20 February 2011

North Africa: The 'Jasmine Revolution' And the Nigerian Nightmare


Some call it the "January 14th revolution", others would rather identify with it as "the peoples revolution"; yet, not a few would agree that the recent socio-political tsunami that swept through Tunisia ought to be named after the brave lad whose blood of martyrdom watered the ground on which the tree of the Tunisian revolution eventually blossomed.

That "moment of madness" that later picked momentum originated in the sleepy town of Sidi Bouzid. There, a young man named Mohamed El-Bouazizi paid the supreme price in a courageous attempt to say "enough is enough."

An Abuja-based labour activist, Asuzu Echezona captured the event in his opinion piece made available to LEADERSHIP SUNDAY.

Protests inspired by the revolt in Tunisia have been replicated along Egypt, Yemen and Algeria, Bahrain and Libya. Also, there is a striking semblance between the popular Middle Eastern and North African uprising to colour revolutions seen in post-Soviet countries- In Georgia with the Rose Revolution and Orange Revolution in Ukraine in 2003-2004. The protest so far has paid off, at least in terms of unseating two prominent sit-tight leaders - Tunisia's Ben Ali and Egypt's Hosni Mubarak, both holding on to power for fifty three years-twenty three years and thirty years respectively.

Like Tunisia, like Nigeria

To illustrate with an incident in Nigeria similar to those that sparked-off the revolution in Tunisia on January 31, an angry mob attacked and torched a commercial bank in Mpape, a suburb in Abuja, protesting the killing of a woman (some say a recently-married pregnant woman) by a policeman guarding the bank.

The gist is that the taxi driver insisted on dropping a passenger in front of the bank-supposedly a "Restricted Area", despite being warned by a mobile policeman attached to the bank, not to do so. Reportedly angered by the driver's effrontery in ignoring his order, the policeman shot at the taxi, instantly killing a female passenger and injuring three others. To follow was a mob action. Strikingly, this was first of its kind in the country's capital.

Outraged by the policeman's action, an angry mob swarmed the bank. Nine cars parked within the bank premises were torched; the bank's Automated Teller Machine, ATM, was burnt. The bank was also torched. But before the mob could completely overrun the bank and probably lynch some of its staff, the Brigade of Guards, led by its commander, Brig Gen. Emmanuel Atewe, anti-riot policemen Armoured Personnel Carrier, APC, and men of the Federal Capital Territory, FCT Fire Service, swarmed the scene to quell the unrest.

For all it is worth, Bloomberg reported that the bank fell 4.4 percent to 15.30 naira by the 2:30 p.m. close in Lagos, its lowest level since December 31.

The foregoing was in Nigeria.

In Tunisia, Bouazizi, was a Tunisian street vendor who sold vegetables. He set himself on fire on December 17, 2010, in protest of the confiscation of his wares and the humiliation that was inflicted on him by a female police officer.

That was all it took. This act became the catalyst for the 2010-2011 Tunisian revolution, sparking demonstrations and riots throughout Tunisia in protest of social and political issues in the country. Following Bouazizi's death, anger and violence heightened, leading then-President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali to step down on January 14, 2011, after 23 years in power.

Although not in the scale of the mass protest witnessed in the aforementioned countries, effective and largely successful protests have been carried out in Nigeria. The "Resign Now" call on late president Umaru Musa Yar'Adua at the height of the intrigues that followed his incapacitation by the Save Nigeria Group, SNG, and the subsequent confirmation of the prior vice president, Goodluck Jonathan as de facto president is a striking example.

"Don't forget that the trend of countries falling into coups is no more fashionable in Africa, and because that is going off, that is why you see revolutions coming up. So, we now have to be fighting revolutions now. How can you fight revolution? Good governance. Good governance goes along with peace. Where there is no good governance, there cannot be peace. And where there is no good governance, there cannot be democracy. Democracy brings good governance, good governance brings peace. And this is the new trend that is going to better the lot of African nations," President-General, African Peace Foundation, APC, Professor Ola Makinwa told LEADERSHIP SUNDAY.

In recent times, Nigeria has endured fighting between Christians and Muslims and a spate of bizarre killings, targeting government officials and security forces carried out by Boko Haram; all these coming close to crucial elections scheduled for April.

Even though the uprising ended up removing two of the country's leaders, the underlying factor remained the rife apathy, hopelessness, oppression to name a few, suffered by its citizens following years of government's neglect, under-representation, bad governance and misrepresentation that left them disillusioned. That was the driving force of the uprisings.

"Bouzizi's immolation was a solo demonstration against the oppression, corruption and dehumanization that had characterized the twenty three-year reign of Ben Ali. The young El-Bouazizi was not only dehumanized of his dignity, he was also deprived of any means of livelihood. The same government that failed woefully to provide him a job, clothing, shelter and food was the same oppressor that spitefully confiscated his basket of vegetable wares. That for him was the breaking point; the last straw that broke the camel's back. As sad and painful as Bouazizi's death is, it proved potent enough to break the back of an ultra repressive and irresponsible regime. Ultimately, the 150, 000 strong police militia guarding Ben Ali's government, estimated at 1 policeman to 27 Tunisians, took to flight at the sight of the wave of peoples' raw anger," Echezona said.

