By Reuben Abati
IT all started in Tunisia with an aggrieved vegetable and fruits seller, Mohammed Bouazizi, 26, setting himself ablaze in protest against bureaucratic dictatorship. Bouazizi will now be remembered forever as a martyr whose death drew fresh attention to fault lines in governance in the Arab world. Bouazizi died because he was fed up with government officials asking him to pay bribe and all kinds of charges, ostensibly to go into the purse of a state that has not been able to offer him a life, or perhaps into the pockets of cruel state officials. One of the four agents who accosted Bouazizi slapped him, another kicked him in the face, he begged but they would not listen to him. His goods were seized.
He went to the town hall and asked for the return of his goods, he was refused; he also later went to the main government where he was again, rebuffed. He insisted on seeing the governor. The police said No. He cried and begged. Nobody listened to him. Bouazizi at that point resolved that there was no point remaining alive. His frustration took him to the tipping point. He left government premises. Then, he went and bought a bottle of petrol with which he set himself ablaze. He was not the only unemployed person in his family, or in Tunisia, but his encounter with the Tunisian state alienated him further and turned him into a lighting rod for revolt. “We are all unemployed”, his sister said. Unemployment rate in Tunisia is 13.3%. Sounds like Nigeria? Yes, in every material particular, except that the unemployment rate in Nigeria is even higher, the figure in Nigeria is about 19.7%. Almost half of 15 to 24 year olds living in urban areas in Nigeria are jobless. More than 70% of the population lives on less than a dollar per day.
As was the case in Tunisia, state officials ask for bribe in Nigeria, they brutalise people, and our Governors are so important they are not likely to leave their offices to attend to a man complaining about cruel Vehicle Inspection Officers or other officials of the state. Revolutions have been ignited by seemingly simple causes: like famine/poverty in France, disenchantment in Brazil, anger in Poland, protest in Ukraine, Iran and Burma. But always, social revolutions are an amalgam of pent up grievances exploding in one historical moment. What has happened in Tunisia has resulted in a wave of protests in the Arab world, with young people in Iran, Burma, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, trying to seize on the moment to articulate their grievances. In Gabon, there has been a muffled imitation drama staged by those who consider the sitting government illegitimate. What has been demonstrated so far is the similarity of concerns about governance issues across national boundaries. There may be an undertone of the threat of Islamic fundamentalism to the protests in the Arab world, but clearly, what we have seen is the people’s yearning for freedom and change. In Tunisia, Yemen, Jordan, Algeria, indeed from the Maghreb to the Middle East, we have seen a rejection of poverty and dictatorship by the people.
The same issues could pose a serious challenge in sub-saharan Africa where beyond the mild protest in Gabon, there could be similar explosions in many of our countries. It is indeed curious that the contrary view has been expressed that the kind of people’s revolt in Tunisia and Egypt cannot happen in sub-saharan Africa. Such a statement is definitely ahistorical. It is more important for African leaders to learn the right lessons from the crisis in the Middle East. The myth for example that religion is a binding factor that makes the Middle Eastern population easier to control and dominate has again been exposed for what it is: a myth. Even Saudi Arabia is worried about the on-going “Lotus Revolution” in Egypt. The King of Jordan so concerned about the swell of youth protest quickly dissolved his cabinet in deference to the popular yearning for change. The reverberations have been felt even as far as China where the authorities have banned online discussions and pictures of the Egyptian unrest. Number one lesson: people everywhere are the same: it does not matter what weapon is used to suppress them, one day they may insist on change and their own freedom. Number two lesson: increased local poverty in the midst of national wealth and wide gaps of alienation could trigger social unrest.
African leaders and Nigerian leaders in particular must see the protest in Egypt and Tunisia as a reflection of the likely fate that awaits them. Egpyt’s Mubarak, ruler for 30 years, who had been grooming his son as a successor, has suddenly been told by the people that he should pack his bags and leave, today. Members of his family have fled. Mubarak may be struggling to buy time, bluffing the people, and pretending that he is in charge, but for him, the game is up. His government or whatever remains of it has practically shut down the country. The people are being denied the basic necessities of life. A curfew has been imposed. Mubarak’s agents/”supporters” have killed over 300 persons in ten days; still, the protest march is unstoppable. The people are defying every attempt to stop them. We have seen a similar type of revolt before now in Thailand, Brazil, Ukraine, Haiti, Czech Republic. The honourable option for Mubarak is to leave.
