Friday Sermon: Talking About the Revolution

By Babatunde Jose

“The children of the poor you failed to train will never let your children live in peace . . .” Chief Obafemi Awolowo

In the recent past, the countries of North Africa and the Middle East have been shaken by the “Arab Spring” started by the so-called ‘Jasmine Revolution’, which was initially ignited by public outrage over the self-immolation of a street vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi, on December 17, 2010. By January 14, 2011, President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who had ruled Tunisia since 1987, had stepped down, but far from abating, the revolutionary fervor against the rule of privileged elites in Tunisia got stronger and spread to the rest of the Middle East. Thus, started the ‘Arab Spring’.

In its wake, Hosni Mubarak, who had ruled Egypt with a tight grip for almost thirty years, was ousted on February 11, 2011. That same year, Muammar Gaddafi, the deposed leader of Libya, was captured and killed on 20 October 2011 during the Battle of Sirte. There followed the uncertain fates of the regimes in Bahrain, Syria, and Yemen. The roots of discontent in these countries lie in their political set up; nothing more.

It is self-evident that similar looking nations often differ greatly in their economic and political development. This is because of a broad multiplicity of historical institutional developments, sometimes based on very accidental circumstances, might have engendered far reaching consequences. The openness of a society, its willingness to permit creative destruction, and the rule of law appear to be decisive for economic development: There is no doubt, it is manmade institutions, not the lay of the land or the faith of forefathers, neither is it  Islam or Christianity  that determine whether a country is rich or poor.

What are the constraints that keep us from becoming more prosperous? Is our poverty immutable, or can it be eradicated? A natural way to start thinking about this is to look at what common people are saying about the problems they face and why they need to revolt against the oppressive regimes. “We are suffering from corruption, oppression and bad education. We are living amid a corrupt system which has to change;” says he people.

Following moments of open class warfare in the late 1960s and early 1970s, battles against the political and economic order became fragmented, trade unions were attacked and rendered ineffective, the legacy of the anti-colonial struggles was eroded and the history of the period was recast by the establishment to undermine its potency. In the post-Cold War era, a new phase of protest finally began to overcome these defeats. It was one of these putsches that terminated the rule of Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire, one of the longest standing dictators of the post-colonial era, who ruled that country from 1966 to 1997: A one time ally of the United States, who at the height of their relationship once asked for a plane-load of Coca-Cola for his troops fighting the rebels of the Katanga province.

The global anti-war movement of the new millennium  led to the biggest coordinated demonstrations in the history of protest on 15 February 2003, in which millions of people demonstrated in over 800 cities, creating a crisis of democracy around the US and UK-led intervention in Iraq.

In the years leading up to and following the banking crisis of 2008, food riots and anti-austerity protests escalated around the world in what became known in Africa as SAP Riots (protests the IMF induced Structural Adjustment Program). In parts of the Middle East and North Africa, protests achieved insurrectionary proportions, with the overthrow of one dictator after another. After the Arab Spring was thwarted by counter-revolution, the ‘Occupy movement’ and recently ‘Black Lives Matter’ gained global attention. While the public, urban square became a central focus for protest, social media became an important – but by no means exclusive – organizing tool.

The protestors today are speaking about the corruption of the government, its inability to deliver public services, and the lack of equality of opportunity in the country. They particularly complained about repression and the absence of political rights. People now see their economic problems as being fundamentally caused by their lack of political rights.

To the new protestors, the things that have held them back include an ineffective and corrupt state and a society where they cannot use their talent, ambition, ingenuity, and what education they can get. But they also recognize that the roots of these problems are political. Today, the army of unemployed youths have discovered their historic mission: ‘Vanguard of the anti SARS protest’.

All the economic impediments they face stem from the way political power is exercised and monopolized by a narrow elite. This, they understand, is the first thing that must change. The ‘Lions’ of Bourdillon, Tigers of Malali, Leopards of Minna and other fat cats of the ‘Animal Kingdom’ must be tamed and chained. Their chokehold on our people is one main reason why we are not making progress. Not being captains of industries or commerce, rentiers, and exploiters of the commonwealth, they have no visible investment in the welfare of society: One word describe them, Parasites.

When they reason about why a country is poor, most academics and commentators emphasize completely different factors. Some stress that poverty is determined primarily by geography; others instead point to cultural attributes that are supposedly inimical to economic development and prosperity. They also  argue about the lack of work ethic and cultural traits that have allowed others to prosper, and instead have accepted religious beliefs that are inconsistent with economic success: A third approach, the one dominant among economists and policy pundits, is based on the notion that the rulers simply don’t know what is needed to make their country prosperous, and have followed incorrect policies and strategies in the past. If these rulers would only get the right advice from the right advisers, the thinking goes, prosperity would follow.

To these academics and pundits, the fact that we have been ruled by narrow elites feathering their nests at the expense of society seems irrelevant to understanding the country’s economic problems.

In fact, Nigeria is poor precisely because it has been ruled by a narrow elite that have organized society for their own benefit at the expense of the vast mass of people. Political power has been narrowly concentrated and has been used to create great wealth for those who possess it, such as the owners of the ‘Hilltop’ Mansions, Bullion van owners and ubiquitous tax collectors. The losers have been the Nigerian people.

Countries in Europe  became rich because their citizens overthrew the elites who controlled power and created a society where political rights were much more broadly distributed, where the government was accountable and responsive to citizens, and where the great mass of people could take advantage of economic opportunities.

In 1688, England had a revolution that transformed the politics and thus the economics of the nation. People fought for and won more political rights, and they used them to expand their economic opportunities. The result was a fundamentally different political and economic trajectory, culminating in the Industrial Revolution. Late Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana understood this maxim when he said ‘seek ye first the political kingdom and every other thing shall be added unto you’.

Though Nigeria became independent in 1960, it brought to power another elite as disinterested in achieving prosperity for ordinary Nigerians as the British had been. One set of colonial masters were exchanged for internal colonizers.  In consequence, the basic structure of society did not change, and we stayed poor. The railway lines running from north to south in a parallel formation is part of that story. Our river ports which were left by the colonialists remained our main outlets to the world and are inadequate for today’s see traffic.

It is indeed difficult for ordinary citizens to acquire real political power and change the way their society works. But it is possible, because it had happened in England, France, and the United States, and in Japan, and Brazil. Fundamentally it is a political transformation of this sort that is required for a poor society to become rich. There is evidence that this may happen here too. A broad movement in society was a key part of what happened in these other political transformations.

The current EndSARS movement is aluta in the right direction and might bring about more desired awareness on the part of our youth that the country is theirs and unlike their gerontocratic parents, they have more at stake in this country than anybody else: Nobody will hand this country over to them on a platter; they must fight for their place in the sun. ‘Aluta continua’.

Barka Juma’at and a happy weekend


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