By Professor Ben Nwabueze
Our beloved country, Nigeria, is today going through the pangs of death and needs to be saved. The principles and institutions of government – particularly the Rule of Law and Justice – are withering and are in need of restoration. Democratic rule, that says, rule of the people by the people, is being emasculated and is in need of sustenance and revitalisation. Freedom is being trampled upon and needs to be unchained. The instruments of peace, order and security are in a state of malfunction, featuring killings, and displacement of persons, kidnappings, banditry, armed robbery, terrorism and other acts of criminality, and need re-activation.
The moral and ethical foundations of the state are decaying and need to have fresh life breathed into them. Our lives have been greatly impoverished, with poverty, hunger, hardship and misery now the lot of millions of people, and need revival. In short, nothing is working, yet the country must be made to work. To get the country to work again, as it did before 2016, requires a radical change in the political, social and economic system, irrespective of how the change is brought about, whether by peaceful or violent means. Such radical change is what is known, in common parlance, as a Revolution.
It is sad that, in this country, the word “revolution”, irrespective of the context in which it is used, conjures in the minds of people the spectre of bloody violence, but it is not, and need not necessarily be so. As with Karl Marx himself, a revolution in his conception does not necessarily imply a civil war or violent revolt by the oppressed and exploited classes, although he does not also exclude the use of violence should it become necessary. In Nigeria as in the rest of Africa, the use of violence may turn on how bad and desperate the situation is, the feasibility of a common violent action in a society divided by fundamental cultural or racial differences; it may also turn on whether the violent action is spontaneous or not, and the chances of success. The moral justification of violence itself as a means of bringing about radical change, even in the fight for liberation from an oppressive colonial regime, is not free from disputation.
While it is not proposed to enter into a discussion of the issues raised by a violent revolution, I am not unmindful of its evil consequences. A violent revolution is too much of an ill wind that lumps all together, the good and the rotten, the selfless and the corrupt looters, for indiscriminate buffeting or liquidation. A peaceful revolution led by a leader suitably fired by a revolutionary fervour is preferable; exceptionally, however, violence may be justifiable where the situation is so hopeless and rotten as requires blood to clean it up.
It must be acknowledged that a violent revolution, especially the violence of a shooting war, is the quickest and the most effective way to bring about radical change in governance and society. A war creates a necessity, and necessity is the mother of change; it dictates and compels certain ways of living; it faces people with situations which leave them no choice but to follow patterns of behaviour dictated by war conditions, and war conditions often overturn established habits, customs and relationships. It was the violence of the French Revolution in 1789, the bloodiest of revolutions, that transformed France’s aristocratic society, with its gross inequalities, social injustices and feudalistic values, into the democratic society that it eventually became, a change which, in the course of time, swept across the whole of Europe. It is fair to say that European society and polity are what they are today largely because of the French Revolution. There can be no doubt that, in a situation of pervasive massive rottenness and decadence in society, such as existed in France before the Revolution and such as the situation in Nigeria today is dangerously approaching, a violent revolution can be effective and useful in cleaning the society of rottenness and in bringing forth a new, rejuvenated society.
“It was the French and not the American Revolution,” writes Hannah Arendt, in her book titled On Revolution (1963), p. 55, “that set the world on fire.” By arousing in the masses the spirit of republicanism, equality, nationalism and revolutionary action, it marked the turning point in the history of human affairs not only in France but also in the whole of Europe and indeed the world at large. Ever since that momentous event, “it has been common to interpret every violent upheaval, be it revolutionary or counter-revolutionary, in terms of a continuation of the movement originally started in 1789, as though the times of quiet and restoration were only the pauses in which the current had gone underground to gather force to break up to the surface again – in 1830 and 1832, in 1848 and 1851, in 1871, to mention only the more important nineteenth-century dates. Each time adherents and opponents of these revolutions understood the events as immediate consequences of 1789”. In this view, therefore, the French Revolution is a permanent, perpetual, continent-wide (even world-wide) revolution which, with interludes of quiet, has continued up to the present day.
