Today is Tuesday February 23rd, 2011. I am done with work for the day but I cannot go home. Not yet. I am seated behind my office desk, troubled and restless. Contrary views run riot in my mind. As is often the case, I decide to tame my mind my putting down my thoughts on paper. Can we? Or Can we not? If you are a Nigerian reading this piece, the decision is yours. Please read on.
It is just February, the second month in the year. March is round the corner. The year is running by pretty fast and so many things are happening. I quickly scan through recent online news headlines on my phone:
In the USA, the congressional democrats and republicans are involved in a bitter ideological warfare about how best to manage rising deficits and control America’s long term debts. President Obama wants to win the future for America by investing more in science and education.
In North Africa and the Middle East, a tsunami of sorts is taking place. The dictatorial governments of Tunisia and Egypt have fallen following popular revolutions. The people of Bahrain and Yemen are seriously agitating and aggravating their governments. Libya is in a state of entropy and the fate of Muammar Ghadaffi’s government is hanging in the balance.
But I am not American or Tunisian or Egyptian. Neither am I from Libya nor Bahrain nor Yemen. Like many of you reading this article now, I am Nigerian, to the bone and core. Reading about happenings in these countries does little for now to comfort my perturbed mind. What about my country?
Just like me, many of you have wondered and argued if a revolution of the magnitude and proportion seen in Egypt and Tunisia could happen in Nigeria. Can it? Or can it not?
Professor Pat Utomi, presidential flag bearer of the SDMP, referring to Nigeria in a recent article wrote:
It is no more a matter of whether we think it likely or possible; the wind of change is blowing. The question is to where does it blow? The Harold Macmillan wind of change blew Independence our way in 1960. The wind which started in Tunisia and is rocking Egypt will blow freedom our way.
John Ukah a banker and political commentator subscribes to a contrary opinion. He believes that Nigeria’s climate is not ripe for such and that it would be too simplistic to think that Nigerians could or would stage a popular revolution.
Nigerians are deeply polarized along ethnic and religious lines. These cleavages do not allow for a common front or unity in dealing with issues of common interests. There is a huge distrust and it is passed down from generation to generation.
Reuben Abati, editorial board chairman of the guardian newspapers compared the ills in the Tunisian and Nigerian societies and wonders why people believe the same cannot happen in sub-saharan African and Nigeria.
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.
As I write, CNN is reporting that Cameroonians are planning anti-government protests to end the 28-year rule of President Paul Biya
Well I am Nigerian. Can we? Or Can we not? My take on this:
People on both sides of the debate have valid points. Using Tunisia as a case study, I would compare and contrast with Nigeria with respect to specific factors that may influence the debate in one way or the other
Tunisia and Egypt had been ruled by dictatorships for 24 and 30 years respectively. Nigeria does not have a current sit-tight autocrat. The last 2 dictators who tried to perpetuate themselves in office were either forced to step aside or died of a 'heart attack'. Does the absence of a sit-tight leader mean that Nigeria has no dictatorship?
The Merriam Webster dictionary defines dictatorship as “autocratic rule, control or leadership” or as “a form of government in which absolute power is concentrated in a dictator or a small clique” (Does the word cabal sound familiar?)
Let us not be fooled by our bogus democracy where the people (party faithfuls) have no say in the determination of delegates to their party convention and by extension, their party’s flag bearers, who usually are the candidates that dish out the largest amount of foreign currency.
In Nigeria for instance, the nation state is equivalent to the ruling party and the ruling party is synonymous with the Nigerian nation state. There is no clear distinction. The cohort have absolute control over all arms of government, including the judiciary, all state apparatus, institutions and parastatals including INEC, EFCC, the Federal Police and the NNPC. They can effectively deploy the resources of the EFCC for example to intimidate political opponents while simultaneously milking the resources of the NNPC to procure political patronage.
In every instance, the people have no say and are utterly powerless. If the ruling party indulges in self preservation by Perpetually Dominating the People (PDP), wherein lies the freedom?
There is indeed dictatorial democracy. Following sham elections in Iran in 2004, the Times of London wrote a piece on dictatorial democracy.
Dictators and totalitarian regimes are contemptibly eager to demonstrate bogus democratic credentials. The Soviet authorities used to go to extraordinary lengths to organise “free” elections that were predetermined. Robert Mugabe insists on a charade of electoral campaigns and universal suffrage when intimidation, vote-rigging and fraud are the methods used to produce a spurious result in his favour. And North Korea’s regime gets as close as is possible to a perfect electoral score. Yesterday’s general election in Iran was as cynical and undemocratic as anything an Orwellian state could devise, with a self-appointed clerical elite forcing a cowed press and subservient religious establishment to hail the “democratic” outcome of an election shorn of all but the trappings of democracy.
Are we any different? Well perhaps a little different. While other dictatorial democrats try to perpetuate their very selves, in our case a dictatorial clique tries to perpetuate the group. It is unfortunate that this piece from the Times was written in 2004. I have no doubt that had it been written today, the do-or-die elections of 2007 that ushered in the present 'democratic' dispensation would have been included in the above paragraph.
