by Ikemesit Effiong
It is now fashionable in elite Nigerian social circles, internet online forums and even in newly published literary works to talk of revolution. Comments like “What we need to solve this country’s problem is a revolution.” “The youths must rise and seize the country from this old, perverse generation.” “Look at the Arab Spring, can that happen in Nigeria?” have now entered the mainstream of our national discourse.
It seems like there is a slow but steadily assured buildup of public opinion to the end that Nigeria deserves a revolution, a violent electrical jolt in the heart that will resuscitate it from its present coma.
In response to this, I would say, ‘Not so fast!’ Have we learned from the past? Is it possible to look at a few examples of revolutionary movements that took place in other countries and see what really happens before, during and after a revolution? I think we can, and I will attempt to do so here. But first, let us have a working definition.
The word, revolution comes from the Latin word revolutio which means “a turn around”. Dictionary.com defines it as an overthrow or repudiation and the thorough replacement of an established government or political system by the people governed. The kind of revolution most Nigerians advocate for was described by Jeff Goodwin as “any or all instances in which a state or a political regime is overthrown and thereby transformed by a popular movement in an irregular, extraconstitutional and/or violent fashion”. Jack Gladstone talks of “an effort to transform the political institutions and the justifications for political authority in society”.
In essence, a revolution refers to a fundamental change in the power or organizational structures in a society, that takes place in a relatively short time, usually propagated by non-state actors with a vested interest contrary to that of the established authority, and powered either b the tacit sympathy or the fully mobilized support of the vast majority of the citizenry.
From the general historical record and for the purpose of our discussion, I will propose two loosely defined kinds of revolution. This is not meant to be academic but only a descriptive aid.
The first kind is what I will call an internal revolution and I like to see it as an autochthonous, home-grown rejection of the present state of affairs more like throwing up food your body is disagreeable to. The classic examples of this kind of revolution would be the English Glorious Revolution of the mid 1600s, the French Revolution of 1789, the Russian Revolution of 1917 and more recently, the so-called Egyptian and Libyan revolutions.
The second kind of revolution (naturally the opposite of the first), is the external revolution. This revolution involves a state actor and an aspiring state actor usually in a subservient, colonial position relative to the state actor, and seeking to overthrow the colonial overlord state. The outstanding example of this kind would be the American Revolution of 1776-1789. Our discussion will focus more on the first kind of revolution.
A cursory examination of the experiences of countries grappling with the onset of an internal revolution would reveal some interesting observations. They are characterized by continuing and consistent chaos, a general decline in societal decorum and order, arbitrary killings and assassinations, the risk of loss of lives and property, seemingly endless riots and protests. This leads, naturally, to a drastic decline in overall economic activity and the standard of living.
Also, internal revolutions always carry the danger of being either incompletely executed or being too complete. In most occasions, a strong stabilizing force is needed to ensure that the positive benefits of the revolution are consolidated. In the interim period of anarchy, precious time is lost.
The timing of the French Revolution coincided with the onset of the Industrial Revolution, so while England, Germany and the United States were rapidly shifting from depending on the land to depending on the factory, the French were still saddled with determining the fundamental equation of their national existence. In other words, they fell behind in the industrial race.
In similar fashion, the Russian Revolution of 1917 which occurred within the backdrop of the First World War setback an already backward Russia many years down the development track. As we will see later, that revolution also evolved to become “too complete.”
A revolution may be incomplete in that it fails to either achieve any of its existential objectives or it may succeed in removing the object of its disdain – usually a strongman or dictator without fundamentally altering the power equation.
We are currently experiencing that in Egypt where all the revolution seems to have achieved is replacing Hosni Mubarak with first the Supreme Military Council, and subsequently, the current President, Mohammed Morsi. In essence, it has been an exchange of strongmen.
A revolution may also be too complete. It can become so successful that it writes its own death sentence. The revolution so fundamentally reconstructs the social compact that it becomes an alien creation to the people, who ultimately reject the new arrangement. In this regard, the Russian Revolution of 1917 essentially wrote the fall of Communism in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Finally, internal revolutions, especially those of the non-violent variety always inadvertently leave a fragment of the old order. The historical record seems to suggest that no matter how towering, dominant, fervent or inspirational its proponents are, revolutions simply are not the vacuum cleaners of change we so wish them to be.
Martin Luther King’s personal conviction that all Americans irrespective of colour are entitled to the dream of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness has not changed the fact that 1 in 4 Americans in prison is African American, that only 35% of African-American males have a college degree or that African Americans earn on average, 77% of what a white American would earn for the same job.
Inevitably, all of this leads us to the critical question, Does Nigeria need a revolution? The historical record does not assure us that it is the breakthrough medicine we need as a nation. The evidence is simply inconclusive. The working formula the past seems to tell us, is a combination of changes in societal attitudes in the direction of democratic governance, a clear national vision aided by unbending dedication and fiscal responsibility, the ascent of science and applied technology in transforming general living habits, an increased emphasis on hardwork and meritocracy, the entrenchment of the rule of law and most important of all, continuity and stability for all of the previous factors to be achieved.
As with every formula, a faithful adherence will guarantee the right result. Nigeria is no exception. Having said all of that, our leaders will do well to listen to the ghostly words of John F. Kennedy, 34th President of the United States. “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible, make violent revolution inevitable.”