The gale of peoples’ power sweeping across the Arab world came at a pace many states men and diplomats are struggling to grapple with. In this interview, Professor Bolaji Akinyemi, Nigeria’s former External Affairs Minister and a foremost advocate of democratic freedom and good governance, examines the strategic issues on the rise of peoples’ power in the Arab world as well as the southern Sudan vote and President Laurent Gbagbo’s intransigence in Cote d’Ivoire.
How would you describe what is happening in the Arab world today?
I think the best way to look at the development in the Arab world is to situate it within the context of what I will call ‘the circle of global civilisation’. You will recall that the rise of the ‘peoples’ power’ in modern times actually started in the Philippines, where street demonstrations, aided and abetted by the Catholic Church, finally resulted in the army withdrawing its support from the dictator, Marcos, and led to the installation of Mrs. Cory Aquino as the peoples’ president. This was the first manifestation of the peoples’ power in modern times.
I am emphasising modern times because I don’t want us to forget the French Revolution, centuries ago, which finally led to the king and the queen being beheaded and the introduction of the Human Rights Charter. After the incident in Philippines, it went on to Eastern Europe where we had the Velvet Revolution. It started in Poland, spearheaded by the Solidarity Trade Union. This eventually led to the death of Communism as an institution in Eastern Europe. At that time, it seemed to have stopped there, but, that is not so. To ensure that I am not accused of selective memory, we must not forget that it was also the peoples’ revolution that led to the sacking of the Shah of Iran, and driving him into exile on February 11,1979.
Again, it was aided and abetted by the religious authority. The military also withdrew its support from the Shah of Persia. Now, a lot of analysts, at that time, felt that the Arab world was not really ripe for this type of people’s revolution; because of the culture of servility to authority that was so ingrained in the Mediterranean psyche, it was thought that only military coups could drive out dictators. They argued that the idea of the people’s revolution in terms of mass movements, street protests could not happen in the Arab world, and, definitely, not in Africa. Now, irrespective of whatever analysts may say about the events in the Arab world, I want to say that this is something that was not expected; it caught everybody by surprise, not because the ingredients were not there; the ingredients had been there for the past 30 years; all the factors that were needed to have a peoples’ revolution had been there for the past 50 years, but nobody predicted what would spark it off.
I know that some analysts are trying to claim that this is a spill-over of the Obama revolution. If you remember, it was in Cairo that President Obama made a historic speech on June 4, 2009, calling on the people to take their destiny in their hands. That is not the cause of this uprising. What sparked off this revolt was the self-immolation of a young graduate, Mohammed Bouazizi, who was not a member of any civil society organisation; he not a member of any movement. He was just a young graduate who couldn’t find a job, he had been reduced to the level of pushing a cart to make a living. He was reduced to that level of basic existence.
Yet, the authority, in the form and shape of the police, arrested him for not having a licence and this boy felt that: `this is the end, they have not only pushed me to the wall, they have battered me into the wall, they have drained the last vestige of my soul’. The boy said `you have taken everything else from me. I got nothing left to fight you. So, I will give my life’. So, he poured petrol on himself and set himself ablaze. It was the last gesture of defiance, that is the spark that has lit the fire across the Arab world as we know it today. It was no philosophy, no ideology, just that last act of defiance that has resonated all through the Arab world. This is because the conditions of degradation, deprivation, hopelessness that drove this boy into doing what he did are present in every part of the Arab world. That is the fire that is now burning in the Arab world.
Is this fire controllable?
No, it is not, because it is one of the tragedies of human existence that we don’t see signs when we are still in a position to make positive reforms. People in authority are so blinded by power, by deceit, by eye service, that they don’t see. I am sure that when signals about Mohammed Bouazizi came, people in the presidential palace just laughed and asked: ‘why did he have to kill himself?’
