Not Quite the Nigerian Spring

ENGAGEMENTS: With Chidi Amuta
ENGAGEMENTS with Chidi Amuta, e-mail:

with Chidi Amuta

COVID-19 has delivered a clear and instant message to Nigeria. This may be our enduring dividend from this global health emergency. It is an agenda for leadership and followership for life after the virus. We have seen the nasty face of tomorrow on the faces of today’s midnight children. Just wait for it.

In parts of the country, the last one week has seen the spontaneous rise of an unintended consequence of the covid-19 lockdown. In Lagos and some other urban locations, gangs have emerged ostensibly to protest the clear and pervasive epidemic of hunger. Irate squads of healthy young men and women have emerged from the corona seclusion to erect barricades, set up bonfires and mass up in militant crowds that have defied social distancing and the presence of fierce troops.

Some are known rival cultists seizing the recess of law and order to resume fraternity wars. Others are criminals long in want of the opportunity of lax security. The majority are innocent hungry youth, now deprived of the opportunity for day-to-day living income but desperately poor, hungry and now angry as well. United by want of a meaningful life, desperate for opportunity, ignited by rage and united by hunger, mobs have emerged spontaneously. The tinder of rage has fast ignited waves of angry protests on the fringes of major cities. They have robbed, looted and sometimes defiled unprotected women. Anarchy has served a clear notice.

It is not the sheer presence of these mobs that should worry us. It is their message. It is what their emergence symbolizes for our fragile polity and untidy governance culture. So much hunger, such vile anger among a huge swirl of humanity. There is no escaping it. Right before us are the consequences of decades of insensitive governance and elite aloofness.

These are the emissaries of the schools that were not built, the hospitals that no one cared to establish or equip. These are the foot soldiers of the social infrastructure that our successive political leaderships never cared to build. All the empty speeches about foreign and domestic investment, the huge budgets that were announced but never implemented have returned in the rough unwashed mobs out there. The copious promises made at endless campaign rallies by politicians of all colours are standing at the gates of the gilded palaces of the rich. The police and soldiers may disperse them but they have etched their presence in our minds in this season of fear.

The youth are daring the live bullets of hungry police men and the menacing presence of equally angry soldiers. For most of the marchers, there is no difference between life in the hell holes of suffocating ghettos and another night in a police cell. The order to observe social distancing does not make sense when last night you slept standing up with your eight siblings in one hellish hole of a room. The wait for the approaching food relief lorry is more hopeful than the elusive wait for jobs that never came or the lies of the pastor who keeps saying that the bread of heaven will be abundant in heaven when we get there.

In Lagos, the skirmishes have happened at the fringes of the few islands of affluence: gates into wealthy estates and neighbourhoods, parking lots of shopping malls and other places where the affluent and powerful are to be found. Some of the gatherings start out as open scrambles for food donated by government, charitable organizations or kind individuals. Once the crowds gather, the food supplicants become irate mobs and instant ‘revolutionaries’.

In other parts of the country, there have been the predictable clashes between youth mobs and security agents. Some casualties have been recorded in the hands of over zealous, untrained or simply frightened security personnel. Such accidental clashes have merely infuriated the anger and disquiet in the land. It is hard to choose between death by corona virus and instalmental death by hunger and bad condition. We may have started out with the corona virus as a common enemy. We may end up with a simmering costly class and political emergency.

Governments at state and federal levels have responded with compassionate speeches, some food, paltry cash and police men with horsewhips and live rounds. The Lagos state government has made a most daring effort to listen to the hunger in the belly of the mob. It has attempted to share food relief in open squares. It was overwhelmed. It has revised the arrangement by directing food aid to the needy elderly. In some cases, miserable sachets of gari, rice and strange flour have been dumped indiscriminately at street corners.

Now humanitarian groups, companies and individuals have joined the food relief effort. But the relief is a drop in the ocean of accumulated hunger and stubborn poverty. The confusion in the food relief distribution is hard to understand. Nigerian politicians are a strange breed. These same politicians can recite the map and demographics of every street and neighbourhood in Lagos when hunting for votes. Suddenly do not know the abodes of the poor and needy.

The federal level is a different matter. The President has broken out of his traditional isolation to speak to us. He has pledged a few billion naira here and there to alleviate the pains of the needy and the hungry. Cash is being distributed among the poorest of our 90 million officially poor. Very few have seen anyone who saw somebody who received this money. But the money has gone out anyway. There are computer printouts, holograms and graphs to show. There is even surplus statistical analysis and PowerPoint presentations on the national algorithm of poverty prepared by the children we the elite sent to the best universities of the world. Inequality is now a respected discipline in good universities.

The Minister of Finance has announced a relief package of N500 billion. As is typical of our ‘feeding bottle republic’, over 85% of that money is to be dispensed by the government through its locust bureaucrats. The private sector is literally left out of the aid package. Government is even going to employ 1,000 people in each of our 774 local government areas. No one knows exactly what work all these people are going to do. A government that does not know how to engage its own multitude of employees is about to infect 774,000 more Nigerians with the virus of incompetence. The African politician is a born actor!

