Iran's own June 12


By Reuben Abati
THE unfolding electoral crisis in Iran reminds us of the crisis of democratization in our own context and the people's response to electoral outcomes. All of a sudden, Iranians are looking like us, some 17 years ago when Nigerians trooped out en masse to insist on respect for the people's will and sovereignty. On Friday last week, Iran had its own version of June 12 when it held its general elections. No election has been annulled, that is one critical difference, but the people's insistence that the integrity of the ballot should be respected and that the people's vote should be allowed to count are issues that Nigerians, faced with the transposition of electoral fraud into state art, can relate to. Iran is in great turmoil, witnessing in the last week alone, demonstrations and protests of a scale unseen since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

The streets of Tehran have been taken over by hundreds of thousands of angry youths who insist that the Presidential election of Friday June 12 is fraudulent and the result is unacceptable. "We will die but count our votes", they said. At the end of the June 12 election, the theocratic Council of the Guardians of the Islamic Revolution, a body that wields more power than the elected President, awarded victory to incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadijenad, with 62. 6% of the votes, and the main opposition leader former Prime Minister Hossein Moussavi got 33.7%. The protesters are mainly supporters of Moussavi. For a week, many Iranians have been wearing the colour green, the colour of Moussavi's party, even the Iranian national team in the first half of a World Cup qualifier match against South Korea, wore the green armband. Yesterday, which was declared a day of mourning, the protesters wore black.

How come the Iranians held their own Presidential election on June 12? What concidence! I think of the practical symbolism of the date for Nigerians but I also lament how the spirit of protest, of outrage and righteous indignation appears to be dying slowly in our land. In 1993, Nigerians stood up to the military dictatorship in Nigeria and challenged the junta's attempts to annul a democratic election. What we are seeing in Iran is equally an expression of rebellion against dictatorship. Their rebellion is against the mismanagement of the economy by Ahmadijenad's government, and the over-bearing authority of the Council of Guardians which uses theocracy as a tool of fascism. Before now, the world had witnessed this kind of people power on display in Czechoslovakia (the Velvet Revolution, 1989), in Georgia (the Rose Revolution, 2003), in Ukraine (the Orange Revolution, 2004/2005) and in Brazil when the people chased out President Fernando Collor de Mello (1992). It is a subtle reminder of how democracy rests on the power of popular opinion.

But in witnessing this people-dimension of democracy, we wonder what is it that has gone wrong with Nigerians. The same Nigerians who protested against electoral fraud in 1965 in Western Nigeria, who also rebelled in Ondo State in 1983 when the National Party of Nigeria attempted to steal the people's mandate; the same Nigerians who in 1993 -up till 1998- threw eveything that they could summon into anti-military protests, have suddenly become apathetic. Worse electoral fraud has been committed in Nigeria since 1999. But after every election, Nigerians crack jokes out of the theft of the people's votes, and move on with their lives. As soon as the protests in Iran began, someone sent me a text titled BREAKING NEWS with the following content: "Just to let you know that Professor Maurice Iwu returned from Tehran at the weekend after offering the Iranians Nigeria's technical assistance on how to conduct elections".

I had once argued that democracy for Nigerians has become a kind of blackmail. The politicians and their agents manipulate the votes and declare the results that they want, but the people allow it to pass, because they do not want to create more tension in their lives. Elections that have been held since 2007, after the various rulings by the electoral tribunals have been just as problematic but there are no large numbers of Nigerians taking to the streets to voice their opinions. In the recent re-run Gubernatorial elections in Ekiti, there was a semblance of protest, and a few electoral observers got their heads battered, but protests these days are synthetic. Half of the protesters are rented; they defend democracy for a fee. When will Nigerians rediscover the urge to defend their own future? Rediscovering our capacity to be shocked and outraged is crucial to the task of electoral reform.

