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The return of people’s power

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By Obadiah Mailafia

ULTIMATELY, it is the people that rule. That’s bad news for tyrants, demagogues, authoritarians, oligarchs, plutocrats and crooks. Sooner or later, the people will rise and demand accountability. The history of freedom is a long and brutal one. History teaches that freedom is never given; it is almost always taken by force.

The first modern mass revolt in history occurred in August 1791 in the island of Saint-Domingue, renamed Haiti. Led by François-Dominique Toussaint Louverture, the oppressed slaves of Haiti revolted against their French masters and took their destinies into their own hands. The Trinidadian Marxist political philosopher and historian C. L. R. James wrote his famous book, The Black Jacobins, as an account of this revolt and of the extraordinary courage of leaders such as Toussaint, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, Henri Christophe, Vincent Ogé and Alexandre Pétions.

History shows that such mass insurrections cannot be kept at home. The Haitian revolution inflamed the rest of the Caribbean, the Americas and the islands of the seas. Toussaint sent soldiers to support Simon Bolivar on condition that he worked for the liberation of the Black slaves in Latin America. Haitian soldiers also went to support Abraham Lincoln during the American civil war on condition that he freed the benighted slaves of the United States.

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Surprisingly, mass revolts are often ignited by very humble people. Everybody recalls Mahatma Gandhi and his political embrace of poverty and non-violence as weapons of political struggle. A few years ago I had lunch in Brussels with a European member of parliament representing Hungary by the name of László TQkes. The meeting was brokered by my dear friend, businessman Björn Hultin of Sweden. His story is a remarkable one. He was born of Hungarian parents in communist Romania in 1952. During the Cold War, Romania was at the very core of the Soviet communist world order.

There had been insurrections in Czechoslovakia and Poland, but they were brutally suppressed. Romania under the leadership of strongman Nicolae Ceausescu was as seemingly impregnable as the hackneyed Rock of Gibraltar.  In the late eighties TQkes was a young pastor in the provincial town of Timisoara. He went about preaching against the godless ideology of communism. He soon incurred the wrath of the local stasi, the secret police, and was inevitably thrown into gaol. While in incarceration TQkes went on hunger strike. Before long, a movement had begun around the prisoner of conscience; spreading like a wild harmattan fire to other Romanian cities, including the capital Bucharest.

When President Ceausescu came out to address the angry crowd he was shouted down. Before you knew it his government had collapsed. Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife Elena were soon rounded up and executed. The Romanian revolution ignited the cold embers of revolt in Moscow, East Berlin, Warsaw, Budapest and Prague. The Berlin Wall came down in full glare of world television. The once Evil Empire went down like a pack of cards.

Who would have known that a young pastor on hunger strike in a prison in Timisoara could be used by God to change the world?

The Arab Spring that began in 2010 was started unknowingly by a young man by the name of Tarek el-Tayeb Mohamed Bouazizi (1984-2011). An unemployed youth, he had set up a stall illegally selling fruits and vegetables to support his ailing mother and his sisters. A policewoman had accosted him for opening the stall without a licence. When he could not give a satisfactory answer she physically assaulted him, calling his father and mother  with unprintable expletives.

To an Arab young man, this was the height of public humiliation. After fruitless appeals for justice, he bought a gallon of petrol and set himself ablaze.  Tunisian strongman Zine Abidine Ben Ali was forced to issue a public statement. Unfortunately it came too late. Bouazizi eventually died in hospital on January 4, 2011. The Arab Spring had begun. President Ben Ali and his family fled to Saudi Arabia. The Arab Spring toppled the governments of Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. It also shook the foundations of Syria, Yemen, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Oman.

This year witnesses what looks like an Arab Spring Redux. For much of last year there was a nation-wide demonstration in Algeria against the regime of Abdelaziz Bouteflika who had been in power since April 1999. In 2008, amid protests, he had revised the constitution to allow himself a third term. In February this year his spokesman announced that Bouteflika would be running for a fifth term. That announcement broke the camel’s back. Bouteflika was failing in physical health as well as in mental powers. He had rarely been seen in public. His minders had become the regents that ultimately called the shots. I was in Casablanca and Rabat in neighbouring Morocco during that week. There were various debates on when, not if, he would fall. A veteran of the Algerian anti-colonial war; top political commissar of the venerable Front National de Libération, FLN; renowned international diplomat; Abdelaziz Bouteflika threw in the towel on April 2, this year.

The latest manifestation of people’s power is in Khartoum, Sudan. Since the beginning of the year a spontaneous movement had begun against the regime of Omar al-Bashir. It was led mostly by women and youths. At first, they wanted modest political reforms. But when the regime applied high-handed measures against leading opposition members, the movement leaders soon upped the stakes. They demanded nothing less than regime change. Omar al-Bashir took over power in a military coup as far back as June 1989. He had ruled the country with an iron hand. He was opposed to any negotiations with the leaders of South Sudan while covertly arming and financing the genocidal Janjawid killers in the benighted region of Darfur. The Chief Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court has indicted him of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide.

The moral leader of the Sudanese Revolution is, astonishingly, a young beautiful Nubian woman of 23 by the improbable name of Alaa Salah, a student of engineering and architecture at Sudan International University in Khartoum. Through poetry, songs and the power of her rhetoric she stands at the vortex of a movement that has swept away the Old Order. The ousted president and his fellow-travellers are currently in detention, awaiting trial for corruption, crime and murder. Alaa Salah is an articulate and bright young woman from the oppressed Nubian people of the Nuba Mountains of Sudan. Draped in her signature white cotton robe, she is leading a movement that demands social justice, human rights and fair representation for women in Sudan. Omar al-Bashir used Sharia and Islam to climb up the greasy pole of power. He rode the proverbial tiger’s back for three decades and could not get down without somehow being consumed.

How could anyone have known that a young Nubian woman with a white cotton robe and poetry on her lips could have orchestrated the fall of the high and mighty in Khartoum?   Politics and physics have more in common than we generally imagine. No social scientist has yet come up with a theory of how people’s power arises and what triggers it. Chaos Theory is a branch of theoretical physics dealing with the behaviour of dynamical systems that are highly sensitive to initial conditions. Chaos theory shows how it is perfectly possibly for a butterfly flapping its wings in the Kerang Hills of Jos could set off a massive earthquake in Okinawa, Japan. A small gesture by a person of no power and no consequence could similarly set off a chain reaction that brings down an empire. Those who are wise will listen and learn!

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