“Like most human follies, military coups sound good at the time; and always fail. They sound good because what they replace is usually bad: riotous civilian leaders, corrupted institutions, stolen elections. They fail because beneath the chaos are political problems that soldiers cannot unpick…”
The foregoing quote was taken from a January, 2006 edition of the ‘Economist’ magazine, following a coup d’etat in Bangladesh where some military Generals seized power from a corrupt and inept civilian leadership. However, after the initial euphoria by the people, the reality was to sink in, as it always does, that soldiers have no magic solution for dealing with complex socio-political problems.
It is against this background that one can situate the current turmoil in Egypt. On Monday, the military authorities upped the ante with a curious statement that was hailed by many Egyptian protesters and which has also excited not a few Nigerians. With troops deployed in strategic positions across Cairo, General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, defence minister and head of the armed forces, warned that the army would intervene if the government and its opponents failed to heed “the will of the people” within 48 hours. Last night, Al-Sisi made good his threat when he sacked the democratically elected government of President Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood and picked the chief justice of constitutional court to take over.
Not surprisingly, there were jubilations on the streets of Cairo last night following the military intervention. And with the grass always greener on the other side, I have read some of our online commentators disparaging Nigerians for not acting like the Egyptians and that we need that sort of street intervention to deal with our current political challenge. Before I go further, it is important to highlight some of the grievances of the opposition movement behind the seemingly endless protests on the streets of Cairo.
By the expectations of the protesters, a government that had barely spent one year in office ought to have restored security to the level it was before President Hosni Mubarak was toppled in 2011. Aside protesting that there was “no justice” for the people killed by security forces in the course of the anti-government protests of the last two years, they also claimed that “no dignity is left” for Egyptians or their country and that the economy has “collapsed”. With all that, the opposition movement gave Morsi until last Tuesday to step down and call fresh presidential elections, or else face a campaign of civil disobedience which the army capitalized upon to overthrow the government yesterday.
For every grouse that an Egyptian can level against their government, a Nigerian can probably come up with ten about our government. So it came as no surprise that some of our compatriots would romanticise “revolutions” or any form of political upheaval that will sweep away the current system and its operators. Incidentally, this had actually been a subject of interrogation in the not-too-distant past, following a May 2005 document from the United States National Intelligence Council, entitled “Mapping Sub-Saharan Africa’s Future”. Specifically, under the sub-heading “Downside Risks” in the report, the US National Intelligence Council had claimed that “while currently Nigeria’s leaders are locked in a bad marriage that all dislike but dare not leave, there are possibilities that could disrupt the precarious equilibrium in Abuja. The most important would be a junior officer coup that could destabilize the country to the extent that open warfare breaks out in many places in a sustained manner.”
In his response to the US report back then, President Obasanjo had dismissed most of the assumptions that informed the conclusion. But he also noted most poignantly: “It is important for us to know that we are being rated low, not because of what is happening to us from outside but because of what we do to, for and by ourselves internally…”
Yes, what is true of Egypt is true of our country today as many are disillusioned with our politicians, including those who claim to be in opposition yet whose values are at variance with what they mouth publicly. But the fact also remains that all the demonstrations of the last two years have not improved the material conditions of the people of Egypt and there is no sign that things will get better anytime soon. In fact, chances are that things may actually get worse. To that extent, whatever may be our misgivings about the current political situation in the country, the future of our nation depends largely on sustaining our democracy and making it work.
However, there is also this erroneous assumption that the Nigerian people are docile and that a revolution can never happen here. What I find most interesting is that even people in government believe this lie, the same way it was assumed and always glibly said in the past that an average Nigerian loves life so much that not one of our nationals could ever be a suicide bomber. Now, we know better.
Far more difficult to understand is that public office holders who call for “revolution” always assume that if such ever happened, it would leave them untouched. Two days ago in Lagos, House of Representatives Speaker, Hon Aminu Tambuwal, said in a paper he personally presented: “The most compelling reasons for revolution throughout the ages were injustice, crushing poverty, marginalization, lawlessness, joblessness, and general disaffection of the ruling elite. You will agree with me that these factors capture the conditions of our nation now, to a large extent.” Fair enough you will say, but then Tambuwal would rather prescribe an “intellectual revolution” to resolve such contradictions, evidently because he is well aware that he is also in the line of fire should our people ever revolt!
What those who misread the maturity of the Nigerian masses ignore is that political upheavals are usually spontaneous actions that most often result from innocuous things; like the self-immolation of the Tunisian man which ignited the uprising in his country and eventually, the entire Arab world. Even then, it is not true that Nigerians cannot offer sustained resistance against authority. Many of us were living witnesses to the June/July 1993 post-annulment (of the presidential election) demonstrations on the streets of Lagos that ultimately forced then military president, General Ibrahim Babangida out of power. And the January 2012 national protests against hike in fuel price is still fresh in our memory. It will therefore be baseless for anybody to assume that the Nigerian people are not capable of rising against those in power.
The point never to be missed, however, is that perpetual street protests offer no predictable outcome and they could engender sectarian violence from which it may be difficult for a nation to recover as is evident in several Arab countries today. But as the Egyptian protesters rejoice the overthrow of Morsi, I have a message for them: At the end of the day, the ultimate beneficiaries of their struggle may be the same corrupt forces that were in bed with the 30-year dictatorship of Mubarak they upended two years ago. If allowed to take root, democracy, for all its imperfections, has in-built mechanism for improvement and self-correction, even in Egypt.
All said, what happened in Cairo is a good warning to the powers at home that we cannot assume indefinite immunity against the things that provoke outrage in other counties. Tahrir Square is perhaps nearer than we may be ready to concede as our people can see around them the combination of factors that are fuelling protests from Rio to Cairo. Worse still, our population distribution in favour of young people makes us prone to impatient revolt. Nobody should therefore be under any illusion that the tide of violent rejection of substandard governance blowing across the world will elude us simply because “this is Nigeria”. Those who have ears…
This piece by Adeniyi (shown in photo) originally appeared in his column “The Verdict” in today’s edition of ThisDay. He can be reached via [email protected]