EGYPT IS IMPOSSIBLE IN NIGERIA! REALLY??

Once again, our leaders have shown just how disconnected they are from reality. A couple of weeks ago, one of our senior lawmakers told a group of visiting German lawmakers that the protests which led to the fall of the Governments in Tunisia and Egypt, and is now threatening other countries, is impossible in Nigeria. His main reason was that, Nigerians have no reason to revolt because the country has a functional democracy.

Not long after that, Nigeria's highest decision making body, The Federal Executive Council, reached the same misguided conclusion. Their main reason is only slightly different from the lawmaker's; Nigeria is being run in constitutional order, where the tenure of office is fixed.

Now, unless I am missing something, the reasons for the protests in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Algeria, Bahrain and elsewhere had/have very little to do with constitutional order and/or functional democracy. True, the leaders in some of these countries have been around for decades, but was that really what caused these uprisings? Certainly not.

Let's start with Tunisia. The revolt there was sparked by a sequence of events that centred around a 26year old vegatable seller named Mohammed Bouazizi. Mohammed was the bread-winner of a family of 8 and his vegetable business was the family's only source of income. On December 17 2010, he was prevented from selling his vegetables by a municipal official, who said he needed a permit to do so and that he had to pay a fine. Mohammed agreed to pay, but rather than accept it, she slapped him, spat in his face and insulted his family. Angered by this, he went to the police station to report and then to the Local Government office, but he was thrown out of both places. He then went back to the Government office, doused himself in petrol and lit a match. No one could have predicted what happened next. The resulting fire from that act has brought down the 23year regime of Zine El Abidine Ben-Alli in Tunisia, the 29year regime of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and is threatning to do the same to the 41year regime of Muammar Al-Gaddafi in Libya. Even though Mohammed died in hospital in January 2011, the reaction to his action is alive, well and spreading. When Tunisians heard of Mohammed's ordeal, their anger at a Government that had insisted on dehumanising them, exploded. Already reeling from high unemployment, poverty, corruption and failure of infrastructure, the Mohammed Bouazizi story ignited a fire that could not be put out until their demands were met. Amazing, when you consider the fact that Tunisia is very much a police state where protests of any kind were generally uncommon. This time however, the protests did happen and in a major way. It started with the self-imolation of a frustrated young man and ended in the fall of a 23year old Presidency.

And the world was watching. Similarly frustrated people under despotic regimes began to wonder why they should not or could not have their own "Tunisia moment". In one neighbouring country in particular, the outcome of the 10 day protest in Tunisia seemed like a miracle. In Egypt, unemployment was also high and corruption by public officials, particularly the Mubarak family, was the rule rather than the exception. There was a large and constantly growing army of educated but unemployed youths, whose prospects of leaving that life behind seemed bleak at best, especially considering the fact that President Mubarak was reported to be finalizing plans to hand over to his son. If the Tunisians could get rid of a Government that had trampled on their dignity, a Government that had impoverished a country of 10million people while at the same time enriching a small clique, why could they not do the same? And considering the fact this was done without a single shot being fired (at least not by the protesters), Egyptians knew that this was their moment. And like that, the Egyptian revolution was born. 16 days later, the Air Force Marshal who became Vice President 36years ago and President 29 years ago, was forced to step down. No amount of concessions (even reasonable sounding ones) was enough for the people. Quite simply, they'd had enough.

I've gone into this brief history lesson to illustrate one very simple point. The protests in Tunisia and Egypt had at their core, a deeply frustrated and angry people. Their anger at the dehumanising poverty they lived in, while seeing how their "leaders" lived was too much to bear. Their frustration at the oppression metted out to them by those in positions of authority had left them with little or no dignity or self-respect. Like most moments of popular revolt in history, it would take something seemingly innocuous to spark a backlash. Take a tour through history and you will see that in almost every country that has experienced popular revolts, these kinds of feelings of frustration, anger and discontent have been the key ingredients. And in almost every instance, these feelings have boiled over as a result of something that if taken in isolation, probably wouldn't get much attention. Whether it's Ukraine in 2004 or Indonesia in 1998 or Romania in 1989 or The Phillipines in 1986 or even France in 1789. In all these examples, revolts were sparked by something that otherwise would have been little, but ended up turning recessive but seething anger and resentment into defiant protests. And once the protests started, no amount of force could stop it. When President Mubarak tried to put down the protests in Egypt by using force, the only thing that happened was an exponential increase in the number of protesters. A popular news anchor remarked that she had not planned to join the protests until, among other things, she saw images of protesters being beaten. A wise man once said, "There is nothing more powerful than an idea whose time has come".

