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Revolution? No, the right to tickle the government

Revolution is perhaps the most romanticised word in the English language. It is also the most troublesome, the most feared, the most embraced, yet the most distrusted.

The word conjures two pictures in the mind simultaneously – one ugly and frightening and the other benign with the smile of breaking dawn. The first is a picture of violence, broken heads and limbs and of corpses littering the streets. The second is a picture of changes wrought by a revolution in which the old things have passed away and behold all things have become new.

Although revolution is primarily associated with violent change, it is not really about violence. It is about change. We all crave change. It is the hankering, if you like, for a better tomorrow. Tomorrow is both the promise and the possibility of change. A life that does not anticipate change is not a life worth living. Individuals seek changes daily; so donations.

Politicians seek and win power because they promise change; meaning, they persuade the people that they have it in them to bring about changes to make their lives more meaningful and make the system of governance fair and just and protective of the weak against the strong, the poor against the rich.

The irony is that we crave change but we fear change. The apostles of change are the agents of human progress. The human and civil rights community parades men and women devoted to peaceful revolutionary changes. World history is as full of violent or radicalised changes as it is of changes that asked for no human sacrifices in the shrines of human peace and progress. We have seen both in our country since January 15, 1966, when the five majors introduced the gun as an instrument of political power. The change was violent and bloody and changed, for better or worse, the architecture of our governance system.

The young majors saw themselves as revolutionaries out to make fundamental changes in our country. Several of their comrades-in-arms walked the same path with varying degrees of violent or peaceful changes in government. Lt-Col Bukar Dimka called his murderous band The Young Revolutionaries as a way of marketing themselves as welcome agents of radical changes. Not many people remember that the Supreme Court ruled that what happened on January 15, 1966, was not a revolution.

A revolution is undergirded by a clear philosophy of change. Unfortunately, the word tends to send jitters down the spine of every government, democratic or totalitarian. No one bothers to see the context in which the word is used. Perhaps, part of the reason for this is that every government sits on the edge of its chair. No government, however popular it might be, is popular with everyone. Detractors, real or imagined, lurk in the shadows. Governments watch out for them in a battle of wits. Like Don Quixote, governments take no chances when they see the windmills. They could be giant detractors out to get them. When a fly settles on the tip of your nose you reach for the AK-47. The tendency to overact in a show of force is all too human, because, let’s face it, you never know.

We have had two clear cases of a revolution promoted by a Nigerian government. The late President Shehu Shagari launched the Green Revolution programme in the second republic. He called it a revolution because it was his radicalised approach calculated to quickly get us back to the land. It was a logical extension of General Obasanjo’s Operation Feed the Nation. Our agriculture was the mainstay of our national economy before Oloibiri revolutionised the way the Nigerian state earns its money without anyone breaking his back.

Shagari also launched the Nationa Ethical Revolution to curb the increasing moral turpitude staining every piece of our national fabric. He called it a revolution because he knew it was not the usual bureaucratic approach to effecting fundamental changes in our mores and morals. The National Ethical Revolution spoke to our individual sense of morality and our common humanity and was intended to make us own our actions and decisions. Buhari’s anti-graft war is part and parcel of Shagari’s National Ethical Revolution.

The problem really is not about revolution. The liberal use of the word should cause no anxiety in government circles anymore, all things being well appreciated. However, what causes panic is not the word but rather the possible spark it could ignite. We saw that in the Arab Spring in the early 2010s.

A series of anti-government protests and demonstrations begun in Tunisia soon spread to Libya, Egypt, Yemen, Syria, and Bahrain and put the fear of the common man in the dictators who had held down their people for so long. I often wonder why an institution as big and as intimidating as a government with the monopoly of violence, would still fear the power of unarmed common people. There must be power in powerlessness.

Last week when the publisher of the online newspaper, Sahara Reporters, Omoyele Sowore, launched his #RevolutionNow in Lagos, the Buhari administration responded in a manner calculated to serve notice on its real or imagined enemies that it is not unreasonable to swat flies with the sledgehammer.

Sowore, a presidential candidate in the last election, did not call young people out last week for a picnic. And the government was convinced he was out to make things more difficult for it, what with the myriads of security challenges it is confronted with. I bet the government heard the voice of Jacob but felt the faux hairy arm of Esau. But what capacity does Sowore have to use his #RevolutionNow to bring about a revolution in the land? I can’t see it. It is merely the right to irritate the government and force it to own its own decisions as they affect all of us.

Democracy is the most difficult form of government. It is defined by this long word: participatory. If you qualify democracy with it, you arrive at this: participatory democracy, underscored by the people’s right to be part of their government. That right is jealously guarded lest it is abridged by the state and its principal actors. How that freedom is exercised, in protests and demonstrations, is the battle of wits between the government and the governed. This is as much a problem for the government as it is for the people because it is not uncommon for the people’s action to invite government reaction out of proportion to the action itself.

Quite often the over-reaction, intended to cripple the people’s right, has the opposite consequence. It ignites the spark.

Striking a delicate balance is difficult. The people’s resort to public protests and demonstrations are the most visible means by which their right to participate in their government is occasionally exercised. This often results from frustration with the system and those who operate it. But they help to ventilate the system and sometimes succeed in engineering a national dialogue or conversation.

What sort of revolution is Sowore trying to promote with his #RevolutionNow? Is it political, social or economic? He has not told us. But the government believes he does not mean well for it. This is a tense season in the land. It is not unreasonable to fear that something as seemingly innocuous as #RevolutionNow could be the lit match that might set off the conflagration. Still, there is a need for a sense of balance because when a government fears the people, the consequences could be ugly.

This country has a fairly long history of a radicalised citizenry – courageous men and women in the civil rights community who defied the guns of the military and took on the generals.

Remember the SAP riots of 1989 and the post-June 12 annulments? The military regimes at which they were directed might have had sleepless nights but they survived the outpouring of the people’s anger. Public protests and demonstrations under whatever guise have done no more than irritated and afflicted the comfortable. The capacity or the willingness of a government to take such irritants and irritations in its stride is the surest evidence of its commitment to distance itself from observing the nuances and the democratic ethos in the breach. A ventilated national system is critical to peace and patriotism. Flies are bad but it is not always wise to swat them with AK-47.

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