But come to think of it. We are truly a poor country whose leaders have made the followers believe is rich. The total money in our foreign reserves is less than what one man called Jeff Bezos, the owner of Amazon, casually tossed at his ex-wife as divorce settlement. The woman is said to have forgotten the cheque in her hand bag for some days before handing it to the bank! The young lad, Mark Zuckerberg, the owner of Facebook goes about with an electronic wallet in the back pocket of his jeans. The wallet gives him instant access to over $40 billion in cash wherever he is in the world. That is how poor Nigeria is. So, the money and resources we are distributing as Covid-19 relief is a redistribution of national poverty!

As with most things political in Nigeria, wild interpretations and speculations are beginning to emerge. The most obvious one is that the corona hunger skirmishes in some cities may in fact presage the ‘Nigerian revolution’. Angry youth may have found their voice in demanding a more equitable distribution of the national wealth. Predictably, segments of the elite are scurrying for cover, finding no hiding place in the event that matters come to a head. Some affluent neighbourhoods have arranged reinforcement of police and military personnel in the event that the mobs storm their estates and castles. But Covid-19 has shut the escape route of the airports. So, no one is thinking of evacuating their families abroad only to follow shortly if matters come to push and shove. We are all stuck here, caught between the fatal siege of covid-19 and the anger of the hungry and angry mob out there.

It is political bad manners and lazy political science for the elite to see a revolution where there is none. The mobs that recently reared their heads in parts of Lagos and other areas of the southern parts of the country are the least politicized. They are not united by any common consciousness of the political origins of their condition. They are not organized or structured. They have no enlightened leadership. Hooligans and uneducated gangsters do not lead a revolution. Even casual politicians do not want to touch the mobsters with a long pole let alone own them. They are only needed as political thugs during election campaigns.

Devoid of a unifying consciousness, structure and leadership with a political memory and nation wide resonance, mobs fueled by hunger pangs and momentary discomfort will peter out as social and economic life return to normal. They will even disappear earlier as real troops with actual guns approach. Order precedes and waters the fount of freedom!

Most importantly, popular discontent can only produce a wave of change in a nation when the things that unite the citizenry are stronger than those that divide them, In a divided polity, revolutionary pressures are easily dissipated because the forces of division are stronger than those in favour of a common purpose. In this regard, President Buhari has done better than all past leaders rolled into one. Under the General, Nigeria today is more divided along religious, ethnic, geo political and economic lines than it has ever been. Thus divided, and in the absence of a countervailing political rhetoric or conversation, it will be extremely difficult for any groundswell of discontent to swell into a national political spring that could even approach a challenge of the status quo let alone a revolutionary change.

In any event, the urgent political challenge of Nigeria is not a revolution in whatever sense. Spontaneous waves of social and political outrage even when led by an enlightened and educated core have in recent times bred greater anarchy. The Arab Spring was led by a western educated elite of energetic youth and popularized by the social media. They were even united by a pan Arab revulsion against autocrats and despots. But the Spring soon filtered off and yielded space to opportunistic terrorists and viral anarchy.

Since after the great revolutions of history-the French Revolution, the Bolshevik Revolution, the Chinese Revolution, the Cuban Revolution, the American Revolution etc.- subsequent efforts have only ended up enthroning dictatorships and autocracies often worse and more repressive than what they overthrew. Anarchy, no matter its origins and good intentions, cannot be its own justification.

I agree that Nigeria needs a revolution in its political life. But it is a different type. It is a leadership revolution, one that enthrones a totally different paradigm of leadership than we have ever had. Our political process has to quickly rescue itself from a leadership recruitment process that shuns merit and emphasizes compromise and mediocrity. The complexity and size of the Nigerian nation requires that minimally, the leadership of the nation must emerge from a meritocratic political process.

That is the genuine and urgent next level!
The public health emergency of the Covid-19 has sent out a clear and unmistakable message to our leaders. The skirmishes and hunger riots in parts of the country are warning shots of what lies ahead. Our youth bulge is a frightening reality. The lack of skill and education among our youth is a national security danger. The mass poverty and hunger across the land is a string of land mines strewn across our landscape. Our immediate post Covid-19 challenge is to defuse this massive land mine and convert the energy of youth into an asset of progress. The battle for 2023 therefore has its rules of engagement defined by a virus.

As the coronavirus emergency with its lockdowns, dislocations and closures of life and business enters a zone of exasperation and anxiety, humanity is eager to return to life. Even in the midst of imminent death and the perennial proximity of disease, humanity takes refuge in only one place: in life. When unfamiliar danger appears, we flee at first. Then we try to understand the nature of the danger and the reality of the threat to our existence. We put up a fight by deploying all we know and have.

Thereafter, we resume life though the casualties may mount and our chances oscillate. New survival tricks take hold and replace the familiar rituals of life. Our species is wired for living and for survival. From the eerie silence and lethal ashes of the death piles of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, some still frail small voices of resilient humanity rose to stridently announce: We are still here! Even in the most dire and desperate circumstances, life endures.