The bloody violence of the French Revolution should not lead us to think that violence is necessarily inseparable from a revolution or that a call for a revolution is necessarily a call for the overthrow of government by violent or unconstitutional means, in the absence of utterances or actions suggesting such an intention.
The story of the French Revolution need to be taken together with that of the American Revolution to determine whether violence is of the very essence of a revolution, and that without the element of violence, we cannot meaningfully speak of a revolution. The American Revolution began with violence, the violence of a War of Independence to liberate the American colonies from the yoke of British rule. But, apart from the war, the American experience was a revolution in the additional sense of a series of events, starting with war, but including non-violent events, that revolutionalised American government, society, ethic, values and culture generally. It was a long-drawn-out process, spanning a protracted period of intense, frenzied actions, before, during and after the war, the most historic of which (apart from the war itself) was the Declaration of Independence by force in 1776. The Declaration is not just a document proclaiming the independence of the thirteen American colonies from Britain; it is, additionally, a document embodying the commitment of Americans to certain moral principles accepted by all as creating a binding, non-renunciable obligation to live by those principles as a code of conduct – the principles of equality and justice, human dignity and human rights, both civil and political rights.
The war itself had a momentous effect on American society, transforming it from what it was before into a republican one, a society bristling with republican ideas and an egalitarian ideology. In the more familiar language used by Alexis de Tocqueville in 1835 to describe American society, the Revolution had transformed it into a “democratic society”, that is to say, a society characterised, not by equality among its members, but by equality of condition, or, what he calls “a republican condition of society” – a society in which the members are independent of each other, none being subservient to another, as in an aristocratic society, where every wealthy aristocratic “constitutes the head of a permanent and compulsory association, composed of all those who are dependent upon him, or whom he makes subservient to the execution of his designs”.
Gordon Wood has described the change in a language that gives a vivid insight into the character of the change:
“The republican society and culture that gradually emerged after the Declaration of Independence” he wrote, “were decidedly different from what had existed earlier. The older hierarchical …..society of the eighteenth century – a patronage world of personal influence and vertical connections whose only meaningful horizontal cleavage was that between gentlemen and common people – this old society…….now finally fell apart, beset by forces released and accelerated by the Revolution, to be replaced over the subsequent decades with new social relationships and new ideas and attitudes, including a radical blurring of the distinction between gentlemen and the rest of society.”
In a passage quoted by Wilson McWilliams at the beginning of his essay, “On Equality as the Moral Foundation for Community”, Tocqueville says that “equality of condition….. possesses all the characteristics of a Divine decree: it is universal, it is durable, it constantly eludes all human interference, and all events, as well as all men, contribute to its progress”. Equality is equity (i.e. justice) is a time-honoured maxim, positing equality and justice as the moral foundation for community, a foundation without which no community of people can exist in peace and harmony or hope to progress. By transforming American society into one based on equality of condition and justice, the Revolution helped to lay a foundation for peace and progress in the country.
The American colonies fought an eight-year brutal war to end political domination from outside, but it was, more essentially, a war to win for Americans, as individuals, freedom to be themselves – to think, feel, believe, act, speak and move about as they liked with only minimum interference by others, especially government. The liberty of the individual was the rallying dogma, and its attainment by means of a war was what, more than anything else, gave the war the character of a revolution. Liberty of the individual was the end sought to be attained, and liberation of the colonies from outside political domination through a war was only a means to that end. The Revolution gave birth to a republic that was “the greatest instrument of human liberty ever made”. Liberty of the individual was thus the foundation, the moral foundation, on which the American polity was built.
Americans were mobilised and came out to fight for their liberty as individuals, and thousands perished for the cause of individual liberty. Thus did the liberty of the individual become embedded as a cardinal principle of American society and government. “The killing and dying in our revolutionary war had a clear purpose and justification: the defence of liberty, the re-establishment, in the words of the Declaration of Independence, of the “unalienable rights” with which all human beings are “endowed by their Creator”.
As another of its significant effects, the American War of Independence and the necessity and war conditions it created imposed a unity on the revolting colonies, and through its crucibles a nation, the American nation, was forged. Thus, it helped to settle the National Question for America, although the problem was not of the intractable nature it has in Africa, since the population of the thirteen American colonies in revolt consisted predominantly of people of the same culture, i.e. Englishmen.