How did it all begin. A Newsweek article:
What was especially shocking to Arab regimes was the way Ben Ali’s overthrow began: a young fruit and vegetable vendor who had his cart confiscated by police in the town of Sidi Bouzid set himself on fire last month to protest against job shortages and low wages. As news of the self-immolation spread, so did riots.
Sidi Bouzid (May his soul RIP) was frustrated about job shortages and wages. Tunisia has an unemployment rate of 14 percent with 3.8 living below the poverty line. While Nigeria's unemployment rate is 19.7 % *, 70% live below the poverty line.
With respect to other socioeconomic indices, Tunisia has a life expectancy of 75.78 while infant mortality rate is 22.5/1000 live births. Nigeria's life expectancy on the other hand is 51.5 years while infant mortality rate is estimated at 94.3/1000 live births!
In Sidi Bouzid, I see the 28 year old educated but unemployed Nigerian graduate who sells MTN recharge cards to make ends meet; the 10 year old girl who is compelled to work at her aunt's beer parlor, because her parents cannot afford to send her to school; the 50 year old man, in need of urgent treatment for his kidney ailment, begging for survival on the streets as he has no funds to go on a medical vacation to India or Saudi Arabia; the 68 year old retired railway worker who is dieing of starvation because his pension funds are not forthcoming.
The facts speak for themselves. If frustration is a necessary trigger for social uprising, it definitely abounds in Nigeria. The question is: Where do most Nigerians channel their frustration?
By 2009/2010 estimates, Tunisia has a population of 10.5 million people and Nigeria 149.2 million people. The labor force population is 3.83 million and 48.3 million respectively.
Assuming that potential protesters in Tunisia came from the pool of unemployed and probably frustrated people, then Tunisia had roughly half million potential protesters. (unemployment rate X labor force) The corresponding number of potential protesters in Nigeria would be 9.5 million. (NB: this is only an assumption and perhaps not scientifically accurate!)
Imagine 9.5 million unemployed people marching on Eagle square!
The protesters in Tunisia and Egypt were mostly young and middle-aged people. They had access to information technology and mobilized over the internet using the various social network platforms.
The demographics are comparable. 71% of Tunisia's population are aged 15 -64. Literacy rate is 74.3% . 55.5% of Nigerians are aged 15-64. Literacy rate is 66.9%.
At 28.9%, Nigeria has the highest internet penetration rate among African countries. About 80% of internet users in Nigeria are aged between 20 and 50 years. With the expanding telecommunications sector and mobile cellular growth, many more Nigerians have access to the instant mobile internet. In response to IBB's 2011 presidential bid, in a previous article I wrote about the potential ability of the youth in Nigeria to mobilize for a cause. What Nigerians can do using the internet is not in doubt. The means is there.
Is it called for?
This is very debatable depending on who you talk to.
In 2010, top constitutional lawyer and Professor of Law, Ben Nwabueze, openly called for a revolution. At the time, he was the sitting vice-chairman of the presidential advisory council. Why would he do that? Was there something he saw from the inside that no one else could see from the outside?
More recently retired General and presidential flag bearer the CPC warned of an Egyptian-style revolution if the 2011 elections were rigged. When Buhari he speaks, people take note, even if they do not agree with him. Why would a former head of state call for a revolution? What shattered his faith in the current Nigerian project?
Many people believe that 2011 represents the last chance for Nigeria to get her acts together. But that is not the only factor that holds us bondage to our leaders. How about real elections, where convention delegates are elected instead of appointed? How about the pillage of the commonwealth by our legislators and other elected officials? How about the lopsided budgetary allocation for recurrent and capital expenditures? How about the government's inability to secure the lives and properties of her citizens in Jos and other places? How about public accountability; strong and independent democratic institutions.
These are issues that are of interest to many Nigerians but no one is talking about them. Not even in an election year.
Tunisia has a more monolithic society with 98% of the population being of Arab/Berber ethnic extraction. They are also 98% Muslim. Nigeria is more ethnically diverse with no single numerically dominant ethnic group out of the 250 we are estimated to have. Nigeria's ethno-religious fault lines are well characterized and easily manipulated. As John Ukah aptly questions: would these divisions allow for a common front or unity in dealing with issues of common interests?
That brings me to my last point. How do Nigerians dissipate their political frustrations. In an ideal society, that should be at the polls, but since we have historically, always been disenfranchised, we are left with three other options: 1. keeping quiet
2. laying our problems on the supernatural
3. civil disobedience and popular revolt. People who dissipate their political frustrations in any of these ways have their reasons. No 2 may actually be the main reason why No 3 may be impossible.
You be the judge. CAN WE?
The writer, Uche Ofoma is a physician & contributing editor to nigeriaplus.com. He is on Twitter @yucee
CIA Factbook: www.cia.gov
Internet World Stats: www.internetworldstats.com
* 2009 estimates as reported by National Bureau of Statistics, Federal Republic of Nigeria: http://www.nigerianstat.gov.ng/
The CIA factbook reports Nigeria's unemployment rate as 4.9% (2007 estimate)