Without going into the dynamics of a revolution that would surely stand out as one of the finest moments in the Tunisian nationhood, it is pertinent to point out that the ingredients that fermented the Tunisian tsunami are part of the recipe of the menu called "the Nigerian nightmare". The Nigerian nightmare simply refers to the daily frustrations of regular Nigerians. The same could be said of most African countries.

The Nigerian factor

Several local and international observers have severally warned that if the intractable knots that define what has come to be known as "the Nigerian factor" are not speedily untwined, the sustainability of the Nigerian Project might be thrown into serious jeopardy. The American government had made this point known but they were hurriedly dismissed as "meddlesome interlopers". Ambassador John Campbell also gave his own assessment of what would become of us if we refused to change our ways. What did we do to him? A section of Nigerians dismissed his report as the ranting of a senile, biased and mischievous spy agent of the American government.

In Tunisia, the level of despondency, frustration and social dislocation had forced several citizens, including graduates to sell vegetables. El Bouzizi was not a graduate but the widespread poverty foisted on Tunisians by Ben Ali's draconian regime gave him no chance to further his academic pursuit beyond high school. In Nigeria, graduates are not only vegetable sellers, cobblers, okada riders, recharge card vendors; they are increasingly becoming drug couriers, gigolos, street prostitutes, and more lately, errand boys for politicians; that is if you are lucky to pay your way through school.

"For all the four years I spent in school as a student of the University of Nigeria, I didn't pay up to N12, 000 as school fees, inclusive of accommodation and sundry charges. And that was as recent as 2002. Fellow Nigerians who attended our universities in the 60's, 70's and early 80's hardly paid a dime. Today, students of my alma mater, pay as high as N100, 000 per session. And it is not like the standards are improving. In fact, the state of affairs in our citadels of higher learning has continued to spin on a free fall," Echezona lamented.

Despair pervades

"This rot is not restricted to the education sector alone; it is widely replicated in all facets of our national life. In our hospitals, on our roads, in the markets and other public spaces, the level of disconnect between the leadership and the followership in our country is magnificently pronounced. The potholes on our roads are daily improving to networks of gullies. Our hospitals have become glorified mortuaries, our markets have become meeting points for frustration, our public places have degenerated to epicentres of disease infestation and the government is everything but perturbed. Yet, billions of naira is appropriated yearly for the improvement of our public infrastructure and social services. If you compare these nightmares with the Tunisian experience, you would concur that our paths meet at different points," he added.

In the political sphere, we have not fared any better than the Tunisians. Zine El Abidine Ben Ali toppled his predecessor, Habib Bourguiba, in a palace coup on November 7, 1987. Ben Ali was subsequently re-elected with enormous majorities at every election, with the conduct of each election labelled worse than preceding ones. Our democratic experience might have witnessed successful transitions between three governments since 1999 but the quality of elections that has sustained the Peoples Democratic Party, PDP, in power bears close semblance to the electoral charade that perpetuated an unpopular Ben Ali in power for 23 years. 23 years? The PDP has already told Nigerians they would be in power for the next 100 years. One only hopes the party would rely on valid votes to achieve that.

Just like the unjust system institutionalized by Ben Ali's government viciously emasculated the young El-Bouazizi from enjoying the common patrimony of his fatherland, millions of Nigerians, especially the youths, are being pushed dangerously beyond the limits by an unjust system that services less than 20% of the populace by the labour, blood and sweat of the rest of us. While a few Nigerians can afford to have their breakfast in Lagos, lunch in London and dinner in France, millions of poverty-stricken Nigerians, at the moment, are not sure of their next meal.

According to a recent World Bank Report, more than 70% of Nigerians live below $1 a day, yet our legislators are the highest paid in the world. 99% of the rest only live marginally above $1 as our middle class has been wiped out by a combination of inflation and low wages.

The bottom line is that majority of Nigerians have been systemically turned into on-lookers in their own fatherland. Governments at all levels prepare annual budgets but Nigerians hardly feel a pinch of it. Nigerians are also daily inundated with fantastic reports of Nigeria's economic growth; just like in Tunisia, yet our unemployment rate is soaring to high heavens.

This horrendous state of affairs has forced upon us a different kind of apartheid where the few rich get richer and the rest of us get miserably poorer. Ruling elites like Ben Ali have used widespread poverty, joblessness, illiteracy, jaundiced reward and punishment system, general insecurity and a culture of fraudulent elections to alienate the masses of Nigeria from a shared citizenship.

Do we need the Tunisian tsunami to make serious efforts towards exorcising the demons of the Nigerian nightmare? A stitch in time, they say, saves nine!

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