The war and the revolution it triggered had yet another significant by-product. “From the fiery crucible of the revolution, there was to emerge, phoenix-like, a revivified citizenry”, a citizenry imbued with the spirit of civic virtues – the virtues of honesty and integrity, discipline, self-restraint and moderation, obedience to the laws, love of country and patriotism, etc.
The culminating event of the revolution was the adoption of “a Constitution for the United States of America” in 1787. The significance of the Constitution in this connection lies partly in the principles, ideas and the frame of government enshrined in it but more perhaps in the democratic process by which it was adopted – through a National Convention in Philadelphia and state ratifying Conventions. In the result, the new republic was anchored upon a solid moral foundation resting on the will and consent of the whole people – on “a voluntary social compact……established by peaceful debate”, rather than by imposition by the will and power of an imperial sovereign or a dominant ruling group in the country.
In addition to the democratic process used in adopting it, the constitution establishes a framework of government deliberately framed to conform to what James Madison called the “genius of the American people” and to suit the perceived character, habits and morals of the American people as then “constituted” by their tradition and way of life as well; as to further mould them in the “habits of right action” – in the habits of self-restraint and moderation. In other words, the Constitution was intended to, and did, influence the development of the character, habits and morals of the American people. In drawing up the Constitution, writes Robert Goldwin, the framers “did not want to leave Americans just where they were, but, rather, starting where they were, they wanted to make them better.”
The framers of the American Constitution believed that the end of individual liberty for which Americans fought the War of Independence could best be achieved in a “republic” by which was meant, according to their particular conception of the term, not a democracy, neither direct democracy nor one elected by the entire mass of adult citizens, but rather a form of government resting on the consent of the people conceived in a restricted sense as well as ensuring the protection of life, liberty and property. Though not democrats in the sense just stated, they were republicans and liberals, their intention being to “establish a liberal framework of government, though it could be, and later was, democratised to a degree that, for a time, would astonish the world.”
The American Revolution was able to transform American government, society, ethic, values and culture in part because of the quality of the men who led it, the revolutionary leaders, otherwise called the Founding Fathers: men like George Washington, first president, John Adams, second president, Thomas Jefferson, third president, James Madison, fourth president, Alexander Hamilton, Benjamin Franklin, to name only the better known among them. The American revolutionary leaders have been described as “civic-minded philosopher-statesmen”, an extraordinary galaxy of men of good character, good education, integrity, honesty and sincerity, with a deep concern for the public good and a scorn for self-enrichment. They were able to implant in American society an enlightened ethic, ethos and values through the “brilliance of their thought, the creativity of their politics” and their extraordinary ability to combine “ideas and power, intellectualism and politics” without getting alienated from the people and without becoming obsessed with votes. Because they “saw themselves as part of an organic social community linked through strong personal connection to those below them”, they were also able to maintain with the people an intimate relationship devoid of any feelings of alienation.
They set themselves up in the role of educators of the people, “models or guides for citizens’ behaviour”. Through their prodigious literary output – in pamphlets, broadsides, articles in periodicals and newspapers, letters and speeches – they tried to mould standards of opinions and behaviour.
Through the high moral quality of the leadership provided by its leaders, the revolution gave rise to a significant by-product, viz a national ethic of Truth and Morality. Truth acquired the status of a cardinal principle of behaviour, especially in the conduct of public affairs.
The obsessive concern for truth and morality and the growth of newspapers were accompanied by the growing power of public opinion. “The Revolution in America transformed it (i.e. public opinion) and gave it its modern significance”; a significance well-attested in the description of public opinion as:
“that invisible guardian of honour – that eagle eyed spy on human actions – that inexorable judge of men and manners – that arbiter, whom tears cannot appease, nor ingenuity soften – and from whose terrible decisions there is no appeal……It became the resolving force not only of political truth but of all truth – from disputes among religious denominations to controversies over artistic taste. Nothing was more important in explaining and clarifying the democratisation of the American mind than this conception of public opinion. In the end it became America’s nineteenth-century popular substitute for the elitist intellectual leadership of the Revolutionary generation.
