By Babatunde Jose
“As I stood in the corner of that vast tumult waiting for the arrival of the Minister I felt intense bitterness welling up in my heart. Here were silly, ignorant villagers dancing themselves lame and waiting to blow off their gunpowder in honour of one of those who had started the country down the slope of inflation. I wished for a miracle, for a voice of thunder, to hush this ridiculous festival and tell the poor contemptible people one or two truths. But of course it would be quite useless. They were not only ignorant but cynical. Tell them that this man had used his position to enrich himself and they would ask you – as my father did – if you thought that a sensible man would spit out he juicy morsel that good fortune had placed in his mouth”. Chinua Achebe, A Man of the People
The year 2017 is ending on a very sad note for millions of Nigerians. Unlike other climes where people have refused to be taken for granted by their leaders, Nigerians have accepted their suffering like one who is paying penance; they flock to prayer houses, mosques, camps and ‘asalatus’ believing that prayer would change their condition. Unfortunately, prayer won’t solve their problems. In a recent post, the Dalai Lama posited that we have been praying for thousands of years but no change, because God did not cause our situation. We caused the mess and it is for us to clean up. We would be hypocritical in blaming God for our peculiar situation. We know the genesis of our problems: A clueless, irresponsive and irresponsible leadership. A leadership that is bereft of vision and mission; and it is our responsibility to make them accountable for their actions. The unforgivable sins of our leaders are too many to be recounted in this short piece: They are the materials for a doctoral thesis. Yet, we talk of the resilience, but actually the stupidity of the populace. The opening quote from Achebe’s book is emblematic of the gross ignorance and cynicism of our people; a man is being owed six months wages, yet he stands in the rain to go to the same office, gets his clothes roughened and torn rushing for ‘danfo’ in order to get to the same office where he has become a contemptible indentured labourer.
The year 2017, was an eventful year in many countries; marked by protests, demonstrations and uprisings. But what happened here, we were busy debating tithes.
Large-scale protests have become more numerous and geographically widespread in recent years with the rise of citizen mobilisation. Today’s wave of protests is relatively unique, however, in effecting all regions of the world, with similar patterns of revolt spanning diverse national and cultural contexts. The ubiquity and frequency of large-scale mobilisations is sufficient to denote a structural shift in how citizens confront power and in how global civil society organises in pursuing its concerns. In 2017, new protests rocked Armenia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Indonesia, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Moldova, Thailand, Yemen and Zimbabwe. There have been notable protests in Argentina, Belarus, Gambia, Hungary, Korea, Kyrgyzstan, Mexico, Morocco, Paraguay, Romania, Russia and Venezuela – to name but a few examples. A key characteristic is that today’s protests are driven by a diversity of issues, grievances and popular concerns, chief of them corruption in high places.
Some protests aim very directly to eject a government or regime from power – think of the on-going revolts in Venezuela that have been seeking a ‘recall referendum’ on President Nicolas Maduro’s continuation in office and seeking more extensive rights for indigenous minorities. Some focus more on cases of corruption – recent Brazilian and Indian protests being two of the best-known such examples.
Many protests in the West have been primarily against austerity cuts – those in Greece and Spain being emblematic of this type of mobilisation. Others are less precise and more generically against capitalism and neoliberalism – like the various national versions of the Occupy movement. In contrast, some protests are responses to very specific, local grievances and have relatively modest aims – a growing number of protests in Russia fit into this category.
Nearly all protests are ignited by a proximate cause – a particularly emblematic corruption case, a mining company’s new project, a disaster that kills many people and can be traced back to government negligence. But invariably they also emerge out of background grievances that fester for years – a slow decline in political freedoms or poor economic performance. As a general rule, protests erupt in dramatic fashion when both an immediate trigger and longer-term frustrations are powerfully present and fuse together. Think of the way that protests in Turkey moved from their specific aim of stopping a redevelopment project in Istanbul’s central square to a wider set of rights and governance issues. Think also of the way that protests in Brazil initially focused on the specific issue of bus fares, then on high-level corruption cases, then on the country’s broader political situation – and in doing so involved grassroots community groups, leftist-radicals, rights-oriented NGOs and rightist-conservative movements. In the US, Black Lives Matter has responded to specific killings, and then also harnessed a wider set of grievances about black communities’ abrogated rights.
The results of the current cluster of protests have been mixed. Some have succeeded in pushing presidents or corrupt ministers from power, or in getting governments to unblock political, social or economic reforms – like the protests against incumbent presidents in Burkina Faso, Gambia and Senegal, and in Guatemala and Korea. In recent years, protests have erupted in highly autocratic states, in well-established democracies, in imploding conflict-states and in apparently well-managed semi-authoritarian rising powers. Why is our own different? This is a trillion Naira question, begging for answer. ‘Show us the straight way’,( Quran 1:6).
May the new year usher in a new sense of socio-political consciousness among our people; May the rising hunger and discomfort teach us to rise up and hold our leaders accountable for our predicaments and may we learn to say ‘never again’; our mumu don do. On this note, late Tai Solarin’s New Year prayer may be appropriate: ‘May your road be rough’.
Barka Juma’at and Happy New Year