Revolutions are never enacted by a handful of fist-wielding hotheads daring a reigning order to its worst ego fight. And when genuinely threatened, neither can revolutions be taken down by a passive citizenry, or at best a motley band of largely self-interested, if not contracted, cheerleaders of the status quo heckling away the threatening revolutionaries. Effective revolutions and counter-actions are deeply engaging exertions: outcomes of keen involvement by any set of people.
Semantics can be exasperating, and it has been a sticking point for us here in Nigeria over the last couple of weeks in evaluating the gravity of the intent of the #RevolutionNow protest called by brash activist and presidential candidate in the 2019 general election, Omoyele Sowore. But if we may work with book definition, revolution is “an attempt by a large number of people to change the government of a country, especially by violent action.” (Hornby, Oxford Advance Learners Dictionary, 2010)
The evidence of history shows that true revolutions and counter-actions invariably involve role-play by massive crowds. The Russian ‘October Revolution’ of 1917 was the outcome of a Bolshevik-led armed insurrection by workers and soldiers that successfully overthrew the provisional government and transferred all its authority to grassroots community assemblies dominated by soldiers and the urban industrial working class known as the Soviets. But we need not go that far back in history. In contemporary times, we have seen a stalemated revolution unfold in Venezuela where rival protests in support of President Nicolás Maduro, on the one hand, and his self-proclaimed interim successor Juan Guaidó, on the other, paralysed the Latin American country a few months ago. Both rival protests drew many thousands of Venezuelans respectively supporting the contending leaders, who dug their heels in on the streets of Caracas – Guaidó’s supporters, in courageous defiance of forceful repression by Maduro’s security forces.
Even now as we speak, Sudan is only just working through a tricky solution to its people’s revolution that forced the ouster of former President Omar al-Bashir from power last April. The Sudanese uprising, which was originally sparked by rising costs of living but later morphed into a pressure campaign to flush al-Bashir out of power, involved several thousands of citizens who remained unrelenting in the face of lethal takedowns by the country’s military, and not just a handful of daring objectors to the established order.
It is doubtful any so-called revolution is worth that tag without demonstrated role-play by ‘a large number of people,’ as stated in the dictionary meaning of the word. Was Sowore’s #RevolutionNow adventure then an intended revolution indeed, or was it an impetuous hype by upstart activists? That may be a question for our judiciary to adjudicate on down the road against the backdrop of heavy security sleigh of hand the campaign elicited. There is no question as it is, however, that it was a people-less ‘revolution’ bid, which is a contradiction in terms.
But then, the reigning order apparently wasn’t wired to brook the fine nuances of the #RevolutionNow tag. Sowore was preemptively arrested and is yet under lock by security services, which insisted he was up to a tryst with high treason. The Presidency weighed in to say he was calling for a “violent overthrow of a democratically-elected government.” Only that on the set date, just a feeble rump of Sowore’s followers showed up and they were smashed down by security agents before they could take position for their threatened action. Reports said in few cities where demonstrations held, security operatives deployed to stop the protests outnumbered protesters. Besides, some conceptual befuddlement was revealed on the activists’ part by the fact that their campaign was anchored on a set of demands from the Muhammadu Buhari presidency against which ‘revolution’ was threatened.
Rights defenders like Nobel laureate Professor Wole Soyinka decried the security clampdown as a shameful throwback to the era of jackboot savagery we once experienced in this country, while the government insisted it was necessitated to head off a slide into anarchy. I suspect however that the sore point between the reigning order and the activists was less the brandished tag of ‘revolution,’ but more a duel for the hearts of the silent majority presumed available to be enlisted in the citizenry.
Sowore injected that line in the #RevolutionNow narrative by boasting in advance that 85 percent of Nigerians were in support. Only that such application of statistics was so evidently spurious it would be shocking if anyone took it seriously. Not only is it not clear how the touted sample size could have been polled, the very population size of this country as of today is a crude and fleeting projection between 180million and 200million, of which it is impossible to ascertain any given figure – even if accurately polled – as a reliable percentage. Besides, the activist squad betrayed its boast to be all gas by subsequently deploying the social media to mobilise citizens’ participation in its planned action.
But the Muhammadu Buhari administration was no less hooked on the ‘silent but available majority’ playbook. On the heels of the collapse of the protest last Monday, it applauded Nigerians as rooting for democracy by shunning the protesters’ rallying call. “Today, millions of Nigerians went about their businesses: work, seeking employment, attending school/college and caring for their families. By so doing, the millions defended our country’s hard-won democratic rights – ignoring calls on the social media to join a phantom ‘revolution,’” Special Assistant on Media and Publicity to the President, Garba Shehu, said in a statement.
It is moot to a high degree, in my view, that the silent Nigerian majority out there is available for enlistment into political dueling one way or the other. Even the suggestion that those millions were decidedly holding fort for the democratic order, although passively, is self-serving when you consider that only 34.7 percent of some 83million registered voters turned out for the February 23rd presidential election. This not only marked the lowest percentage of voter turnout since the enthronement of Nigeria’s Third Republic in 1999, it was reckoned the lowest for all elections recently held in Africa, and second lowest ever in the entire electoral history of the continent. The question is: where are those silent millions said to be minded enough to hold fort for the democratic order last week?
The bitter truth may be that a huge majority of Nigerians are currently in thrall to basic existential battles that have tuned them off contestations by the political elite for spoils of public office. Reputed activist and former presidential aspirant, Oby Ezekwesili, once hyped this possibility by accusing the political class of deliberately impoverishing masses of Nigerians just so to keep them in perpetual subjugation. Nigeria’s notoriety as poverty capital of the world is not news. Because they are fighting for basic economic survival, the silent majority is apathetic to the political order and not available for enlistment into ideational causes.
The #RevolutionNowners were audacious in their expectation (if indeed they nursed such) to whip up street fervour akin to the Arab Spring of the early 2010s in the Middle East. Not that there isn’t a red line of hardships that could inevitably ignite such street fervour. But the Nigerian nationhood is work in progress and the citizens are uncommonly resilient.
The flip side, however, is that the detached majority also can’t be a ready bulwark against genuine threats to our democracy, the way Turkish civilians rose up to foil a July 2016 coup by renegade soldiers against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, unless widespread economic deprivation is redressed and the people retuned to collective ideals.