The rationale for this conception of public opinion and for its role as arbiter of right behaviour was that it was “the combined product of multitudes of minds thinking and reflecting independently, communicating their ideas in different ways, causing opinions to collide and blend with one another, to refine and correct themselves, leading toward ‘the ultimate triumph of Truth’. Such a product, such a public opinion, could be trusted because it had so many sources, so many voices and minds, all interacting, that no individual or group could manipulate or dominate the whole. Considering that public opinion may be, and often is, in the words of John Stuart Mill, the “opinion of a collective mediocrity”, indeed, a small minority, the acceptance of this rationale for its nature and role in America during the Revolution and in the decades following immediately thereafter “required an act of faith, a faith that was not much different from a belief in the beneficent workings of providence,” but it was one of the significant by-products of the Revolution that had helped transform American society and politics.
What the American Revolution shows is that, whilst violence may serve as a trigger, the real essence of a revolution is the radical nature of the change in governance and society which it triggers. It is in this sense that the American Revolution provides an abiding lesson for us in Nigeria and in the rest of Africa. An African leader or anyone aspiring to be a leader of an African country cannot afford not to read the book titled the Moral Foundations of the American Republic, 3rd edn (1986), edited by Robert Horvitz.
If, from what is said above, the true essence of a Revolution is not whether violence is the thing that triggers it, but rather whether what it triggers is in the nature of a radical change in governance and society, then, there is warrant for the well-established appellation, Industrial Revolution, which is the most classic example of a radical peaceful change in the economic sector of society that took place in the 19th century in England, France and certain other countries of Europe.
The liberation of Africa from colonial rule was also not the product of violence or a Liberation War except in the case of ten countries (Algeria, Zimbabwe, Guinea-Bissau, Mozambique, Angola, Namibia and Kenya where a liberation war took place); it was a revolution by reason of a radical change in world affairs which it triggered, and which indisputably qualified it as a revolution. Hence it is referred to as the African Revolution, just as the radical but peaceful changes in the industrial sector of the economy in England, etc, is called the Industrial Revolution; which goes to show that violence or war is not an inseparable or inexorable ingredient of a revolution, or, putting it differently, that a radical change in governance or society can take place without violence or war.
With respect to the radical change brought about by the liberation of Africa from colonial rule, the change is warrantedly tagged the African Revolution because, though peaceful and non-violent except in the ten countries mentioned above, it changed not only the course of Africa’s history but that of the rest of the world as well. It brought Africa to the centre of world affairs, and to the notice of millions of people across the globe, who otherwise would have remained, as before, in blissful ignorance of the continent. With the exception of the two World Wars, few other events in the 20th century have impacted upon world affairs as much as the liberation of Africa from colonial rule. As Basil Davidson puts it, “a whole continent seemed to have come alive again, vividly real, bustling with creative energies, claiming its heritage in the human family, and unfolding ever more varied or surprising aspects of itself. The world became a larger and a happier place.” Herein, then, lies the central significance of Africa’s independence. Its impact is in some ways comparable to that of America’s independence, which entitles it (i.e. Africa’s independence) to be tagged a Revolution.
In our own day, there has occurred a series of events that swept across the globe in 1989 – 94, ushering in peaceful, non-violent but radical change in governance, especially as regards the freedom of the individual, a change so radical as to warrant its being acknowledged throughout the world as a Revolution, the Democratic Revolution as it is known. Tom Mathew describes the transition to democracy world-wide during this period as “the greatest expansion of freedom in human history.” The description is largely true.