It is not always that protests lead to a fulfilment of the people's expectations, In Iran, it won't. Not now. But a momentum is afoot which may eventually in the future lead to the displacement of the fascistic Islamic regime. Protests make loud statements and put the dictator on notice. Ahmadinejad may have a Ph.D in engineering, and he may have mastered the rhetoric of provocation, but he is a stooge of the clerics. By last year, long before the election, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's Supreme leader, had predicted that Ahmadinejad will be in power for another five years. But the sub-text of the on-going protest is that the people are saying they no longer want that kind of democracy that is vetoed by the mullahs. The Council of Guardians has ordered a recount of the votes in some of the constituencies, today, Khamenei will address the people at Friday worship. There is no likelihood that the elections will be cancelled, or that Moussavi's share of the votes will increase. But the underbelly of the power class in Iran has been exposed.

Moussavi's supporters are mostly young people and women. Young Iranians want a different country in which they can have a voice. Iranian women want greater freedoms, but these freedoms are denied by the Council of Guardians and Ahmadinejad under whom even little freedoms hitherto enjoyed by Iranian women have been withdrawn. For 30 years the mullahs have dictated the pace in Iran, what is happening is a showdown between the conservatives and the reformists. And yet no one has burnt down houses, the protesters are not wielding machetes, and there has been no indication that the protesters are on the pay-roll of a political party.

Dictators everywhere behave the same way. General Abacha threw people into jail. He burned down newspaper houses. He gagged the media. Ahmadinejad's government is clamping down on the people. The basiji- the band of thugs who try to enforce the will of the state- target people's faces and testicles. Eight demonstrators have died in the last week. Opposition figures have been clamped into detention. International journalists have been advised to leave the country and internet sites have been blocked. But still in the age of information technology, the Iranian crisis still gets out to the world. It is on Twitter. It is on Facebook. It is on CNN. Technology has changed the face of governance and human relations forever. It is amazing to see how in Iran, the revolutionaries of 1979, the successors of the Ayatollah, are losing grip, just because they didn't allow a transparent electoral system. The clerics selected the five candidates that took part in the June 12 Presidential election out of a total of 140 candidates. What criteria did they use? They didn't have to explain. The grandchildren of the revolution want a different template of power and control. In the last week, they have managed to convey their discontent.

In the end, there will be no regime change, the incumbent President won most of the votes in rural Iran, and he is still very popular among the people, but it is clear that there are fissures in that society. The legitimacy of the present governance arrangements has been effectively called to question. There is a message here for all forces that hold on to power at all costs: sooner or later, there will be a time and ocassion for accounting.

The West, which has never liked Ahmadinejad is triumphant. Newspapers in Europe are celebrating the supposed wind of change that is sweeping across Iran. Well, not quite. There is a touch of mischief in Western responses to the Iranian situation. Ahmadinejad is not a friend of the West. His anti-Semitic, anti-Zionist statements including a declaration once that Israel should be wiped off the page of time has made him a persona non grata. His insistence on Iran's uranium enrichment programme has brought him into conflict with the United States, Israel and the United Nations. Israelis say he is a modern-day Amalekite. Moussavi's name sounds Jewish and there are Jews in Iran, but regime change may not resolve the question of Iran. The mullahs are not about to disappear. And Ahmadijenad's dismissal of all this as "passions after a soccer match" may be informed by the ineffectuality of earlier protests in 1999, 2003, 2006, and 2008.

The United States has been cautious not to be seen to be supporting the opposition, for were it do so, that would immediately unify the proud Iranian nation. Moussavi is promising a detente in diplomatic relations, greater freedom for women - he holds hands with his wife in public (!). His wife has also called for an end to misogyny. But like many Iranians, his views about Israel and the future of Palestine as well as Iran's nuclear weapons programme, are typical. President Obama is right: there isn't much difference between Ahmadinejad and Moussavi. If change must come to Iran, it will come from the people themselves not through the promptings of the Western media imposing its own notions of democratic governance. The worst case scenario is a drawn out civil conflict in Iran between supporters of the status quo and those who want change. But can the world afford such implosion in the Middle East? Can the world afford to have Iran go the way of Iraq? The West and the United States must make no bones about it: If Iran has become an axis of evil, they helped in building its foundations with their duplicitous politics of expediency, dating back to the 1950s.

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