Revolution and Nigeria's 'economy of affection'


In a very influential work, Beyond Ujamaa in Tanzania: Underdevelopment and the Uncaptured Peasantry (1980), Swedish-American political scientist Goran Hyden argued that African small cultivators prioritise their informal support networks such as familial and ethnic obligations over the pursuit of profit. For Hyden, African peasants are trapped in subsistence production because the 'economy of affection', which is their comfort zone, will not allow them to engage in economically rational pursuits. The latter, according to him, means that the peasants remain largely 'uncaptured' by state and capital. Those who believe that the type of revolution that is currently sweeping through the Middle East and the Maghreb regions cannot happen in Nigerian have relied on a variant of the 'economy of affection' argument - namely that the country's ethnic, religious and other primordial fault lines are so deep that Nigerians are unlikely to rise above their sentimental attachments to these cleavages for a concerted revolutionary action. But is this argument correct?

  Several observations could be made:
  One, those who argue that a Middle East type of revolution is impossible in Nigeria appear to underestimate the power of contagion or domino effect. When, after the Second World War, Macmillan's 'wind of change' triggered a wave of anti-colonial movements in Africa; did this wind not also sweep through Nigeria despite the existence and politicisation of the current fault lines? When Gorbachev's perestroika and glasnost triggered a chain of events that culminated in the fall of the Berlin wall and unleashed a wave of democratisation forces across Eastern Europe and Africa, did ethnic, religious and other cleavages prevent this from snowballing into the National Conference in Benin Republic ( February 19-28, 1990), which forced President Kérékou to turn over effective power to a transitional government? And did our primordial cleavages prevent the democracy wind from blowing through Nigeria and other African countries?    

  Two, it can in fact be argued that two 'revolutions' have already succeeded in Nigeria. The first was when General Ibrahim Babangida annulled the June 12 1993 elections won by Moshood Abiola. The annulment aroused popular anger, which snowballed into an organised resistance that eventually led to Babangida 'stepping aside'. An interim government headed by Ernest Shonekan could not dowse the resistance. Even when General Abacha took over in a military coup, the resistance, which was well co-ordinated, continued. After the death of Abacha the political transition programme that followed was designed in such a way as to pacify the leadership of the resistance, which had succeeded in making the country ungovernable.  

  Another instance of a successful demonstration of people's power was when the late Umaru Musa Yaradua became terminally ill and a 'cabal' held the nation hostage. People's power, typified by the activities of   internet bloggers and protests by civil society groups helped to pile pressure on the legislature to embrace the doctrine of necessity, which in turn   paved the way for the then Vice President Goodluck Jonathan to become the Acting President.  

  Three, it may be necessary to interrogate why the above two instances of relatively mild revolutions succeeded - despite   our deep rooted ethnic and religious cleavages. My personal opinion is that the success of the 'revolution' against the annulment of the June 12 1993 election was principally because it was led by a faction of the Yoruba elite, which was Conscious, Cohesive and Conspiratorial but which carefully ensured that a cross -section of Nigerians were co-opted into the resistance. The 'revolution' was largely waged under the banner of the struggle for democracy even though it was a largely Yoruba-led struggle against perceived injustice. In the revolution against the 'cabal' Jonathan's humble public persona and the victimhood storyline were used to galvanise sympathy for him, especially among people from the South and the South South who were subtly made to believe that the 'cabal' equated to the 'core North'. At the same time, there were careful attempts to prevent the 'silent revolution' from being hijacked by ethnic champions by making prominent Northerners such as Bala Mohammed as the arrowheads of the pro-Jonathan group. My belief is that if these two mild 'revolutions' could succeed, there is no reason why a more radical revolution cannot succeed here. It will seem that for a revolution to succeed in Nigeria, its leaders must be politically astute enough to anticipate the moves of the ethnic/religious arithmeticians and take measures to pre-empt their moves. Again, if, as generally believed, frustration is a general trigger for a revolution, then the generalised frustration among ordinary Nigerians will suggest that unless something is done to change the direction the country is going; a radical revolution cannot be ruled out, especially when the avenues for ventilating pent-up frustrations are increasingly being foreclosed.  

  Four, an important reminder from the Middle East revolutions is that the strategic interests of the West drive their relations with countries. An ally who is about to be consumed by people's anger will be very readily sacrificed, and indeed branded a 'dictator' so as to appear to be on the side of the people, and more crucially play a key role in choosing the new set of leaders after the revolutionary flourishes. From Gobarchev through Mubarak the philosophy appears to remain unchanged.    

  Five, though radical revolution may be useful in   overthrowing regimes when peaceful options are denied, it remains debatable whether a revolution is really worth the trouble - apart from its cathartic function of being used to ventilate pent-up frustrations. Consider for instance t he American War of Independence (1775-1783), which was spurred by a noble protest against taxation without representation. Though America's victory helped to spread a belief in the principles of republicanism, it also sharply polarised the country and subsequently led to a bitter civil war. Some critics today argue that looking at how America has shaped up since independence in terms of education, freedom of expression and quality of life, it is not substantially different from Canada, Australia and New Zealand, which did not follow such a revolutionary path. There was also the French Revolution (1789-1799), which was fought primarily to overthrow absolute monarchy with its feudal privileges for the aristocracy and Catholic clergy. The revolution, fought under the noble ideals of 'freedom, equality and fraternity', quickly became a caricature under Robespierre and his Reign of Terror. Not only did the revolution fail to give France a representative government by the people, or prevent a rapid return to autocratic rule, 'revolutionary' France also fought the most savage of all wars in the 1790s to preserve slavery in Santo Domingo (present-day Haiti and Dominican Republic). Consider equally the Iranian revolution that toppled the rule of Mohammed Reza Shah more than 30 years ago. The revolution ushered a period of unprecedented hostility to the West and helped to radicalise the Middle East. Almost overnight, the West's most steadfast ally in the Muslim world became a violent and volatile enemy.  

  It is in fact precisely because of the uncertainty of the order that will be created after the revolutionary flourishes that many people continue to urge governments not to make peaceful change impossible.  

  By Jideofor Adibe (