The freedom ushered in by the Democratic Revolution, 1989 – 94, includes, notably, freedom of expression and the press, peaceful assembly and association, and movement. Underlying these freedoms and providing support for them is the freedom to protest; democracy encapsulates as among its essential elements the freedom to protest and, above all, to mobilise the people in support of grievances against the government’s handling of public affairs. Unless the people can be effectively mobilised in support of grievances against the government’s policies and actions, the democratic freedoms ushered in by the democratic revolution have not much practical effect. Accordingly, the mobilisation of the people in support of a call on government for change in government policies and actions is not a call for its overthrow by violent or unconstitutional means. It is only a call for government to change its policies and actions, or otherwise resign; a call for the resignation of government, even if such resignation be coerced, is not unconstitutional; it is a means of change in governance sanctioned by democracy – see section 306 of the Constitution of Nigeria.
Indeed, the transition constitutions of certain African countries carry further the protection of the right to protest and to mobilise the people in support of the call for change. Thus, the Constitution of Cape Verde, as amended in 1990, in an article (art. 18), titled “The Right to Resist”, provides that “all citizens have the right to disobey any order which offends their rights, liberties and guarantees”. In equally direct and unequivocal words, the transition Constitution of Congo (Brazzaville) 1992, in a preamble, proclaims it “the right and obligation of every citizen to resist by civil disobedience” any attempt to exercise power “in a tyrannical manner”. So also the people of Chad, in the preamble to their transition Constitution (1996), “proclaim solemnly” their “right and duty to resist and disobey any individual or group of individuals or any corps of state that would …..exercise power in violation of the present Constitution”. Similar but less direct provisions are also contained in the transition Constitutions of Benin 1990 and Uganda 1995.
Nigeria transited to democracy in 1999 without a transition constitution strictly so-called; it did so under the pre-existing 1979 Constitution which, for purposes of such transition, is re-issued as the 1999 Constitution without putting it through the democratic process of adoption by the people at a referendum, as was the case in most of the countries that transited to democracy during the period. Hence all the fumbling, all the jitters that grip us whenever a call is made for a revolution, even though nothing is said or done manifesting unmistakably an intention to topple the government by violent or unconstitutional means. There can be no gainsaying the fact that Nigeria is over-due for a Revolution – for a radical change in governance and in society.
THE RADICAL CHANGE IN GOVERNANCE AND SOCIETY THAT COMES WITH A REVOLUTION MUST ENCOMPASS NATIONAL TRANSFORMATION, NATIONAL RE-BIRTH AND NATIONAL UNITY
The word “transformation” means, according to the dictionary definition of it, “a change in condition, nature or character of a thing”; a “change into another substance.”
Now, a new approach in the management of the economy, which was what the Transformation Agenda of the Goodluck Jonathan Administration envisaged and pursued, may well bring about a great improvement in the economy in the form of enhanced growth and development and provision of welfare services, but such improvement cannot in any meaningful sense be described as changing the Nigerian economy into something radically different in nature or character or “changing it into another substance”. Transformation, because of the radical nature of the change it brings about, necessarily imports a revolutionary change in the condition, nature or character of governance and society. There is implicit in it, as stated below, the notion of a revolution. It is, therefore, a misconception to call President Goodluck Jonathan’s agenda a Transformation Agenda.
The misconception involved is pungently articulated by Basil Davidson writing about Ghana under Kwame Nkrumah. “The economic policies of 1964 and after”, he wrote, “were, in fact, another version of the old ‘policy of growth’ which argued that a mere adding to what already exists must in due course change what already exists. But countries without modern industry do not become industrialised countries merely by ‘growing’. Far from that, the process has always demanded more or less a complete break with what ‘already exists’, just as during the industrial revolutions of England, France or other technologically advanced countries…..Merely adding to what already existed, in this situation, was only a way of piling frustration on confusion.”
The Transformation Agenda of the Jonathan Administration is inadequate for another, more fundamental reason.
It has absolutely nothing to do with, not a word to say about, the transformation of our society from the moral decadence into which it has sunk. No agenda, in the context of Nigeria, is worth being called a Transformation Agenda which does not aim at the moral and ethical transformation of our society. Its focus must embrace the entire society, not the economy alone. What this country desperately needs is, not just economic transformation, but also social and ethical transformation, which needs a social and ethical revolution for its accomplishment. I can think of nothing more disastrous for this country than an enhanced economic growth and development built or superimposed upon a morally and ethically decadent society, a society bereft of a sense of justice, probity, integrity, accountability, civic virtues and noble values.
