Rotimi Amaechi, the Governor of Rivers state has been in the news a lot lately, mainly for his very public spats with Jonathan’s government. Last week, in his usual blunt style, he suggested that Nigeria could never witness a revolution in the mold of the Arab Spring revolts because Nigerians lack the courage to stand firm for change. Their “elasticity” as he put it, “has no limit”.
A revolution by definition is a sudden and cataclysmic shift in social and political structures in a nation. Its occurrence is therefore not predictable. Amaechi and the others who think they understand Nigeria and Nigerians should spend time reading history. Like earthquakes that can only be discerned once they have occurred, so too are revolutions.
Before a group of American patriots set off the fire at Boston Harbor in December 1773 that ultimately led to the American War for independence, the British had imposed all kinds of unfair taxes and levies on their American colony. The singular action that finally broke the camel’s back and triggered the American Revolution was precipitated by anger over the British government’s grants of all tea importation rights to the American colony to the East India Company. One act, tipped the scale.
When Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Joe Slovo, Arthur Goldreich and others launched UmKontho we Sizwe (the Spear of the Nation), the militant wing of the African National Conference (ANC) in 1961, no one thought the oppressed blacks of South Africa had the audacity to raise arms against their oppressors. There had been no precedent for their actions in South Africa. Up to that point, anti-apartheid struggles had consisted only of protest marches and strike actions. Yet, against all odds, Mandela and his compatriots were able to build a revolutionary army that struck fearlessly at the heart of Apartheid, and was partly responsible for the demise of that monstrous system.
There would probably have been no Arab revolt, but for the actions of Mohamed Bouazizi. He was a street vendor in Tunisia, who was subjected to harassment and intimidation by local authorities. There was nothing radically different about the inhumane treatment that was meted to Bouazizi on Dec 17 2010. The only difference was that Bouazizi had reached his elastic limit. But no one knew this. He was not bent to one side, by the weight of his troubles. His head was not letting off steam, to alert his tormentors to the fact that he was nearing a tipping point. He looked the way he always did, like one whose “elasticity had no limits.” So they harassed him as they always did. In protest, he set himself on fire. The small fire that he ignited in the small town of Sidi Bouzid, became a flame that consumed governments from Tunisia, to Egypt, Algeria and Yemen.
There are lessons to be learned from Nigeria itself. “Was your widowed mother counted?!” With those defiant words, spoken in November 1929, Nwanyereuwa of Oloko set in motion a series of events that culminated in what is now known as the “Aba Women’s Riot.” A representative of the warrant chief had appeared at Nwa’s home asking her to count the livestock that had belonged to her dead daughter in-law, for taxation purposes. Nwanyereuwa refused to comply and was assaulted. Word of her ordeal spread and the women mobilized to fight the new unjust tax laws. At the height of the uprising that ensued, tens of thousands of women across Eastern and Southern Nigeria had joined their sisters at Oloko, upturning the false tranquility of colonial Nigeria. Their revolution led to the sack of dozens of native courts and forced the resignations of numerous warrant chiefs. Their protest was met with a heavy hand. When the dust settled and the guns fell silent, the painful price the courageous women paid was clear: 32 were killed killed at Opobo, 3 at Abak, and 17 at Utu-Etim-Ekpo – all of them murdered by the British Constabulary.
The Agbekoya peasant revolt in Western Nigeria in 1968-69 and Adaka Boro’s 12 day war are further examples of the capacity of the Nigerian people to take principled action whenever it becomes necessary. Amaechi’s sweeping generalization dishonors the memory of Akintunde Ojo, Kunle Adepeju and other student patriots who have faced down guns and bullets in their quest for a better nation.
Amaechi mistakes revolutions for popular, mass action. All of the 20th century’s most famous revolutionaries led movements that had only a few people. Rawlings staged a revolution in Ghana, yet he never had more than 1,000 men involved in his plot at any time. Fidel Castro began his march on Havana from the mountains of the Sierra Maestra with only 82 men. And the most storied revolution of all, the war for American Independence, began with a few hundred disenchanted Bostonians, burning barrels of tea at Boston Harbor.
Because of Goodluck Jonathan’s ineptitude, Nigerians are being stretched to their elastic limit faster than anyone could have predicted possible. The economy continues to work only for a privileged few. Corruption is now not only tolerated, it is celebrated. The middle and upper classes that have long been insulated from the tumult of the Nigerian system, have now been drawn into the cauldron of fire. Their tall fences, private schools, and exclusive hang outs have been breached by the rising tide of insecurity. This should give Amaechi and co-leaders reason to worry. Revolutions come more quickly when the privileged bourgeois class – the middle and upper classes – join the proletariat (masses) class in their discontent. The bourgeois bring their resources - their organizing skills, their tweets and facebook pages, their access to printing presses, their ability to fire off bulk text messages and engage extensive networks - to the battle for the soul of a nation.
In the South, the privileged live in daily fear that their children and spouses will be kidnapped for ransom. Their nights are lived in terror, and every noise brings with it the dread that marauders have struck. In the North, Boko Haram has crippled enterprise, and has broken the myth of invincibility that surrounded the traditional institutions of power. Northern power elite like the Emir of Kano have been attacked. The Sultan, long revered as the Sarkin Musulmi, finds his authority being usurped by a terror group that claims to speak for Nigerian muslims. Daily, the body count of innocents consumed in the senseless power play mounts. And Jonathan fiddles while Nigeria burns. He is busy granting amnesty to thieves and rogues, and maneuvering for a second and a half term, while his nation burns.
Revolutions are ultimately fueled by fear as much as they are by hope. At no time has fear been as pervasive in the Nigerian polity as it is now. When the Nigerian revolution comes, it may not be a mass movement driven by hope. It will likely be triggered by a small isolated incident, inspired by fear.