The Failure of the Mass Action
Just after the last elections, former Vice President Atiku Abubakar went hot on air, promising us that, this time, he and other candidates are ready to reclaim our mandate from the rigging machines of the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP). “Apart from going to court,” he boastfully told a BBC correspondent in Hausa, “wait and see; many things are going to happen (in this country).”
We the masses believed Atiku for many reasons. One, Atiku was a student of Shehu Yar’adua and a seasoned politician who has never lost an election. Two, he is a practitioner in the profession of rigging elections. He believed in rigging himself. “One of the things I learnt from my political mentor (Shehu Yar’adua),” he once gladly revealed, “was never to be the petitioner who goes to court after elections. Make sure you are announced the winner by all means.” So knowing the poison so well, we believed he knew also its antidote, now that he was made to swallow it. Three, Atiku, unlike Buhari, is an insider in the affairs of the PDP. He gallantly fought against Third Term, pressing all the necessary buttons; he went to court against the PDP and the Federal Government and won on all occasions; etc.
What informed Atiku’s resolve was how stunning the results appeared to him, at least for the first time in his life, now that he is at the receiving end. While Buhari, who is more experienced than Atiku in suffering such electoral manipulation, pushed the onus of action to the masses, Atiku who tasted the poison for the first time thought that the country just cannot let this go. More so, this time unions and the international observers were categorical in their condemnation of the elections. Even Obasanjo was forthcoming, at least with some meters, to where the truth was. He conceded that there were problems but held, as he and Atiku did in 2003, that nowhere in the world are elections perfect and it is unjust to use the standards of advanced countries to determine the freedom and fairness of African elections.
As we went into the week following the election, we started to wait and see how the opposition will chart their course of action. As they disagreed initially on their participation in the elections and on presenting a single candidate to fight the PDP, they also wasted a lot of time disagreeing on what to do after the elections. While Atiku did not waste time to say he was going to court, against the wisdom of his mentor obviously, the Buhari camp first said no to any court action and shifted the responsibility of protest to the masses, understandably because their attempt to find justice in the courts in 2003 ended in utter disappointment. “Mun gama da kotun koli, sai kotun Allah ya isa (We are done with the Supreme Court ; what remains is the able court of God)”, said Buhari in an interview with the BBC. His party, the ANPP, contradicted his statement and categorically said, with or without Buhari, it was going to contest the results in court. Eventually, Buhari was persuaded to also toe that line.
Then the opposition committed its biggest mistake, announcing its resolve for mass action to protest the election results, something it said is constitutionally sanctioned. The first protest day came and literally nothing happened. There were other beleaguered attempts, like labor calling on people to stay at home until 12.00am, or for two consecutive days – 28th and 29th May. Even in Abuja people went about their normal businesses, and the government, cleverly, I suspect, declared the two days as public holidays to neutralize the call of labor.
The threat to stop the inauguration also failed. The Inspector General of Police called their bluff and instructed his force to use anything in their power to contain any protest. May 29, the inauguration day came, and, again, nothing happened throughout the country. The opposition and reporters complained that there were too many police at the venue. What else did they expect? They did not factor that in their plan before announcing to the world their resolve to stop the inauguration. At the inauguration, Yar’adua, right at the beginning of his speech, admitted that the elections were not without shortcomings but assured his audience that he will put in place an electoral system that will make Nigerian elections one of the most credible in the world. African leaders seated behind him, and who are also carrying the same baggage, did not waste time to express their approval by clapping their hands at the new President.
In the following days, the Yar’adua government received silent support from many groups, including labor! I read a report in the Daily Trust, in which the labor leader was quoted saying that their cooperation with Yar’adua government will depend on its policies. The whole country, it seems, has now adopted this attitude of giving Yar’adua a chance, especially if he would reverse the unjust policies of Obasanjo, like the recent hike in price of fuel. I would have quoted many writers who expressed the same feelings. Yar’adua is lucky, I will say, for what initially appeared an uphill task has come to pass. He must not squander it, as Obasanjo did in 1999.
By now, I doubt very much if any person - union or opposition candidate – is contemplating any mass action. Everything ended in failure. The masses have refused to be mobilized. This failure, more than any other thing, is the greatest booster to Federal Government and the biggest undoing of the opposition. It sealed the fate of the opposition as far as protesting the election on the popular front is concerned. Both the government and the international community were waiting to see the reaction of Nigerians. Will they truly carryout a revolution similar to that of Georgia as they threatened or will they fail as they did in the past? So, when they failed to mobilize the masses on a number of occasions, the government became bolder in its steps while the international community became forthcoming in its approval of the Yar’adua government. They came so close to kissing him when they invited him to G8 summit even before his inauguration. We can now comfortably sit down and analyze why the protests failed, something I foresaw, but which I dared not say given the prevailing atmosphere of optimism then.