The Vice-President to President Jonathan, in a speech at the Obafemi Awolowo Prize for Leadership Award Ceremony on 6 March, 2013 said that Government planned, as part of the Transformation Agenda programme, to establish mega universities, each of which can take up to 200,000 students. The establishment of such universities will be a disaster, a disastrous misplacement of priorities, when it is taken in the context of the incredible decline in educational standards in the country as attested by the phenomenon of near-illiterate university graduates, the existence of “magic schools” all over the country whose students are guaranteed automatic success in the school certificate examination, not of course by merit; certificate racketeering; examination malpractices; etc.
Social and ethical transformation aims at the creation of a new society. The creation of such a new society would entail change of two types – a radical transformation of the material conditions of society and what has been called an “inner mutation”, i.e. a spiritual or mental transformation in the attitudes and behavioural patterns of the individual members of society. The “inner mutation” called for goes beyond transformation in mental attitudes, and must extend to radical change away from the present prevailing moral degeneracy or moral bankruptcy, as manifested in crimes involving fraud or dishonesty, like examination malpractices and certificate racketeering; corrupt practices in all its forms, including bribery and money laundering; sexual immorality; juvenile delinquency; etc, all of which, in the main, originated or became accentuated in the unbridled quest for money and the money culture it gave rise to.
Undeniably, the new society to be created in the wake of such national transformation and comprising all the elements described above implies a social revolution, which must embrace a revolution in morals, that is to say, an ethical revolution.
THE FUNCTION OF THE POLITICAL LEADERSHIP IN THE MOVEMENT FOR RADICAL CHANGE IN GOVERNANCE AND SOCIETY
The story of the American Revolution shows that the political leadership in a country has a crucial role in bringing about radical, i.e. revolutionary, change in governance and in the society at large. It shows that the leadership must be one with plenty of energy, a high amount of energy characteristic of the youth, the energy of youth, the kind of energy that will enable the leadership to engage in the ardous task of mobilising the people for national transformation, mobilisation of the people for such a purpose being one of the most ardous tasks of political leadership. The wear and tear and stresses of life, coupled with health and other challenges, rob everyone of us, after the age of 70 years, of the energy required for the job of governing a country like Nigeria. Our Constitution should, therefore, prescribe an upper age limit for the presidency, say, 70 years or lower, as is the case in some countries of the world, and as is done for non-elective public offices in Nigeria.
In addition to the sort of education that would enable the leadership to combine “ideas and power, intellectualism and politics”, the type of leadership needed for our country has to be one, not only committed to democracy and constitutionalism, but also one at once dedicated, single-minded, selfless, disciplined, patriotic and highly motivated in the national interest with a deep concern for the public good and the welfare of the people, a leadership able to mobilise the various strata of society for the cause of good governance, national transformation, national re-birth and national unity, and prepared to commit suicide by sacrificing its vested economic interest in the preservation of the status quo. It must be a leadership whose sincerity of purpose is so transparent as to induce people to adopt the desired new patterns of behaviour in place of the old ones and whose dedication to the cause is sufficiently total and selfless to inspire confidence, a leadership that is seen to be practising what it preaches. People cannot be persuaded by the leadership to be tolerant, honest, sincere, public-spirited, patriotic, fair-minded, law-abiding, devoted, disciplined, etc, if the leaders themselves do not practise those virtues. Far from inspiring popular change in the desired directions, a leadership that does not practise what it preaches, and is not seen to be doing so, creates disillusion and disenchantment among the people. It must also be a leadership that is able to impart to the society at large enlightened ethos and values and a national ethic of truth and morality, and has itself demonstrably internalised the ethic of humility and tolerance of differing opinions, an ethic that regards public office as a public trust and its holder as a servant of the people, not their master and oppressor, and bound to the people by the obligation of probity and accountability.
We should be honest to ourselves and admit that the lack of a leadership of the type suggested above is a major part of the country’s problems that fuel the call for a Revolution; we are fighting our shadows by hunting down those calling for a Revolution – for a radical change in governance and society.