A Revolution Wobbled with Emotion

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Sowore
Omoyele Sowore

Solomon Elusoji writes that rights activist, Omoyele Sowore may have dramatised the sense of urgency that is required to solve Nigeria’s problems, with his recent call to revolution, for which he is being detained

On July 27, Omoyele Sowore announced that his political party, the African Action Congress (AAC) was set to spearhead a revolution protest across Nigeria, starting from Monday, August 5. The plan was to mobilise hundreds of thousands of Nigerians to fill cities across the country until a governance “revolution” emerged. He tagged it “Days of Rage.”

“We didn’t choose to go for a revolution, they chose it by ensuring that there was no level-playing field in the last election,” Sowore told journalists after the announcement. “It is very clear, I am not the only one asking for a revolution. Eighty-four percent of Nigerians, according to a poll we conducted want a revolution; they don’t want war.” He did not even try to hide the fact that he was bitter after the loss of his presidential bid. The revolution was, albeit, an uncluttered pathway to hit back at the system that denied him the ambition to rule Nigeria.

Sowore, who has been an energetic activist since his days at the University of Lagos, also sounded defiant, like he had crossed the Rubicon. “Don’t ask me whether I am afraid or worried about the legal implications of what I am saying,” he said. “I am carrying out a historical duty; only history can judge me, not a prosecutor or a federal judge. I am not worried about that. You can’t kill somebody who is not afraid of death. Am I better than women who can’t afford to eat? Am I better than those workers who are not getting paid? Am I better than those who are suffering all over the country? We want a very clean, quick and succinct revolutionary process. Surgical.”

After the announcement, he took to his social media pages to drum up support. He held sporadic town halls featuring Eedris Abdulkareem, painting a grim picture of the Nigerian reality. He made allusions to China’s Tiananmen uprising in 1989 and the recent civil revolt in Algeria. He invoked Fela Anikulapo Kuti by reposting one of his old revolutionary speeches. “We’ve reached a tipping point,” Sowore said on Twitter. “#RevolutionNow #DaysofRage will cure all these madness once and for all!”

On August 1, Sowore joined a group to paint ‘Revolution Now’ graffiti on walls at Maryland bus-stop in Lagos. The next day, he posted on his Twitter feed that a friend had informed him he was under “heavy surveillance” from security agencies. “Waste of time,” he retorted. Then, on August 3, two days to his planned D-Day, armed operatives from the Department of State Security (DSS) invaded his Lagos hotel in the wee hours of the morning and hustled him into custody. “This is a panic response from a decayed regime that is so scared of its own shadow,” Sowore’s lawyer, Inibehe Effiong, said, condemning the arrest. Effiong also noted that Sowore’s arrest would not stop the August 5 protests. The police, in a statement signed by its national Spokesman, Frank Mba, urged Nigerians to stay away. The protest amounts to “treasonable felony and acts of terrorism” which would lead to “anarchy in the land”, the police said

On August 5, protesters trooped out in Lagos, but they were dispersed by the police through gunshots and tear gas. In Abuja, there was rain and protesters could not make it to Eagle Square, which was locked down by security officials. Instead, they marched to the National Human Rights Commission headquarters, to protest Sowore’s arrest. On the first day, at least 12 persons were detained by the police for constituting “public nuisance”. Although the other leaders of the protest vowed to return the next day, Sowore’s much-vaunted August 5 revolution was already on its knees, begging for life. “The winner is democracy,” Presidential Spokesman, Garba Shehu, proclaimed.

But not everyone agreed with that verdict. A Senior Advocate of Nigeria, Mike Ozhekhome, described the government’s decision to stifle the protests as illegal. “This government is allergic to plurality of voices,” he said. Nobel Laureate, Wole Soyinka also condemned the government’s reaction and compared it to the Abacha regime.

“Deployment of alarmist expressions such as ‘treason’, ‘anarchist’, ‘public incitement’ etc. by Security forces have become so predictable and banal that they have become meaningless,” Soyinka said. “If we cannot learn from the histories and experiences of other societies, let us at least learn from ours. Freedom is not so glibly qualified. It cannot be doled out like slops of charity from soup kitchens. Let the police stick to their task of protecting and managing protests, not attempt to place their own meaning and declaration of intent on bogey words like – revolution!”

