By Obadiah Mailafia
Old men do not rebel. It is the young who have the energy to revolt. They have nothing to lose. Until recently, I was almost tempted to give up on the Nigerian youths. Have we not dismissed them as “lazy”? But they have surprised us. Only a fool would dismiss what is happening today.
Revolts and revolutions have been a recurrent feature of the human condition. It is in the nature of human beings to rebel if they feel short-changed or believe their social conditions are hopelessly beyond redemption. I have studied revolutionary theories from Ted Gurr to John Dunn and Vo Nguyen Giap. Revolutions are more potent than nuclear bombs. They can sweep away an empire in hours.
The French Revolution of 1789 was the mother of modern revolutions. It was a bourgeois revolution that overthrew the monarchy and the old feudal order; the culmination of the vision of Enlightenment thinkers such as Rousseau, Buffon, Voltaire and Diderot. They dreamt of a society based on freedom, equality and government based on the popular will.
The French Revolution was itself inspired by the American Revolution of 1776 which overthrew British imperialism. The Americans themselves drew inspiration from early enlightenment thinkers such as John Locke who taught that it is the right of all peoples to rebel against unjust government.
The French Revolution was, unfortunately, a bloody event as was predicted by political thinkers such as Edmund Burke. It led to the Bastille, the Guillotine and the Great Terror. It is a truism that revolutions tend to devour their own children. This is what happened to Robespierre and Danton.
The French Revolution gave birth to the first antislavery revolt in world history, precisely in the French colony of San Domingo, which is Haiti today. The Haitian Revolution of 1791 has been captured memorably in the epic work of the Trinidadian historian C. L. R. James, in his book, The Black Jacobins (Allison & Busby 1980).
James re-enacts the extraordinary drama of slave leaders such as Toussaint L’Ouverture and Jean-Jacques Dessalines who took their own fate into their own hands. Haiti became an independent nation on January 1, 1804. Toussaint deployed Haitian soldiers to support Simon Bolivar in his anticolonial revolutionary war in Latin America on condition that he would emancipate the Black slaves.
Haitian soldiers were also sent to support Abraham Lincoln during the American civil war of 1861-1865 on condition that Lincoln would emancipate the benighted slaves of America. The Emancipation Proclamation happily came in 1863.
The 20th century opened with the Mexican Revolution of 1910 which overthrow the 30-year dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz, while setting the country on the democracy and modernisation.
The 1917 Bolshevik Revolution in Russia which led to 70 years of world communism succeeded less on account of the ingenuity of Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin and more due to bad luck and folly.
The international imperialist war had begun in 1914. Hunger and starvation afflicted the peasants. Tsar Nicholas II was a weak and indecisive leader whose reforms were too little and too late. He foolishly allowed a demonic mystic by the name of Grigori Rasputin to infiltrate the monarchy. It was to prove the undoing of the Romanovs.
The Chinese Revolution led by Mao Zedong in 1949 was yet another milestone. Mao was a self-taught petit bourgeois who spent many years as a library assistant at the University of Beijing. He spent his free nights reading Marx and equipping himself with the intellectual tools of rigorous social analysis. Mao redeemed his country from centuries of humiliation by foreign barbarians.
His “cultural revolution” campaigns in the sixties, however, were a ghastly misfortune that resulted in the death of an estimated 20 million Chinese. But there is no doubt that Mao was the architect of China as we know it today.
A decade after the Chinese, Fidel Castro and his rabble of guerrillas successfully overthrew the brutal and corrupt regime of Fulgencio Batista in January 1959. One of the commanders of the Cuban Revolution was the Argentine doctor and Marxist revolutionary Che Guevara de la Serna who became one of the icons of my generation.
The Cuban Revolution turned the tables against Yankee hegemonism throughout Latin America and the Caribbean. Although Fidel was accused of dictatorship, Cuban socialism achieved considerable success in areas such as public health, education, employment and social solidarity. Cuban soldiers also played a key role in the liberation of Southern Africa.
The Eastern European Revolution that began in 1989 brought down the Berlin Wall and led to the dissolution of the Soviet Empire.I was a graduate student in those heady days. I recall being invited to the 60th birthday of the great sociologist Ralf Dahrendorf, at the time Warden of St. Antony’s College. Port and Champagne flowed freely as we marked that extraordinary moment in history.
In revolutions, nobody is small or inconsequential. The seeds were sown as far back as the seventies in the writings of the Nobel laureate Alexander Isayevich Solzhenitsyn.
In 1989, an obscure pastor by the name of Laszlo Tokes in the Romanian provincial town of Timisoara, went on hunger strike when the authorities clamped down on him. Very soon, thousands of youths joined him. Before long, Romania was in upheaval. The old communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife Elena were lined up and shot.
Laszlo Tokes later became a member of the European Parliament in Brussels. Years ago, I had the privilege of having lunch with him at a posh Brussels restaurant.
The Arab Spring began in December 2010, innocuously enough, with a young unemployed Tunisian graduate by the name of Mohammed Bouazizi. Bouazizi was assaulted by a policewoman because he could not produce a permit for the vegetables he was hawking.
After vainly seeking for justice, he decided to commit suicide by pouring petrol and setting himself ablaze. He was badly burnt but did not die immediately. President Ben Ali was forced to visit him in hospital.Alas, he came too late. Bouazizi died on January 4, 2011. All hell broke loose.
I lived in Tunisia and know the country well. The youth rose up peacefully in their millions and no army could stop them. The dictator and his family fled to Saudi Arabia. The Arab Spring spread to Libya, Iraq, Jordan, Morocco, Algeria, Lebanon, Egypt, Mauritania, Kuwait, Oman and Sudan. Old tyrants came down. The Arab world has never been the same ever since.
In August 2019, Sudan was the latest country to experience the upsurge of people’s power. The arrow head of that movement was a 22-year old student of architectural engineering by the name of Alaa Saleh. Alaa caught the world’s imagination by her signature white gown whilst atop the roof of a car, with her finger pointed skyward.
Nigeria’s youth revolt has onlybegun. The trigger was arrest and torture of a young man in Ughelli by the SARS who also commandeered his Lexus Jeep. But the roots of their disenchantment run deeper. The leaders of this revolution are everywhere and nowhere. They have used crowd-funding and electronic bitcointo raiseN25 million.
Volunteers have been distributing food and soft drinks. They have composed themselves with nonviolent discipline. But their grievances cannot easily be dismissed. They say they are tired of police brutality, corruption, poverty, unemployment, violence and insecurity. They demand nothing less than a New Nigeria. Someone has threatened them with civil war. But what they are going through is war already. They will not be cowed down.
Wisdom requires that we engage with them urgently. It would be a grievous mistake to unleash the army and the dogs of war on them. We will only be creating martyrs. The protest might deteriorate into a revolution whose outcome nobody can control.