I have been writing, possessed by a fantasy, about elitism, lamenting its destructive effects in my bids to identify with the sufferings of the masses. For, if vulnerability to political oppression and social injustice is the qualification for membership of the masses, I’m a frontline member. This has been my understanding. I’m not just a statistic, I assure myself. I’m a voice of reason; I’m a name that seeks to unify the religiously hateful and ethnically bigoted citizens, who are the bad products of this uncritically embraced politics. For this, I have been dubbed a “hopeless populist” by those who correctly understand my position, people I still refer to as the pro-establishment. But to the masses, whose sufferings I highlight, week in, week out, enduring the scorns of the fairly criticised elite, I’m also an accomplice in the rape of this country!
In the weeks past, in private conferences with friends who are the most prominent critics and observers of this generation, I was deconstructed as a pretentious advocate of the masses. “If a revolution begins in Nigeria right now,” my big brother Alkasim Abdulkadir declared in one of such gatherings, “You will be killed!” I had been absent-minded, not following the argument. But when I looked up, bewildered, there was an answer: “Because you have a car and an iPad!” I didn’t have to contest that. It was an epiphany I had deliberately refused to acknowledge. A car and an iPad are, to the people who survive on Fanta and Bread, garri and groundnuts, credentials of elitism, thus making their owner too a symbol of oppression, an ambassador of the treasury-looting Cabal they have been struggling, restlessly, to embarrass. In words. And, to some extent, in action.
So, I was not shocked, only demoralised this week when on Wednesday, Abuja’s #BringBackOurGirls campaigners were physically attacked by the same “masses” whose vulnerabilities we seek to protect – actually by a rented crowd tasked by the government to disrupt the cause at the venue of our daily sit-out, Unity Fountain. Two ironies are noted on this day: one, the undemocratic assault was on the eve of our Democracy Day in the presence of the Police who let them, perhaps for also being members of the family of the rented citizens, being that, to the comedians among us, the acronym of Nigeria Police Force, NPF, also stands for Nigeria Poor Family; two, that the venue for the sit-outs where the clash of classes took place, where the exhibition of disunity took place, where the dramatisation of a people’s gullibility took place, is called Unity Fountain! Ours, sadly, is a unity of disunity, a unity of the nation’s biggest troubles. It was a government-sponsored comedy show!
In my review of #BringBackOurGirls, obviously done to justify my participation, in my piece “Finally, Our Deaths Will be Televised”, on May 9, I wrote this about the campaigners: “The success of Abuja’s #BringBackOurChild campaign is attributed to various factors of which the social class of the campaigners is the top. A friend of mine playfully dubbed the campaign ’The Ajebota Awakening‘; but in all fairness, these are the only people, largely members of the (comfortable) middle-class, worthy to be listened to by the government of which they’re either beneficiaries, previously involved or with whose functionaries they’re friends or relatives.”
But in spite of my confidence in these revolutionary Ajebotas, I was disturbed on the day the elite comrade, Dino Melaye, addressing the campaigners, quoted a dead white man, thus: “One day the poor will have nothing to eat except the poor.” It was both a contradiction and a prophecy by a Dino who owns a fleet of exotic sports cars numbered one to ten, and perhaps more, as evident in the numbers on the ones he had driven to the sit-out, scandalising us, the unqualified Ajebotas, who survive on salaries that aren’t enough to cover our bills.
The disunity of classes at Unity Fountain was a part materialisation of Comrade Melaye’s prophecy, and I was sure he understood that he’s overripe, being extravagantly “wealthy”, for consumption by “the poor” referenced. We have been revolutionarily insular for not involving the the larger class, the worst hit victims of all forms of oppression ever designed by the ruling elite. For me, an acceptable criticism of #BringBackOurGirls may be our inability, even though it’s a cause deserving urgency, to “de-elitise” the campaign. By having the masses properly sensitised, not exactly involved, because bringing them to Abuja, I fear, may also be a form of renting. We need to show them that the security arrangements also threaten their existence. But who am I fooling to assume that the masses aren’t aware of the threats, which had consumed them, twice, in the Nyaya blasts?
As much as I wish to condemn the poverty that has formatted the brains of the poor Nigerians, I’m not ignorant of their resistance to involvement in, and suspicion of, whatever passes for activism. Mob violence is often the result of their attempts to protest an injustice, where anything grand sighted in their march, even structures unrelated to the government, structures owned by private entrepreneurs, are seen as oppressive, and are hence demolished or set on fire. So the thoughtless philosophers must have, listed in their jeremiads, the near impossibility of having the poor and hungry involved in such “idleness”—which is exactly what such struggles, and activism of all forms, are to them. How did I know this? I always highlight my participation in #OccupyNigeria as an experience that further exposed Nigerians as their own worst enemies.