A day after the scuppered protests, reports of Sowore’s voice from detention filtered into the media. He said, “I am pleased.”

Sowore was born in a little village called Kiribo, a Yoruba-speaking community in the Niger-Delta. His father, a polygamist, was a local teacher and his mother a housewife. He has said that he became an activist during his time at the University of Lagos due to his memories of government neglect and brutality in his oil-rich region. At Unilag, which he attended between 1989 to 1995, Sowore was a force. In 1989, his first year at university, he took part in student demonstrations protesting the IMF-inspired Structural Adjustment Programme. In 1992, the same year he became leader of Unilag’s Student Union, he led about 2,000 students to protest against the Ibrahim Babangida-government, which was heavily perceived as corrupt. He was arrested, shot at, beaten and expelled (twice) for activities related to his activism. He was also an active participant of the June 12 struggle. There are pictures and videos on the internet of Sowore standing beside Moshood Abiola during street marches and stirring up crowds with speeches after Abiola, the widely-accepted winner of the 1993 elections, was confirmed dead under controversial circumstance in 1998.

In 1999, Sowore attended a peace conference at American University in Washington. There, he got in touch with the Bellevue/NYU Programme for Survivors of Torture, an initiative that helps victims rebuild their physical and mental health. According to a New York Times report in 2011, Sowore had planned to go back to Nigeria, but doctors advised, for his mental health, against an immediate return. So he stayed back in America, sought political asylum and enrolled as a graduate student in Public Administration at Columbia University.

From his new home, Sowore began to dabble into journalism. In 2006, he started Sahara Reporters, a news website famous for its hard-hitting report of Nigerian public corruption. In 2008, he received financial support, to sustain SR, from the Ford Foundation and the Global Information Network, an independent, nonprofit organisation focused on news from the developing world. SR’s early years typifies Sowore; the reporting was crude, sometimes unethical, but it did the crucial job of informing Nigerians on how crooked its leaders were. Sowore has been criticised for being a loudmouth, ‘behaving like a tout’, naive, arrogant, even corrupt, but, in the past two decades and a half, he has been consistent in speaking against Nigeria’s spiraling public decadence.

In August 2018, Sowore founded the African Action Congress (AAC) to contest the 2019 Presidential elections. “We haven’t had leaders who know what they’re doing and it’s because our leaders are a product of godfathers,” he said at the time. “They are a product of a compromised political system that has destroyed any opportunity to have leaders who are patriotic, honest and selfless.” For his campaign, he touted his experience as a student union leader and activist; he also made lavish, ambitious promises, such as raising the minimum wage to N100,000 from N18,000, fixing the nation’s power problems with solar within a year and growing cannabis at scale to boost non-oil revenues. At the polls, AAC and Sowore floundered. Muhammadu Buhari, the eventual winner, won more than 15 million votes. Sowore couldn’t garner up to 50,000. AAC wasn’t even among the top five political parties. He rejected the results. He described the exercise as “an act of aggression against Nigerian voters.”

Since the conclusion of the 2019 elections, the nation’s security temperature has heightened: Boko Haram has resurfaced and a wave of violent kidnappings continues to terrorise the country. As usual, President Buhari has been slow in appointing ministers and his ‘body language’ suggests a sense of detachment relative to the urgency of the reality facing most Nigerians, especially those at the lower rungs of society. Sowore sought to ride this wave of apparent despondency when he announced ‘Revolution Now’. Unfortunately, he didn’t have – and could not conjure – the national, populist presence to achieve his goal. Even those politically opposed to the Buhari administration have disowned his call for change. For example, Governor of Rivers State, Nyesom Wike, a staunch member of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) has disparaged the movement. “Rivers State is not part of the ‘Revolution Now’ protest and whatever illegal agenda it sought to pursue,” Wike said after the initial protests had been quashed.

However, it is presumptuous to imagine that Sowore has failed. What he has done is to dramatise the sense of urgency that is required to solve Nigeria’s problems. He might bear the spirit of a lawless, naive student-union activist, but history will remember that he raised his voice when others, perhaps better placed to advance the nation’s democracy, stayed docile. And this government helped his cause.

