Forty one years ago (1980), the great Fela released the hit song, Teacher, Don’t Teach me Nonsense. Part of the song says of (Africa’s ) democracy:
Crazy demo (Demo-crazy)
Demonstration of craze (Demo-crazy)
Crazy demonstration (Demo-crazy)
As time dey go (Demo-crazy)
Things just dey bad(Demo-crazy)
They bad more and more (Demo-crazy)
Poor man dey cry (Demo-crazy)
I think that this song is as significant today as it was when Fela first released it. Baba could have been a prophet peering into the future four decades later when protesters who gather on Democracy Day would be dispersed by armed police teargassing them and shooting in the air. And this in a democratic Nigeria, barely two weeks after the same democratic government banned Nigerians from using Twitter, muzzling their freedom of speech. If you ever wanted to teach someone the meaning of ‘irony’, I present to you an unambiguous illustration.
Apparently, in contrast to the protesters, supporters of President Buhari who held a solidarity rally/ Democracy Day celebration in Abuja had police protection, including a helicopter hovering above them like a guardian angel. In my FGGC Bwari lingo, we’d say that the government did partia for this group.
It reminds me of President Buhari’s response to a question at the U.S. Institute of Peace on July 22, 2015. Asked how he was going to approach the Niger Delta with respect to the amnesty, bunkering, inclusive government and so forth, the newly elected president began to answer (once he understood the question) by joking (?) that he could show the audience the election results (presumably so they could see that the Niger Delta gave more votes to his opponent than they did him ). He carried on to say that constituencies that gave him five per cent of the votes could not be expected to be treated the same way as the constituencies that gave him 97 per cent. Apparently, the latter constituency must feel that the government “appreciates their hard work.” Even though, he then went on to say that all constituencies would have the protection of the government and that he belonged to everybody (and nobody), our people say that okwu bu uzo elugo be chukwu.
The president revealed in the first part of his response, what he referred to as “political reality,” that democracy is not exactly his instinctive cup of tea. And so it is hardly surprising that under his watch and with his likely encouragement, that one set of citizens would be treated differently than another group depending on whether they were carrying placards or wearing t -shirts or chanting songs in support of the president or whether they were criticising his government. And yes, I know that he’s hardly the first Nigerian democratically elected president to show authoritarian tendencies, but he’s the oga at the top now. He campaigned on the promise of change. Didn’t he refer to himself as a “converted democrat?” He ran four times to be president of a democratic Nigeria, he must abide by its democratic principles whether he wants to or not because that is the thing about democracy. It isn’t only the supporters of the government in power that should enjoy its benefits. It must protect everyone regardless of their political leanings. It’s like God’s grace. Like rain. Like sunshine. Whether we are seen to be deserving of it or not, we all get its benefits. His Excellency mustn’t forget this.
Despite his record as a military dictator, despite his reign of terror from 83-85, his government characterised by human rights violations, a clampdown on press freedom, secret tribunals, executions under retroactive decrees, and a “War against Indiscipline” which saw men and women whipped, slapped and humiliated, folks who were tired of the incompetence of President Goodluck Jonathan were willing to give his opponent a chance (I couldn’t vote but I would have been hard pressed to vote for either of the two candidates). One of those is a friend who was so disenchanted with Jonathan, whom she had voted for in 2011, that she stood in line for hours to vote for Buhari. Last time I spoke to her, she complained of “buyer’s remorse.”
She may very well have protested if she could on Democracy Day, exercising the same rights she used to help bring the president to power in 2015. And that is the beating heart of democracy: that every citizen’s voice can be heard, whether they are supporting the government or protesting it. It is only authoritarian regimes that suppress (or disperse) voices that dissent. I do not believe, as a friend I rarely disagree with those, that it is anti-democratic to hold protests saying the president must leave . It is in fact one of the signifying markers of democracy that citizens can ask that the government that is no longer working for them to do the honourable thing and leave, even if the said citizens know that the government would choose to hang on to power and let elections decide their fate.
Democracy and dictatorship may both begin with the same letter ‘D’ but while the latter stifles opposition, citizens must be able to dream. And disagree. And imagine that a different future is feasible if the present they are in no longer satisfies them.
When people can no longer protest, when they have been so defeated (psychologically and otherwise) that they no longer care about security challenges and corruption and the rising cost of living and clamping down on their freedoms and bad governance and all the things that bring them out to protest now, then we have cause to worry. When people who do come out to protest are teargassed or dispersed with live rounds fired in the air, when citizens fear for their lives when they come out to protest, or fear that they’d be arrested; when the government divides citizens into ‘those for us’ and ‘those against us,’ then we are living in a demo-crazy. That’s not the Nigeria we want. Amen?