Now that the psychology of the mass of our people regarding “sit at home“ is undergoing a coerced change, this may be the time for the forces that aspire to bring about a more just, equitable, democratic and egalitarian society, through a nonviolent method of passive resistance, of the Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jnr. model, to rethink their strategy.
The coronavirus pandemic-dictated lockdown is taking a toll on our people. What are the useful lessons that we can learn from it? One of the lessons, in my humble view, is using the lockdown as a precedent and adapting it to the field of popular struggle for social justice in our country. This lesson is what I set out to discuss in this intervention.
In 1993 and 1994, during the struggle for the revalidation of the June 12 presidential election mandate secured by Chief M. K. O Abiola in the defunct Campaign for Democracy (CD), a civil society coalition of organisations, under the leadership of Dr. Beko Ransome-Kuti and Chima Ubani, the operational guidance of the “Expanded Secretariat of the CD” adopted the strategy of passive resistance to not only force the military to relinquish stolen power but to also actualise the June 12 mandate.
The expanded secretariat, comprising mainly of activists of the left persuasion, many of them ex-students union leaders, was the operational engine room of the anti-military protests. Following the brutal crackdown and bloodletting that accompanied the highly successful anti-military street protests of July 5-7, 1993, the CD went back to the drawing board.
Although some of the leaders of the June 12 Movement (Chief Gani Fawehinmi, the senior advocate of the masses – SAM, later a senior advocate of Nigeria – SAN and now posthumously a grand commander of the order of the Niger – GCON; Dr. Beko Ransome Kuti and Mr. Femi Falana , now a SAN) were immediately arrested by the military following that July 5-7, 1993 three-day protests, and detained under the obnoxious but now repealed Decree No. 2 (State Security Detention of Persons Decree), apparently to stop the protests, the CD was not deterred. The detainees were later released in September 1993 by Chief Ernest Shonekan, when President Babangida “stepped aside” from power. The theoretical clarity, organisational cohesion, operational agility and tactical flexibility of the CD came into play.
Thus emerged the “stay at home“ phase of the anti-military struggle. That phase was launched later in July and in August, 1993. The “sit at home” campaign was very successful. And the success was attributable to three reasons: the masses of our people willingly and voluntarily complied, persuaded that the struggle to rid Nigeria of military despotism and to enthrone an MKO Abiola-led democratic dispensation was worth fighting and sacrificing for; the shootings and killings by soldiers in the streets and in our cities, calculated to put down the protests, terrified some who would have wanted to “disobey” the stay at home ‘order’, thereby compelling them to stay at home ; and the CD activists sensitised and mobilised our people before embarking on the “sit at home“ protests. The organisational spread of the CD activists helped in enforcing the “sit at home” ‘order’ in neighbourhoods and in the streets.
Undoubtedly and without any disputation, the CD’s street protests and the “sit at home” campaign were the critical pressure, indeed the catalyst, that forced the military president, Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida to cede power on August 27, 1993 to a contraption called the Interim National Government, headed by Chief Ernest Shonekan.
This point must be made because a number of historians and participants in the many theatres of the June 12 crises, inaccurately in our humble view, have cited some other reasons for the ouster of President Babangida from power, including his loss of control of the military and its seasoned coup plot-making power brokers. While we concede that President Babangida indeed lost control of his firm hold on power towards his forced exit on August 27, 1993 (and Professor Omo Omoruyi beautifully recounted this in his book on the June 12 Crisis), that loss was not because of the sudden disloyalty of his military subordinates or due to a patriotic rethinking by his vacillating generals. That loss was in response to, and unarguably a function of the CD-kindled fire that was raging in the streets of Nigerian cities.
Is it possible in the circumstances, to alert our people to the positive and constructive use of lockdown and sit-at-home as a weapon of political struggle and as a tool of making socioeconomic demands and incrementally tally winning concessions? Is it? Will the people recognise the potentials, benefits and comparative advantage of this form of political action..?
As for the opportunistic political class, they did not lift a firm finger to protest President Babangida’s misdeeds. After an initial tepid complaint against the annulment of the presidential election, the two political parties (the National Republican Convention – NRC and the Social Democratic Party, SDP) accepted the annulment. The civilian governors of the states from the political parties were in power and office, enjoying their tenures (which was half-spent), and they could not be bothered by M.K.O Abiola’s political headache. The National Assembly and Houses of Assembly of the States, whose members were serving, were unwieldy. They did not put forward a principled opposition to the annulment.
It was the CD, which had opposed President Babangida’s convoluted transition to civil rule programme and dismissed it as a grand deception, that paradoxically came forward to insist on the “sanctity“ and “inviolability“ of the the June 12 mandate, as an incorporated element and hired battle axe of its general anti-military and pro-democracy struggle.
It was only when General Sani Abacha and his military gang duplicitously overthrew Shonekan’s Interim National Government, which succeeded the IBB military regime, on November 17, 1993, that the political class, in its characteristic opportunism, started collaborating with the CD. That was understandable because the politicians had been shunted out of the occupancy of political power by Abacha, who dissolved all democratic structures.
