Realisation of our aspiration of, and dreams for a better Nigeria

Benjamin Obiefuna Nwabueze

Calls for radical change in governance and society, known as revolution
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 is say, 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), “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 considered 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 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.

* Professor Ben Nwabueze writes from Lagos

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