He is defiant, proclaiming that he will die on Egyptian soil. Fine, he can go and do so, in his private home or in jail, but not as President. His insistence that he will remain in office till the September polls smacks of arrogance and contempt. He has been told by his government’s strongest allies, the United States, that the time for change is now, but still like other sit-tight African leaders (Cote d’Ivoire’s Houphouet-Boigny, Malawi’s Kamuzu Banda, Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, Libya’s Muamar Ghaddafi, Cameroon’s Paul Biya, and Gabon’s Omar Bongo), before him, he is refusing to read the handwriting on the wall. When his government falls, the winners will be the people and the ideals of freedom and change, and hopefully, the political forces behind the wind of change in Egypt, will see the urgent need to stabilize the country. Tunisia’s Zine Ben Ali has fallen after 24 years in power, Mubarak, even if he continues to sit tight, has been thoroughly discredited. Those, like Mubarak who make peaceful change impossible make violent change inevitable. It sounds trite, but it is the truth. And indeed it can happen here. Another lesson is the futility of big powers like the United States supporting sit-tight leaders against their people due to selfish sovereign considerations that benefit that the super-power. The time for the United States to turn off its life support for Hosni Mubarak is now.
It is worth noting that Tunisia and Egypt are far more efficient states than Nigeria, and many other countries in sub-saharan Africa. Unemployment rate may be high in Tunisia and Egypt, but the people enjoy regular electricity and the quality of life is fair. In Tunisia, there is even a social insurance system that provides maternity payments, family benefits as well as disability and old age insurance. Pensioners in Tunisia are paid on time; there is also unemployment benefit, the women enjoy civil and political rights. The country recognises equal pay for equal work! The major problem is prevailing poor human rights practices in the shape of arbitrary arrests and the torture of detained persons, and poverty – the cause of significant alienation. The quality of life and the economy in Egypt and other countries of the Middle East where protest is raging are also far better than what obtains in sub-saharan Africa. If people who enjoy all these privileges can still go onto the streets, then, Nigerians must be a special breed indeed.
Bouazizi killed himself because no government official was willing to listen to his grievances. Nigerians are used to that. In fact, they do not expect any kindness from public officials. Bouazizi refused to give bribe. In Nigeria, the people are willing to offer bribe to civil servants and public officials. Tunisian policemen brutalized the Tunisian street vendor and he felt he should lodge an official protest. In Nigeria, the people are used to being beaten by policemen and other uniformed officers, rarely do we have such a case as that of the lady who took the Nigerian Navy to court when naval ratings brutalized her. In Egypt, the soldiers have refused to shoot the people on sight; in Nigeria, the conduct of the military remains unpredictable in a season of turmoil.
There may be no doubt that Nigerians have shown a remarkable capacity for resistance in the past and the history of protest in our land is rich and varied. Recent examples will include the protest against military rule, and the principled objection to former President Olusegun Obasanjo’s attempt to extend his tenure in office. The revolt in the Niger Delta and the Boko Haram insurgency in Northern Nigeria also point to distortions within the Nigerian system, and the anger of an aggrieved segment of the populace. However, local protests are not always targeted at misgovernance or the people’s yearning for change and progress; often they are coloured by religion and ethnicity making cases of sustained objections occasional and episodic.
What Nigeria needs is the kind of revolution, once recommended by Professor Ben Nwabueze, which is driven by the people and their faith in human freedoms. There is no universally prescribed method of revolution, but where the quality of human life is trampled upon and the people’s rights are routinely abused, the people as a collective have a duty to stand up and declaim: “Never Again!” Poverty and alienation which are central themes in the ongoing protests in the Maghreb and the Middle East could provide such common language that is spoken by protesters. Nigerians would like to see their leaders provide good governance and show greater responsibility in office. While hoping that the possibility of a Nigerian setting himself or herself ablaze in protest is remote, Nigerian leaders should nevertheless do everything to ensure that the April polls are transparent and credible, lest they provide a trigger for widespread rebellion in the land.