At that high level, they just don’t understand the loneliness and darkness of the soul that is operating among the deprived people. They can’t understand it, because they have never lived it. And, by the time they could stop to think that this is something they must respond to, it was late. People in authority often say “I can still deceive them”, their first priority is to think that nobody will drive them away from power. They will reason and say ‘I will stand up to them.’ But by the time it became apparent to them that you cannot deceive the people, it is too late to remedy their credibility. A lot of strategic issues are raised in Egypt today, which hold the balance of power in the politics of Middle East. The US military base, the Suez Canal give access of the Arab oil to the West.
Won’t the peoples’ power endanger these interests? Well, to talk about endangering our interests is to define stability within the glasses of the status quo. Obviously, the existing status quo in the Middle East is beneficial to the US, beneficial to Israel, beneficial to the Western countries, but that does not mean that is the only status quo that is possible in the Middle East. I am sure that there are other variations of status quo that events there are going to throw up, depending on the play out of forces i.e. who takes over from Mubarak. Would the peoples’ revolution stop in Egypt?
I am not one of those who believe that it is going to spread all through the Middle East and have the same consequences as it had in Tunisia and Egypt. We simply don’t know enough about the forces on the ground because one thing with dictatorship is, it drives all other forces underground. You don’t really know of their existence and even, if you know their strength and existence, you don’t know how they will relate with the other strengths to yield to a new status quo, but, definitely, the old status quo in Egypt is on its way out. The very ingredients that have precipitated the social change in Egypt are also present in Nigeria. What is the missing element?
The missing element is that there is a commonality of language, culture, basically of religion, though I am aware that there are pockets of Christian minority in the Middle East. Basically, they are Arab, they speak Arabic, they have an Arabic culture and they are Muslims. So, we are not talking about their being Egypt or being Nigerians. All along, everybody has been emphasising Arab, Arab, Arab; in Nigeria, we are Nigerians, but do we speak the same language? We suffer the same thing as you rightly pointed out: graduate unemployment, despair of the soul, but we don’t have the same religion, we don’t speak the same language, we don’t come from the same ethnic group. You need to listen to all the debates that have been going on as to who will take over from Mubarak all over the internet. Nobody is talking about X is from one ethnic group or Y is from southern Egypt, but in Nigeria, we have just finished a rancorous debate on zoning. I worked in NADECO and I do know a thing or two about how NADECO was started and I do know how we went and bent over backwards to make sure that NADECO emerged as a national movement. We were ready to make concessions to other parts of this country, so that we would form a united movement but we were not successful. They would say,‘o!, you started your own NADECO, we will start our own’, which they never did either in name or in terms of protest movement. There were issues as to who was going to head it. These are things that were not relevant to what is going on in Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria. But they are relevant to what will happen in Nigeria. In Nigeria, people will say ‘do you know that movement is dominated by those people that it was meant to serve the interest of those people, can’t you see that it is directed against your people’, and, before you know it, people will start backing out. This is apart from the natural tendencies of Nigerians to head organisations and not just to be members.
So, it plays out well for the ruling elite?
Yes, it does. Something people don’t realise is how deeply ingrained this divisive tendencies have affected almost every aspect of the Nigerian life now. In the Bar Association, offices are zoned; even in the Nigerian Union of Journalists, Nigerian Guild of Editors, in judiciary offices, in the church of God, where promotions and appointments are supposed to be driven by the Holy Spirit, Nigerians have succeeded to persuade the Holy Spirit to include zoning and federal character in the divine language and that is why what is happening in Egypt cannot happen in Nigeria.
Wouldn’t the situation in Cote d’Ivoire have called for the rise of peoples’ power?
It is all part of what we are talking about, the situation in Nigeria. Gbagbo’s people do not want to know. Whether he won the election or not, they don’t care that the international community has recognised Ouattara as the winner of the election. They believe that Gbagbo is one of their own, so they will sink or swim with him. Ouattara’s people are from the north of the country. They have even introduced religious element into the Ivorien power struggle. So, you don’t have the peoples’ movement in Cote d’Ivoire, that is the tragedy of countries where you don’t have single nationality or underneath the veneer of one nationality, you have the cleavages which we often pretend are not there, but, at the end of the day, they are there.