By Abba Mahmood –
My political leader and mentor, the late Mallam Aminu Kano of blessed memory, the leader of the downtrodden masses who was the leader of the defunct NEPU and People’s Redemption Party (PRP) in the First and Second republics respectively, once said that there is something greater than bombs and bullets. It is for the people to say NO. No bullets or bombs are greater than the people and their wishes to say no to any leader or government. In fact, an Emir once said that the greatest trouble Mallam Aminu Kano caused them, the ruling class, was to teach the common people to say no. Believe me, the people’s power is greater than any power, including the party that has “power” as its slogan, if you know what I mean.
Let us go through history to see. The first known tyrant in recorded history was the Egyptian Pharaoh. He was playing god in his kingdom. He subdued the people of Egypt with poverty so that everyone could succumb to his rule. He even decreed that every male child should be killed at birth so that no one would overthrow him. As it happened, an innocent male child was born and his mother put him in a box which she put in the river. The box with the male child floated in the Nile until it was found by a kind-hearted fellow and Pharaoh’s wife liked the baby, which was named Moses or Musa. Musa, who subsequently organized the people against the tyranny of Pharaoh, grew up right inside the palace of Pharaoh. He decided to organize the people to say “NO” to the tyrant of Egypt and Pharaoh went down in disgrace.
A modern “Pharaoh” in contemporary Egypt also went down from power recently. Hosni Mubarak was an air force general who came to power with the assassination of his predecessor, Anwar Sadat. Under him, Egypt became a police state – every corner of the ancient nation had spies, informants and operatives. He ruled for over 30 years during which no one was free among his citizens. He started plotting for the entrenchment of his dynasty — he was planning for his son, Gamal, to take over from him. The people simply poured into the streets and made Tahrir Square the anchor of their protests. Security officials opened fire on the defenceless protesters, killing many in the process. They simply said “NO” and, in the end, Mubarak had to leave in disgrace.
In faraway Philippines there was another dictator named Ferdinand Marcos. He ruled his country with iron hand. Basic freedoms were denied the people. There was no development and poverty rate was increasing. Marcos and his cronies were the only ones with fresh cheeks and good clothes. His wife, Imelda, had an overbearing influence on state matters. Imelda was acting like she had a dual mandate with her husband; she was behaving like a co-president. The country’s resources were used to buy her expensive jewelleries and thousands of shoes. When the people could not bear this anymore, the Filipinos simply poured out in the street and said “NO” to the Marcos tyranny. He left power in disgrace and died in exile unsung.
Here in Africa there was also another tyrant, Mobutu Sese Seko of DR Congo. Soon after independence from Belgium, Patrice Lumumba, the popular prime minister who took over from the colonialists, was assassinated by Mobutu who took over power in a military coup backed by some external powers. Mobutu reigned for over 30 years during which he plundered the riches of his country, which is one of the richest in the world. He was supported by the West as it was during the Cold War. He had no plan to leave power; he once said it was better to be a late president than a former president. As he was getting richer his people and country were getting poorer until they decided to say “NO” to his brutal rule. He left the country in disgrace, died of prostate cancer and was buried by three people only!
Even as recent as October last year, another tyrant went down in Burkina Faso, here in West Africa. Blaise Compaore assassinated his bosom friend, the revolutionary Thomas Sankara, and took over power in a military coup in 1987. Along the line, Compaore’s true colour came out. He reversed all the gains of the Sankara revolution, became a full-blown dictator who, after staying for 27 years in power, was trying to alter the constitution to enable him remain in power till eternity. Burkina Faso people poured out into the streets in October last year to say “NO”. The Compaore regime came down like a pack of cards and he went into exile in Cote d’Ivoire.
What comes out of all these is the fact that the legitimacy of any government lies with the people. No foreign or domestic security can keep any government the people don’t like in power for ever. There are always good indicators to observe and evaluate in any country whose leadership has problems with the people. Mediocre performance by government officials, pervasive corruption, lies and flattery pervading the security forces — the main mission of which is to defend the regime rather than to protect the country, loyalty being more important than competence — are some of the obvious indicators.
Another common feature of all the regimes mentioned here is that they were impervious to advice. They hated criticisms. They led extravagant lives while their people were poor. They surrounded themselves with sycophants who kept them in ignorance of the true state of their nations. And political, economic and administrative paralyses were spreading in those countries. In all these cases, growing power was accompanied by growing arrogance, insolence and heavy-handedness. After all, it is said that those whom providence wants to destroy, he or she first gets mad.
One of the latest pastimes of many third-class dictators has been to rely on foreign security personal, particularly Israeli, to keep them in power. They have refused to learn from history.
Avi Shlaim wrote in his biography of King Hussein entitled Lion of Jordan: “Netanyahu (current Israeli prime minister) did not command much respect even inside his own party. Senior members of Likud regarded him as an intellectual lightweight, as glib and superficial, as little more than a purveyor of sound bites for American television… He was that very rare thing – a genuine charlatan.” Shlaim further wrote that “Hussein observed the hard way that Netanyahu was devious, dishonest and completely unreliable”. I hope they are listening.
Fear and paranoia help to make leaders feel insecure, which in turn make them build walls between them and their people. They then get hijacked by ethnic, religious or political extremists and demagogues who play on this fear to mould the leaders into brutal dictators. Leaders who appear to combine humility with humanity and exceptionally gracious manners soon end up as dangerous puppets in the hands of these extremists. As so often in history, the most dangerous moment for an autocratic regime is precisely when it begins to reform itself. That is the point when they realize, too late, that they did not follow the line of peace and progress. And that the people saying “NO” is greater than any bomb or bullet.
History is on the side of the oppressed.