One of the reasons for the failure of mass action is the mistrust that the Nigerian masses have for the politicians. This was the reason adduced by a BBC English Service correspondent the day the first mass action attempt failed. All Nigerians agree that the April elections were rigged just like previous ones. However, few of the opposition leaders, apart from Buhari, if any, could be trusted. Atiku, for one, can never be trusted by Nigerians as a better person than Obasanjo. And we all know, both from his professions as well as his record, that he has no locus to speak about free and fair elections. Indeed, he started to speak about genuine democracy only when it became clear that he will lose the PDP ticket either to Third Term agenda of Obasanjo or to the latter’s candidate. Also, people will never forget how he helped to play Obasanjo’s “briefcase” (as he put it) when the country needed a force within the PDP to check the dictatorial tendencies of the President in the early days of his first tenure. They will also not forget nor forgive the invectives Atiku rained on Buhari, especially at a rally in Kafanchan in 2002, when the latter expressed his intention to run as a presidential candidate. The memory of how he was central in rigging the 4-19 elections against Buhari is also fresh in our minds. When Buhari protested at that time, Atiku asked him to go to court, drawing, of course, from Shehu Yar’adua’s wisdom. Finally, and above all, we the masses know that Atiku is not transparent. He is an antithesis of Buhari, if you like, and he does not hide it. In an interview with a BBC correspondent in Abuja who asked him whether he will step down for Buhari, he angrily retorted: “Ku kam BBC yaran Buhari ne (Are you BBC correspondents Buhari boys)?” Many people did not like how he refused to step down for a more very popular and transparent Buhari.
Atiku, with this mountain of mistrust from the masses, should have expected a failure of his threat to mount any substantial popular protest against the government. And as if to confirm the suspicion of the masses, he fled and left them alone; he is nowhere to be found in Nigeria today. He continues to claim that he had a dislocation in his leg while mounting down from the staircase of his house. The masses now sarcastically spread the rumour that the leg is now fractured, anticipating his longer stay overseas. There is, therefore, a good degree of certainty in the analysis of the BBC correspondent, especially with Atiku at the forefront of the call for mass action, that it failed as a result of the mistrust that the masses have for the politicians.
But Atiku was not there as an opposition candidate in 2003. Instead, it was the icon of honesty, Buhari, who contested against Obasanjo. This makes the mistrust theory only partially valid. If the masses did not trust Atiku in 2007, why did not they come out to the streets when their Buhari called for mass action in 2003? Even then, I advised Buhari in No, Aisha, Leave Buhari Alone to stop nursing the idea of mass action. It would not work, I concluded swiftly. Nigerian masses, in my opinion, are immobilized by three catastrophic factors: lack of political cohesion, poor political education, and pervasive poverty among the working class and ordinary citizens in the country. I strongly suspect that it was a collaboration of these factors, combined with the mistrust, that were responsible for the colossal failure of the protests against the last elections.
The divisive nature of Nigeria is the most lethal weapon that politicians deploy to neutralize its population against any injustice. The cracks are many: North vs. south, Hausa vs. Yoruba vs. Igbo, Muslim vs. Christians, Majority vs. minority, and, now, Niger-Delta vs. Nigeria. At no time were these differences employed like during the first tenure of Obasanjo. By the time the 2003 elections were held, all the Yoruba states sided with Obasanjo, as well as the greatest number of Christians in the Middle Belt. Buhari was blackmailed as a northerner, a Muslim, who will bring sharia and force Christians to convert to Islam. Complete falsehood, but one which the ruling PDP was very willing to propagate even in states like Bauchi. Also, to divide the North, the Sharia and Middle Belt issue was allowed to waxen and reach proportions that claimed the lives of thousands of northerners, with the active participation of politicians from the Southeast, like Chief Odumegwu Ojukwu. How could, either in 2003 or 2007, the majority of Yoruba, Christians or Middle Beltans come out on the streets in support of Buhari? In addition, the trouble-making states of Kano and Lagos were compromised by allowing them what seemed to be fair elections. Even Bauchi was not ready for cancellation of the elections because they were happy with their new messiah, Yuguda.
The lack of political education engendered the gullibility of the Nigerian electorate. My recent experience in 2007 especially has proved that even the average Nigerian worker is confused and given more to sentiments than reason. While reason can confront military tanks and resist military bombardments, sentiments are easily conquered by time. Are workers and other elites, really interested in a Buhari President, if we may ask? What about the Police, Military, Customs and Immigration officials? Coming to the masses that connived and prayed to God against the General in 1985, do they truly wish his return today? God cannot be fooled. They may do so on basis of sentiments. However, only reason could confront the teargas, bullets and tanks of the Inspector General. As an excuse, I heard many masses saying, “Tabdi, wa zai je a kashe shi a banza (How on earth could anyone offer to die for nothing)?”
The third factor is poverty which has eaten deep into the fabric of Nigerians. It is clear, with majority of Nigerians being daily earners, that hardly could any nationwide protest be sustained for more than three days. If staged for so long, the masses would start to grumble because by the third day they will have nothing to spend. I saw this at Sokoto when His Eminence, Sultan Dasuki, was enthroned. By the third day, people were begging for the Sokoto Market to reopen. Finally, it took Abacha to remove Dasuki, after enjoying the throne for many years. So our politicians should not look outside at Georgia and threaten to stage a revolution without considering the peculiarities of their follow countrymen. In Georgia, protesters are holding oranges, apples, drinks and so on. In Nigeria, even in daily life, we are looking for oranges to drink while apples are forbidden to most of us. That is why protests always end up in looting Igbo shops and smashing cars or innocent citizens. Then how do we expect the Igbo and the elite to support any mass action? Thus, poverty has engendered another divide.
It is my sincere hope that next time our politicians would be circumspect in committing themselves to tasks they cannot accomplish. Such uncalculated statements only make the government position stronger. That is why I did not waste my ink or time to support their calls in both 2003 and this year.
In conclusion, let opposition leaders know a bit of our political physics: We the masses of Nigeria for the four reasons mentioned above will for a while remain at our present state of matter: mass without weight. And though not much has happened as Atiku promised, at least one great thing did: he descended from a Vice President to that of a fugitive.
6 June 2007