Which brings me to the reason for this article. Looking at similar moments in history to what caused the Tunisian and Egyptian protests, how exactly can Nigeria's leaders say that "Egypt is impossible in Nigeria?" We have pretty much the same ingredients: ridiculous unemployment rates, poverty, mind-numbing corruption, ineffective leaders, high crime rates and a general lack and/or failure of basic infrastructure. All these were present in Tunisia and Egypt. The only thing missing is the presence of a long-time despotic leader, which of course is the Nigerian Government's argument. But I daresay that the fact that is even an argument shows that our leaders live in a different world than most of the country. We don't have a despotic long-time leader, but the standard of living is no different from these two countries. I could actually argue that generally, the standard of living in at least one of those countries is probably better than Nigeria!

The other argument that we have a functional democracy would be funny if it wasn't so serious. A functional democracy where candidates and election results are decided by a few people in a meeting room? Presidential candidate, Pat Utomi remarked in a recent interview that a week before the last election, he was shown the result of one of the polls! And when the results were announced, that was exactly what was declared! A functional democracy. A functional democracy where the standard of living is no different from countries with "non-functional democracies"? A functional democracy, where a ridiculous number of people live from hand to mouth, while our lawmakers are the highest paid in the world? Why would youths dream of getting to the pinnacle of their careers, when they can to get into politics by any means necessary, not out of a commitment to serve but because of how lucrative it is in Nigeria? Shouldn't we the people reap the rewards of living in a functional democracy? Other than successful transfer of power in 2003, 2007 and I hope and pray 2011, what is there to boast about our democracy?

In any case, the lack of a functional democracy was not what caused the protests in Tunisia and Egypt. That Ben-Alli and Mubarak ruled their countries for decades is not in question, so that is not the point. If these men had been Presidents for 50 years and the standard of living of their people was better than it was and corruption was the exception rather than the rule and a qualified graduate could get a good job without "knowing someone", then the duration of their Presidencies would have mattered very little to the people. The reason they were clamouring for these leaders to go was because they had spent decades as Presidents and the peoples' lot seemed to get worse with each year. Every graduation ceremony multiplied the number of unemployed graduates in the country. Things were (are still) so bad that very well qualified jobseekers were not even looking for jobs in their fields anymore. They just wanted a job. Any job. Hear what a recent Tunisian Law graduate said, "I graduated with one of the best results at my University, but what good has it done me? I am a lawyer who cleans floors and windows in a Government office. My older brother has a Phd and is a storekeeper. So what's the difference between us and the people who did not even go to school at all?"

If the case was different and such qualified applicants could get good jobs and live decent lives, do you really think they would care how long the President has been in office? I doubt it.

So when our dear leaders say that we live in a "functional democracy", so the people have no reason to revolt, it's a sad reminder of how disconnected they really are from the people. Do they really not know how frustrated and angry people are? Do they really not know how the number of unemployed graduates is multiplied with each graduation ceremony? (When strikes actually allow them to graduate) Do they really not know the curses family members and friends rain on them with each kidnap, each armed robbery, each assasination, each road accident, each "accidental discharge" by the police, each hour spent on a petrol queue, each explosion caused by a faulty generator or stove? Do they really not understand that as events in Tunisia and Egypt have shown recently, and also in other countries in the past, it takes something very little for people to say, "We've had enough?"

Instead of arrogantly and deludedly declaring that "Egypt is impossible in Nigeria", why not use this as an opportunity to get it right? Why not use this as an opportunity to ensure that the frustration and anger of Nigerians does not tip over? Remember that people-revolts were sparked by incidents that although serious, would probably not have escalated into something much bigger. In Tunisia, it was the reaction of a frustrated young man to harassment by a Government official. In Egypt, it was the inspiration they felt from the events in Tunisia, where frustration, anger and discontent were also rife. In Ukraine, it was the blatant rigging of a Presidential election. In Indonesia, it was the shooting of University students who had joined on-going protests to rid the country of an ineffective President who had ruled for 31 years. In Romania, it was the harassment of an ethnic minority Priest by Police and other Government officials. In The Philippines, it was the assassination of the major opposition leader and attempts by the ruling party to rig the hastily scheduled Presidential election. In 18th century France, it was the disconnect between the absolute monarchy at the time and the French people. There is an infamous statement credited to the French Queen at the time, Marie Antoinette (Although historians are divided as to wheter she was the one who actually made the statement). When she was tod that the people had no bread to eat, she reportedly said, "Let them eat cake". What a thing to say! Let them eat cake. That was how disconnected she was from reality.

Even as I write this, I cringe at how similar some of these situations are to past and present events in Nigeria. I can picture almost any one of our leaders being told that the electricity situation is getting worse and is having a knock on effect on other things. I can picture that leader saying, "Let them buy generators".

Are our leaders going to get it right or are they going to continue in their delusion until something seemingly minor happens? I sincerely pray that it is the former.

By: Omololu Elegbe