The Buhari administration bears a sizzling temper against democratic norms, whether it is the rule of law (as seen in the Sambo Dasuki and El-Zakzaky case) or citizen’s right to organise civil protests. While Buhari did not create the culture of government authoritarianism (past administration exhibited similar traits), he has perpetuated it and, perhaps, taken it to new heights.

“It is worrisome that the Buhari administration has decided to extend the ambit of the Terrorism Prevention (Amendment) Act to cover individuals and organisations that are critical of official policies or perceived marginalisation within the federation,” human rights lawyer, Femi Falana, said after Sowore was arrested. The DSS wants to prosecute Sowore based on the provisions of the Terrorism Act.

Buhari’s intolerance has a long history. As Military President in 1984, he enacted Decree 4, which essentially rendered as criminal anyone who spoke against his administration. Although he claims to be a converted democrat, in interviews, Buhari has continued to whine about the constraints of democracy. His decisions as a civilian president has reflected his bias towards authoritarianism and the crackdown on Sowore’s ‘Revolution Now’ is the latest paragon.

After several civil society and pressure groups called for Sowore’s exoneration, The DSS charged him to court on August 6, seeking to detain him for 90 days. On Thursday, August 8, Justice Taiwo Taiwo, sitting in the Federal High Court, Abuja, granted the security agency permission to detain Sowore for 45 days, during which it must conclude its investigation into the accused. One of the DSS’ tasks will be to establish that, as it has already insinuated, Sowore is being funded by third parties to destabilise the nation’s polity.

If Sowore survives this round of persecution, he will emerge differently. He has caught the attention of the mainstream media (during his campaign, his communication efforts was mostly limited to social media) and a number of sympathisers. He won’t stop screaming for justice. His detention, rather than being a curse, will become a medal, a verifiable sign that he is not part of the establishment, the oppressors. And, since people love persecuted underdogs, Sowore would have achieved a different revolution: his own evolution.

QUICK FACTS:

*On July 27, Omoyele Sowore announced that his political party, the African Action Congress (AAC) was set to spearhead a revolution protest across Nigeria. The plan was to mobilise hundreds of thousands of Nigerians to fill cities across the country until a governance “revolution” emerged. He tagged it “Days of Rage”

*Sowore has been an energetic activist since his days at the University of Lagos. He became an activist during his time at the University of Lagos due to his memories of government neglect and brutality in his oil-rich region

* At Unilag, which he attended between 1989 to 1995, Sowore was a force. In 1989, his first year at university, he took part in student demonstrations protesting the IMF-inspired Structural Adjustment Programme

*In 1992, the same year he became leader of Unilag’s Student Union, he led about 2,000 students to protest against the Ibrahim Babangida-government, which was heavily perceived as corrupt

*Sowore began to dabble into journalism in 2006, when he started Sahara Reporters, a news website famous for its hard-hitting report of Nigerian public corruption

* In 2008, he received financial support, to sustain SR, from the Ford Foundation and the Global Information Network, an independent, nonprofit organisation focused on news from the developing world. SR’s early years typifies Sowore; the reporting was crude, sometimes unethical, but it did the crucial job of informing Nigerians on how crooked its leaders were

* In August 2018, Sowore founded the African Action Congress (AAC) to contest the 2019 Presidential elections

*Sowore sought to ride this wave of apparent despondency when he announced ‘Revolution Now’. Unfortunately, he didn’t have – and could not conjure – the national, populist presence to achieve his goal

*The Buhari administration bears a sizzling temper against democratic norms, whether it is the rule of law (as seen in the Sambo Dasuki and El-Zakzaky case) or citizen’s right to organise civil protests

*While Buhari did not create the culture of government authoritarianism (past administration exhibited similar traits), he has perpetuated it and, perhaps, taken it to new heights

* The DSS wants to prosecute Sowore based on the provisions of the Terrorism Act

*After several civil society and pressure groups called for Sowore’s exoneration, The DSS charged him to court on August 6, seeking to detain him for 90 days. On Thursday, August 8, Justice Taiwo Taiwo, sitting in the Federal High Court, Abuja, granted the security agency permission to detain Sowore for 45 days

* One of the DSS’ tasks will be to establish that, as it has already insinuated, Sowore is being funded by third parties to destabilise the nation’s polity