Let us begin to build bridges

My concern here is not about physical infrastructure but about social infrastructure. Accordingly, my focus is not on physical bridges, like the first or second Niger Bridge or the Third Mainland Bridge, although such bridges are necessary. Rather, I am concerned about social and political bridges, which are necessary to sew together the multilayered fabrics of our society. Until we carefully build such bridges, we will continue to talk glibly about unity as if it were a kind of garment we all could just put on and suddenly become transformed into one people.

The United States attempted to do just that by declaring itself “One Nation under God”, despite her multiple nationalities. Yet it continues to be torn by racial, gender, political, and other divisions. For over two hundred years, it failed to build necessary bridges across these divisions. We are witnessing the consequences of this failure on a daily basis.

True, the US did attempt to build some bridges by legislation, such as the Civil Rights Act and Affirmative Action. Nevertheless, the divisions remain in the people’s attitude and actions. The best lesson we can take from the American failure is to start the process of avoiding it, by beginning to build necessary bridges today and to start acting on them.

Let me begin with a recent case of a glaring division. It is between the youths and the political class. Put quite simply, there is a generational gap here between young (say under 50s) and old (say over 60s). Standing for the under 50s is Omoyele Sowore, the publisher of Sahara Reporters, while the over 60s (better still, over 70s) is represented by President Muhammadu Buhari.

Recently, Sowore attempted to lead his #RevolutionNow protest against Buhari’s government and the political class in general. It is naive to think that Sowore believed he could win, when he ran for President and lost very badly. His candidacy was merely to galvanize the youths in a symbolic protest against the political class. For him, #Revolution Now was a continuation of that protest.

However, the timing and the naming of the protest were dead wrong. On timing, the Presidential Election Tribunal is still sitting as I write, looking into at least two distinct petitions against Buhari, the All Progressives Congress, and the Independent National Electoral Commission. Besides, Buhari had just received the approval of  Senate for his cabinet nominees and he is set to inaugurate them soon. No sane leader or government will not see a protest at this time as an irritant, if not as a threat.

Why select “revolution” as the name of the protest, when you know that you are dealing with military personnel in civilian clothes? Besides, why use such an irritating term like that at a time the most vociferous criticism of Buhari’s government is the perceived poor handling of insecurity, typified by the Boko Haram insurgency and rampant kidnappings? Did Sowore forget that the military and the police have been put on high alert in the last two months or so and are, therefore, more likely than not to react negatively to protests, not least one that is titled #RevolutionNow?

You may blame the military, police, and the presidency all you want. I don’t excuse them either for their highhandedness and for the request to delay Sowore for treason. Treason? That’s baloney.

At the same time, however, Sowore must learn the rules of appropriateness and political sensitivity. He knows full well that the Arab Spring started rather innocuously, with the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi, a street vendor, in response to the confiscation of his wares and humiliation by a municipal official in Tunisia. His lone protest quickly spread as a series of antigovernment protests and uprisings across North Africa and the Middle East. At the end of the day, regimes were toppled and over 61,000 protesters lost their lives.

The Arab Spring was named retroactively just as the recent popular protest in France was named retroactively by the press as Yellow Vest protest, in recognition of the colour of the protesters’ T-shirts. The ongoing protest in Hong Kong has come to be known as pro-democracy protest, although the protesters did not give it a name as such.

As a linguist and a social scientist, I am familiar with a myriad of meanings and connotations of the word revolution. Whichever meaning you choose, the word cannot sit well with any government in the circumstances (described above) in which the Nigerian presidency finds itself now. Sam Omatseye apparently contradicted himself the other day by recognizing the relatively innocuous events that have led to major revolutions in the past, while, in the same breath, wondering why the Department of State Security acted swiftly to forestall Sowore’s protest, red-alerted, as it were, by the term revolution (Revolution When?, The Nation, August 12, 2019).

However, we must not miss the big lessons from the event. First, we must recognize the political and cultural ecology of Nigeria at this time as a highly controversial and volatile context for protests. Nnamdi Kanu was stopped from leading the Indigenous People of Biafra to whatever land he promised the people of the Southeast. It is within this context that some Northerners, led by the Coalition of Nordic Groups, interpreted Sowore’s #RevolutionNow as a Southwestern revolt because he is from the region.

Of course, the CNG betrayed its ignorance of Sowore’s right to express himself however he wished, and that no Yoruba leader, educated as they are, would stop him from doing so. In any case, they have no such power anymore than Igbo leaders could stop Kanu or Northern leaders, including CNG, could stop the destructive protests in the North that followed Buhari’s electoral defeat in 2011, which killed an estimated 800 people.

Second, Sowore’s botched protest points to several bridges we must seek to build across regional, religious, ethnic, class, gender, and age divisions. Given the teeming youth population and high rate of youth unemployment, we must begin now to bridge the generational divide through investment in education, healthcare, and the creation of gainful employment for the youths. We cannot just call them tomorrow’s leaders without training them to be leaders or even equipping them to make a living. Symbolic gestures, such as N-Power, is certainly not enough. Sustainable policies and programmes must be embarked upon in order to reverse the downward slide in educational standards and the high rates of unemployment and poverty.

Sowore’s #RevolutionNow shows that the youths cannot sit idle, while continuing to read about corruption in high places and to experience decaying infrastructure, inadequate educational facilities, and substandard hospitals.

True, Sowore should learn to modify the platform of his protest in consonance with prevailing social and political realities, while the government should learn to respect the freedom of expression. He could use the platform of his online publication to express his opinion and even seek audience with the President. Alternatively, the President could send for him once it became known that he was planning a protest. It is this kind of proactive negotiation that has so badly eluded the Buhari administration.

To be sure, President Buhari is not solely responsible for the prevailing social, economic, and political malaise. His government inherited an economy already in recession as well as the Boko Haram insurgency. Fuel and power subsidy were also already ongoing. You could blame Buhari for taciturnity and tardiness as well as his government’s inability to effectively communicate its handicaps and what he has been doing to overcome them.

Surely, the media have not helped the situation, given their power to make or unmake the image of the government. By taking criticism of the government as its major role, the press in particular has almost neglected its role to inform and educate the public. Accordingly, many columnists tend to write about what the government has done wrong rather than highlight what it has done right or could do. This has to change if the gap between the press and the government is to be bridged. Yet, this bridge is needed in order to grow our democracy.

©2018 VivaLasGidi

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