As I write this piece, Omoyele Sowore, the social activist and presidential candidate of African Action Congress (AAC) has been in detention in the dungeons of the Department of State Security (DSS). He was taken away from his Lagos home at dawn last week ostensibly for announcing that he is launching a Revolution Now movement that will “shut down Nigeria”. Rumour has it that the government is preparing charges of high treason against him. That cannot be a small matter at all.
I have met Sowore only once, and that was sometimes in January, just before the presidential elections. He struck me as a patriot, albeit of the irreverent variety. He lacked intellectual gravitas, a deficiency he camouflages with a rather overbearing volubility. But I liked him. His heart is in the right place. If he had read more history in his schooldays he would have known better than to announce his revolution on social media. For, in truth, the revolution will not be televised.
My dictionary defines revolution as, “a forcible overthrow of a government or social order, in favour of a new system”. By announcing to the whole world that he was embarking on a “revolution”, Sowore made himself vulnerable. What the wisest revolutionaries do is to draw attention to social grievances and petty injustices and to mobilise the people against their oppressors. On this matter, he was penny wise and pound foolish.
It sounds harsh, but I must make it clear that the government was right to read in it a plan for its eventual overthrow. And government did what most governments do under such circumstances – clump the revolutionaries in prison and harass all who share their sentiments. This does not by any means justify his illegal detention. I have been among the first to publicly demand for his release.
Talking for myself, I am instinctively more in favour of evolution rather than revolution. The eighteenth century conservative Anglo-Irish political philosopher Edmund Burke was famously opposed the 1789 revolution because he saw it as a bloody event that did more than harm than good. The French Revolution produced the terror that consumed thousands of French men and women. One thing about revolutions that Burke foresaw is the fact that every revolution ends up eating some of its own children. The revolutionaries who were consumed by the upheavals of 1789 included Danton and Mirabeau.
One of the most successful revolts by an oppressed people was in the island of Santo Domingo (Haiti), where the slaves rose en masse to cast of the iron manacles of servitude. Led by a man of military genius, Toussaint Louverture, the black slaves waged a way that overwhelmingly defeated the French. Other leaders of the Haitian revolution included men such as Henri Christophe, Jean-Jacques Dessalines. Haiti, the first black republic in history, became an independent nation on 1 January 1804.
The military and political drama of that revolt has been captured for immortality in the great work by the remarkable Caribbean Marxist historian CLR James in his book, The Black Jacobins: Toussaint Louverture and the San Domingo Revolution. Toussaint was a farsighted visionary who sent Haitian soldiers to join Abraham Lincoln in the American civil war to emancipate the black slaves. He also sent soldiers to support Simon Bolivar in Latin America, on conditions that supported the liberation the benighted black slaves of Hispanic America.
The years 1774 to 1849 have been dubbed The Age of Revolution. It all began with the American revolutionary war of Independence against the British in 1776. The French Revolution of 1789 sent tremors all over the Old Continent. The absolutist monarchies of Europe were overthrown, leading to the creation of republican governments based on the popular will.
When I was an undergraduate, my main education on the subject of revolutions came from reading the work of the Cambridge political theorist John Dunn. Dunn focused most of his work on the revolutions of the twentieth century; from the Mexican Revolution of 1910 to the Chinese Revolution of 1949 and the African anti-colonial revolution that ushered in the wind of change in the sixties.
When some of us were growing up, our political ideals were based on Revolution and the New Man. We were inspired by Fidel Castro, Che Guevera and their comrades on the Grandma rickety boat that landed in Cuba and successfully overthrew the oppressive dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista in 1959. Che, for us, was the perfect image of the New Man.
We were also inspired by Franz Fanon, Ahmed Ben Bella and the FLN leaders of the Algerian war of independence. Mao captivated our imagination. As a student in Paris I used to hang about with friends at the famous café where Zhou En-Lai served whilst a student in France; later rising to become Premier of Communist China. We were in awe of the Vietnamese, particularly Ho Chi Minh and the greatest guerrilla military strategist of the twentieth century, General Vo Nguyen Giap.
Revolutions come in different forms: industrial revolutions, socialist revolutions, anti-colonial revolutions, scientific revolutions, Islamic revolutions and so on. Political revolutions are invariably violent and bloody affairs.
The Iranian Revolution of 1979 under Ayatollah Khomeini succeeded in replacing one system of oppression with an even worse one. The Islamic Republic has destroyed the liberties of women and civic communities in Iran, leading to the dictatorship of backward Mullahs who look back to the non-existing romanticism of the Middle Ages instead of science and invention in the twenty-first century. Revolutions tend to generate terrors which consume millions of innocent people. Under Stalin’s forced collectivisation, 20 million Russians perished. Under Mao’s brutal so-called “Cultural Revolution”, an estimated 70 million Chinese died.
It is said that when you are 18 and you are not a revolutionary, you have no heart. But when you are forty and you are still a revolutionary, you have no brain. I have my grave doubts if a revolution is possible in the conditions of Nigeria. We are too divided along ethnic, regional and religious lines. A few years ago at the posh Hilton Hotel in Abuja, I found youths milling noisily around a man. When I got closer I realised it was JJ Rawlings of Ghana. The youths were crying that he should come and take over Nigeria and institute the kind of revolution that he implemented in Ghana. In a manner of speaking,
Nigerians are crying for a saviour who will come and emancipate them from their Babylonian captivity. We hear rumours that hundreds of thousands of mercenaries have been imported from Mali, Niger and Chad and as far afield as Sudan; coming to and maim and kill defenceless Nigerians. People are dying daily in the villages and towns; slaughtered by faceless genocidal militias that are unbelievably wicked, heartless and bloodthirsty. We are the kidnap capital of the world; a killing field of innocents and martyrs — a lawless country.
Yes, Nigeria is more than ripe for revolution. But I doubt if a classic revolution is possible in our context. My hope is in the youths, as happened recently in the Sudan. When the youths decide they’ve had more than enough, there will be an upheaval and a New Jerusalem will be born. Unfortunately, we share a similar ethnic and political geomorphology as the Democratic Republic of Congo, where Che Guevera spent some years in the sixties trying to organise a revolution.
As he noted in his diaries, he was painfully disappointed to realise that young men such as Joseph Kabila and his friends were more interested in drink, women and dancing rather than in revolution. With bitter disappointment, Che moved to Bolivia where the CIA hunted him down and executed him in October 1967. We are told that el Comandante Che faced his executioners with great calm. A medical doctor from an upper class Argentinean family, he goes down in history as one of the greatest revolutionaries of all time.