Thus deprived of political power and desirous of regaining this, a section of the political class, that largely had abandoned M.K.O Abiola (who himself was initially inconsistent and undetermined), decided to rally around him. Since they could not ideologically blend with the activist and predominantly leftist CD, the politicians had to form their own platform, the National Democratic Coalition (NADECO) in May 1994, towards the one year anniversary of the annulled June 12, 1993 presidential election, leading to the Epetedo Declaration, where Abiola proclaimed himself the president of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. The rest, as it is said, is now history. Upon that declaration, Abiola was arrested by Abacha and held incommunicado for years until he died (or was killed) on July 7, 1998, following the death of General Sanni Abacha on June 8, 1998.
In the 1994 phase of the anti-military struggle to force Abacha to de-annual the June 12 election, relinquish stolen political power, restore the dissolved democratic structures and hand over power to a government of national unity headed by Abiola, a wing of the labour movement, principally Frank Kokori’s Nigeria Union of Petroleum and Natural Gas Workers (NUPENG) and Dabibi’s Petroleum and Natural Gas Senior Staff Association of Nigeria (PENGASSAN) (with which the CD had been collaborating, following the annulment of the June 12 election), creatively played a leading role. Abiola had been arrested but the struggle had to continue. Since the CD’s “stay at home“ campaign had become ineffective, the oil workers’ strike became the sustainer of the struggle. Movements and socio-economic activities in the country were paralysed and severe pressure was brought to bear on the recalcitrant Abacha regime, until a fresh clampdown began and the oil workers’ strike was broken with the arrest of the leaders of the Union. Kokori was only released from prison after Abacha died in 1998.
All these events took place in the past. Fast forward to the current situation, we are now living in another “sit at home“ era.
Without wishing it so, coronavirus has locked down many states in Nigeria for up to four weeks. People are forced to stay at home. Economic pursuits and social activities are in a state of paralysis. Of course, the masses of our people are the brunt bearers of this situation. This partial lockdown may even become total countrywide, if the reported recommendation of the state governors to the federal government is accepted and implemented. The governors have recommended that given the need to comprehensively combat COVID-19 infections nationally, interstate movements should be prohibited for fourteen days.
The instructiveness of, and the lesson to be drawn from this coronavirus, social distancing lockdown should not be lost on our civil society organisations, the labour movement and our fighting “revolutionary“ organisations, who are fighting for “democratic reformism” or a new order through “organisational putschism”.
One implication of these lockdowns is that, inadvertently and unwittingly, our people are being “trained” and “toughened up“ to adapt to a “sit at home“ regime; not for intervals of three days, as the CD experimented during the June 12 crisis, but for weeks. The instructiveness of, and the lesson to be drawn from this coronavirus, social distancing lockdown should not be lost on our civil society organisations, the labour movement and our fighting “revolutionary“ organisations, who are fighting for “democratic reformism” or a new order through “organisational putschism”.
Now that the psychology of the mass of our people regarding “sit at home“ is undergoing a coerced change, this may be the time for the forces that aspire to bring about a more just, equitable, democratic and egalitarian society, through a nonviolent method of passive resistance, of the Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jnr. model, to rethink their strategy. Is it possible in the circumstances, to alert our people to the positive and constructive use of lockdown and sit-at-home as a weapon of political struggle and as a tool of making socioeconomic demands and incrementally tally winning concessions? Is it? Will the people recognise the potentials, benefits and comparative advantage of this form of political action, and use it as a veritable platform to struggle and bring about a Nigerian of our dream? If adopted as a form of nonviolent struggle, will it enjoy popular mass support and nationwide acceptance, given the challenges of socioeconomic stratification, ethnic divisions, geo-political differences, cultural and language diversities, and religious disharmony in our country? Do the weaknesses of civil society organisations in Nigeria put them in the shape or form to successfully prosecute any such nonviolent and passive resistance and sit-at-home struggle?
Evidently, there can be no easy answers to these questions. We live in a country where, since 1999, national strikes by the central labour organisations and their affiliates have been hard to sustain beyond three days, even when the masses were ready. The mercurial, principles-deficient, and opportunistic nature of the labour unions and their aristocratic leaders has been responsible for this culture of strikes-collapse, in part.
However, in spite of the above identified challenges to the resort to passive resistance and non-violent “withdrawal of civic cooperation and sit- at- home”, as a strategy for democratic struggle or revolutionary changes, our fighting forces should look in this direction.
It could prove to be an effective tool to humble any “democratic fascism” out of authoritarian power nationally or in any state in the federation, now or in the future. And it can also prove useful in winning concessions from the status quo.
To the heroes of our struggle, including those who paid the supreme price and made the ultimate sacrifice while fighting military autocracy in our land, and to the CD combatants in the “Expanded Secretariat”, under the humble, disciplined and highly resourceful leadership of our late comrade, Chima Ubani, we say, the struggle continues. The big and troubling question, however, is whether victory is certain.
Jiti Ogunye is the Legal Adviser to PREMIUM TIMES.