Minna, a town with the most colourful contrast of the rich and the poor, being the residence of two former presidents, both scandalously rich, and the poor abandoned in its many slums even denied the benefits of good governance, is not a greenhouse of activism. In fact, it finds such demonstration of grievances over an unpopular policy as sponsored. As an initiator of the campaign, I had to go round Minna with a few loyal friends to convince the people about the fraud that was the fuel subsidy removal, and why their participation can have the inhuman decision reversed. Their responses varied from the suspicious, down through the understandably indifferent, who had already concluded that the existence of government was just nominal, to those who assaulted our sensibility, saying, “How much are we going to be paid if we show up for the protest?”
They would not acknowledge our lecture that #OccupyNigeria was a campaign that sought to fight for their rights and welfare. They would only lament about the fuel price hike and its dreaded consequences at their neighborhood “parliaments”. The most honest of the groups we approached gave this condition for their participation, one we could not accept: they wanted to show up for the protest armed, because, according to their spokesperson, the police might intercept, which they actually did, and their only alternative was, in their words, “caccake yan-iskan” – “butcher the bastards.” The bastards being the Police!
We discouraged all who had promised to “butcher” the police and even those who expected payments from showing up for the protest. The only groups we encouraged to take part were the ones that didn’t ask for too much: something to eat during the procession. And even they, too, still wondered who had contacted us, their guess being the opposition party, to challenge the government. They didn’t understand how, by occupying the streets of Minna with placards held high above our heads, a government in faraway Abuja would be responsive to our plights, and demands. In spite of our sensitisation!
The first protest in Minna’s #OccupyNigeria campaign was on January 8, 2012. It was on a Sunday, and on being intercepted by the Police we devised a means of deconstructing the conspiracies of armchair theorists who had dismissed the campaign as an initiative of the “Muslim north” to frustrate the administration of President Goodluck Jonathan, a Christian and southerner, by guarding a church. The guards were all Muslims, and theirs was in solidarity with nothing other than humanity which was what we all had in common!
In the following days, we reached out to the unions in Minna to join, support and lead the campaign instead of grumbling in their bedrooms and offices, suffering and smiling as Fela said of the average Nigerian. The members of unions and associations contacted, most of whom had interests in the government, of which they are beneficiaries, turned down public participation with excuses that confirmed their sycophancy. In a final bid, we allied with like-minded groups to organise a manageable march.
Three days later, Minna was on fire: the campaign was hijacked, and nobody knew who the rioters were. I got my things and returned to Abuja, not ready for the SSS who had called to have a “chat” with me. I was angry not only because we were betrayed by the “enlightened” citizens, but because the rioters were creations of the self-serving policies of our ruling elite. After that experience, I registered that unless significant public figures, citizens whose patriotism and conscience are genuine, are involved in a campaign, I’ll not be even a kilometer close!
And #BringBackOurGirls is not an exception. The campaign gathered this global momentum simply because of the personalities of the people involved. I could not have organised and sustain the campaign. I do not have the clout of Mrs. Oby Ezekwesili who, in the Nigerian dictionary, being a one-time Minister, is a Big Woman, an Oga Madam, even to the cruelest policeman. If the police see a hundred Gimbas as heads of #BringBackOurGirls, the first question may be “Who are you?” The answer is a definite call for tear-gas, and brutalities of all forms. This campaign for the freedom of abducted Chibok deserves urgency. Asking the campaigners to have the “masses”, whatever that really is, lectured and convinced and lured into participation is like asking a person whose house is on fire to consult neighbours before going for an extinguisher.
Revolution should be initiated by a people capable of sustaining it, people with a thing other than just anger: alternative blueprint. If 50 million politically naive, angry citizens, denied the privilege of education and decent employments seize the country today from the autocrats in power, what and who would be their alternatives? This is the lesson we have learnt from our brothers in Egypt and Syria and LIbya. If idealism has failed functional countries like Egypt, it must serve as a warning to us, aspiring revolutionaries. The only practicable solution for rescuing Nigeria right now is for the Oby Ezekwesilis of every region, ethnic group and even religion to rise up and lead a campaign against perceived oppressive systems. Let this debate begin. May God save us from us!
By Gimba Kakanda
@gimbakakanda (On Twitter)