“Our country, Nigeria, needs more rebels. Those who will face it and say it’s not good, it’s not good for Nigeria.
–Former President of Nigeria, Olusegun Obasanjo (The punchFebruary 20, 2022)
The opening quote from a speech given last Saturday by General Olusegun Obasanjo (retired), a former head of state, highlights the constructive dimensions of rebels and rebellion, especially in a context like ours where things have gone really bad. Obasanjo’s statement was made on the 80th birthday of Alhaji Tayo Sowunmi, a former Student Union leader and now a statesman. A word about Sowunmi is in order. He was President of the University of Lagos Students’ Union when this columnist was President of the University of Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University) Students’ Union, a season of our national life notorious for anti-military demonstrations. While some of us went to work in the technocracy and intellect department, Sowunmi gave up the offer of a top notch corporate job to continue in activism and made himself stand out as an outspoken and effective campaigner for teachers’ rights under the aegis of the Nigerian government. Teachers’ Union as General Secretary. He turns to politics at the beginning of the Fourth Republic and decides to mark his entry into the ranks of the octogenarians with an interesting book entitled “Footprints of a Rebel”. This is the backdrop to Obasanjo’s endorsement of rebels and rebellion in the quest to reinvigorate Nigeria.
At first glance, it may seem bizarre to advocate the rebels as an answer to Nigeria’s many problems. It should be obvious, however, that what Obasanjo has in mind, drawing inspiration from Sowunmi’s career, are rebels or, better yet, protesters with a cause. This writer is of the opinion that political and social protest should become the kingdom’s fifth domain alongside the media widely known as the kingdom’s fourth domain. Not only Nigeria, but our universe owes much to the activities of protesters, who were at first scorned or ridiculed, but who later gained pride of place in public affairs due to the changes and restructuring of dialogue induced by their protests. . What would the United States be today without the historic anti-slavery protests, the protracted struggle for civil equality, the exploits of protesters such as Martin Luther King Jr., and the more recent uprisings titled #Black Lives Matter after the brutal murder of George Floyd in May 2020?
Readers will recall that following the uproar caused by the #Black Lives Matter movement, a national and international dialogue ensues on racism, police brutality, the extension of part of the police budget to disadvantaged communities as well as police reform. In this sense, protests and demonstrators have helped reshape and redefine national and global political discourses by bringing attention to previously neglected issues, leading, in the process, to a more just and humane world. It’s no wonder Time magazine awarded its 2011 Person of the Year award to none other than “the protester.” Who can forget the changes wrought by the widespread pro-democracy uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa just over a decade ago? What about the Occupy movement that intensified the conversation about widening inequality, itself a major downside of contemporary global political economy? Here in Nigeria, the protester or rebel has always been at the heart of political change and reform. Beginning with the struggle against colonial rule, Nigeria’s independence was achieved through the toil and tears of our founding fathers and heroes of the past. During the years of military rule, it was difficult to silence the voice of the people organized by militants to showcase people power. Of course, there were the heroic protests of June 12, the anti-authoritarian ferment that led to the formation of the National Democratic Coalition venting grievances through pirate radio Kudirat in the fight for democracy. This struggle has had its heroes, martyrs, traitors and backsliders, but it is an important chapter in our march towards a reinvented Nigeria.
Over the next few years, tremors of protest were sparked by the Occupy Nigeria movement whose ranks were made up of many of the people currently in the ruling party. Subsequently, under the regime of Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retired), protests were organized such as #OurMumudondoCoalition of civil society activists together the epic #EndSARS eruptions against police brutality with national and international reverberations. The protests under the current administration are notable because the ruling party has this time been more intolerant of civil protests than some previous governments who understood that protests are not a blight on democracy but a essential of it.
It should be noted that protests, even demonstrations, when they involve whole groups and sections of citizens, are examples of what scholars have called “nation-building from below”. This is because they project the image of another country more united in outrage than the one that exists in its old ways. Protests do not always come from below but can take the form of defensive radicalism, to use Professor Claude Ake’s term, in which an enlightened ruling elite preserves the system by enacting reforms that obviate the need for direct change and revolutionaries. Two historical examples are the English ruling class frantically reforming the system to avoid its version of the French Revolution that had broken out across the Channel. The second is the German leader, Otto von Bismarck, who introduced extensive social legislation in his country to upstage the socialists and roll back the advance of socialism.
Structurally, wise elites do not wait for their countries to be invaded by mass protests. They use remote sensing capabilities to measure people’s temperament and pulse to introduce desired and needed reforms. It was heart-warming, for example, when Senate Speaker Ahmad Lawan shrewdly insisted that the rate of inflation and poverty was such that it would be unwise to remove fuel subsidies, because that would aggravate the misery of Nigerians. However, shortly after the government appropriately suspended the policy for 18 months, a section of the elite who profit from the oil import business threw a spoke in the wheel by triggering a fuel crisis allegedly linked to the contaminated fuel supply. The crisis persists and life has become even more difficult than Lawan expected. Disturbingly, very little is said even as a form of consolation by the responsible authorities while those who started the fire are probably laughing at the banks. No one has offered to quit and no one has been sidelined to thwart an announced policy by the government and deepen the misery of Nigerians seeking fuel amid an unfolding electricity crisis alongside generally hot and humid weather.
Silence in these circumstances cannot be golden. In the tradition of progressive political change, it is desirable that steps be taken to show that the misfortunes and sufferings of Nigerians are strong and visible enough for the deaf and blind to take heed.
In conclusion, the protests creatively extend the national conversation and deepen democracy. Given the turmoil often associated with them, far-sighted leaders anticipate them by making the desired changes and acutely perceiving the political barometer.
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