A rigorous search in human history may confirm whether or not there has been a period when there were more people than we have today protesting against leaders and authorities. Certainly there had been many occasions in the past when a chunk of humanity was aggrieved, and demonstrated such grievance in a manner that the rest of humanity was moved to notice. Now revolutions in communications have linked up every human with others, so simultaneous protests in Santiago, Chile and Baghdad, Iraq are watched on billions of television and phone screens in all parts of the world. It is a small, fragile and frightened world, and no one is too removed from the heat and the crush of anger of hundreds of millions, and the searing hope that multitudes on streets can change things around.
The deepest roots of liberal democracy, socialism and communism are located in momentous revolts and uprisings against privilege and class rule spanning three centuries. Capitalism was the triumph of the challenge against feudalism and systems that held back technological and industrial revolution. Its long-term insurance for survival was the idea and practice of liberal democracy, that trick that gave majority of the underprivileged the feeling of being in charge. Socialism and communism created elite rule in the name of peasants and workers who rose against weak capitalist and feudal classes. Today the world is split roughly around nations that built strength on each others’ blood and guts, the misery and agony of slavery, the fortunes from imperialism and unstable alliances against other power blocs. The others are nations sitting on processed peasant misery lasting centuries, and the creation of identities and systems that appeared to provide options to the capitalist route. The rest of the world are largely products of these two systems, or hybrids of many values, systems and history with little room to chart an autonomous route.
What makes this seemingly chaotic world both stressed and orderly is a set of ideas which suggest that the individual is important in the manner he is governed. From the French Revolution to the civil rights movements, the anti-imperialist movements, Arab spring and tens of other massive demonstrations of citizens’ anger in between these key bookmarks in world history, the idea that the individual citizen can take a stand, together with others, to create an unstoppable force towards change has gained momentum. A second reason behind the global tendency for protests, demonstrations and riots to break out, sometimes with phenomenal consequences, is this nebulous belief that leaders must be held accountable by citizens, and when they are, the quality of life will improve for the citizen or the poor. A third reason lies in the reality that disputes between nations, or between citizens and leaders are now matters for the global community, and every dispute has multiple stakeholders.
Multitudes have found reasons to take to the streets and paralyse or bring governments down from a slight rise in the cost of bread to official corruption, rising inflation, joblessness, suppression of core values, impunity and plain, old-fashioned incompetence. Advanced democracies have learnt to channel popular discontent through the political and electoral processes, and governments have risen or fallen on the basis of their abilities to detect and respond to mass discontent. Still, huge numbers of voters who cannot wait to exercise decisions over issues or leaders through the ballot box spill out every now and then to exercise rights, protest or demand action over aspects of governance. Nations with little room for values of liberal democracies that empower citizens to challenge leaders or governments, generally try to both focus on improvement of citizens’ welfare and development of more sophisticated forms of repression. A huge part of the world is made up of nations where citizen rights in practice are severely circumscribed, and leaders respond to citizens’ open and large scale expression of grievances with tactics largely informed by fear and the belief that the deployment of violence will chase the citizen and his grievances back to his misery.
Nigerians are avid world watchers, and are themselves catalysts and targets of a lot of what keeps the world’s temperatures high. Our nation exports more of its rare skills and competences than any nation in the world, while its citizens wallow in want of them. Until the last few years when the advanced industrialized countries of the west woke up to a globalized world which sucked out the best from poor nations and made them available to their citizens, and then decided that they liked the service but not its racial mix, our best and brightest were mixing with the best in all spheres of human endeavour. When less-educated Nigerians (and thousands of other Africans) decided to emigrate in large numbers illegally to the lands educated Nigerians were helping develop, right-wing sentiments that had laid dormant suddenly woke up. Nigerians helped free South Africa, and its professionals went there in droves in the first wave of influx of Africans to help consolidate post South Africa. Today, Nigeria is less welcome than white people who will turn back the hands of time in that country.
At a time when our stock of grievances against our economy, our political leadership, and even against each other is rising higher while an imperfect world watches with some trepidation, we have to ask if we have a breaking point as a people, and how the world will read our reactions when citizens are pushed too far. Certainly we have enough suffering to take to the streets, and on those few occasions, such as when peasants took dead victims of bandits to Government Houses and palaces, it did look like the Nigerian has a breaking point. It is possible that our perverse politics which propel us to engage each other rather that those who create a level playing field for misery and fear for all of us tends to detract from the possibility that we can take on a solid ruling class. In the event that any Nigerian feels the need to rally fellow citizens to take on the government on insecurity, corruption, poverty or unemployment, here is an advisory: the traditional meeting point of the aggrieved in Abuja located beside the Hilton is now fenced off.