peacefully. In that environment, government officials do not perceive protest as an evil plot intended to undermine the state. A protest symbolises the high point of public disappointment with political leaders. It is an important outlet through which citizens draw national leaders’ attention to serious challenges confronting the nation, such as growing poverty, breakdown of law and order, rampant kidnapping and callous killings, crumbling infrastructure, endemic corruption, and lawlessness by members of the privileged class.
The case for public protest is irreproachable. If citizens do not express their views on how they are being governed, how would political leaders determine the extent to which they have met the needs of the people or achieved the core objectives of the government? Regular consultation with the people is a reliable means through which effective governments monitor the pulse of the people. A government that disregards public opinion is self-absorbed, thoughtless, and insensitive. Isolating people or labelling them troublemakers every time they express discontent with government is the surest way to alienate citizens.
When people complain and no one listens, when a government increasingly treats citizens with contempt, the outcome is usually popular unrest. When the pipelines of public opinion are dismantled, political leaders elected through the ballot become undemocratic, dictatorial, and oppressive. Political leaders who are easily upset by criticisms morph into despots or absolute rulers. The Arab uprisings of 2011 are instructive. In Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, popular revolt and agitations were stoked by poverty, corruption, repression, cronyism, lack of concern for people’s welfare and wellbeing, an overbearing police force, and general feeling of hopelessness by the people.
We need to ask ourselves serious questions. How did Nigeria, a country that served previously as a reference point in the world, suddenly lose its appeal? How did we plunge so rapidly into the bottom of the gully so much so that even small and impoverished countries that used to rely on our financial assistance and military aid now take pride in poking their fingers into our eyes?
It is not that Nigerian political leaders are unaware that the country is descending into a deep hole. The problem is they don’t know how to stop the rapid disintegration. This is probably why the call for public protest appeals to many people. The call last week for a revolution or protest was not the first and it is not likely to be the last. For example, former Speaker of the House of Representatives, Aminu Tambuwal, suggested on Tuesday, July 2, 2013, that Nigeria was due for a revolution. Nearly four weeks later, Nigeria’s former representative at the United Nations (UN), Yusuf Maitama Sule, also called for a revolution free of violence. Whether the kind of revolution proposed by these two men is possible in Nigeria, where so many people are grappling with economic challenges, remains to be seen.
Yusuf Maitama Sule said his preference was for a Mahatma Gandhi-style revolution. He said: “When Murtala Muhammed came into power, within six months, he started giving this country a sense of direction. Did he kill anybody?” On his part, Tambuwal said at a lecture he presented at the Nigerian Institute of Management: “The most compelling reasons for revolution throughout the ages were injustice, crushing poverty, marginalisation, rampant corruption, lawlessness, joblessness, and general disaffection with the ruling elite.”
Similarly, former Defence Minister and Chief of Army Staff Theophilus Danjuma raised the tempo when he told an audience at the 50th birthday of Nda Isaiah, Leadership Newspaper publisher, in May 2012: “Nigeria is on fire. This house is on fire. The North is on fire. Nigeria is becoming like Somalia. The Somalianisation of Nigeria is taking place right now.” To be clear, that comment was made seven years ago. It preceded the onset of the Buhari administration. However, the situation has now degenerated into an unmanageable and nightmarish security challenge.
At the time they issued their warnings, Aminu Tambuwal, Yusuf Maitama Sule, and Theophilus Danjuma were no ordinary citizens. As statesmen, their words are significant and must be taken seriously. Increasing agitations against the Nigerian state, including sporadic calls for nationwide demonstrations, suggest that we have reached a point at which we can no longer find solutions to common national problems. The chant for social upheaval that will radically transform the country might be popular in intent but it may not be an easy answer to our current state of despondency. We must keep this in mind, all revolutions do not always end the way originally planned by the leaders. A revolution that is badly planned and badly executed could lead to more political, economic, and social instability. It can undermine rather than provide the stability Nigeria requires to achieve economic development.
The call for a revolution does not imply there are no realistic ways through which Nigeria could be transformed for good. Non-violent options should be explored and, if viable, should be implemented. We must be mindful of the many unintended consequences that could accompany a revolution.