The Egyptian people deserve our congratulations and admiration. Their 16 month Arab Spring revolt has finally led to the emergence of their first democratically elected President. The resolve they showed at Tahrir Square was an unequivocal demonstration that they are well prepared for the hazards that accompany the long walk to freedom. There is still some struggle ahead for them but by now no one – not the generals or the international community – doubts the capacity or the ability of the Egyptian people to walk the arduous path to freedom and liberty or to match their rhetoric with action. If their democracy is threatened again, hundreds of thousands will pour out to Tahrir square, and defy death, until liberty is assured.
In the shadow of Egypt’s historic elections, Libya has also emerged into the bright dawn of democracy. Their revolution is another fruit of the Arab Spring. It did not arrive easily. It was watered with the blood of martyrs. Like Egypt, those who will attempt to meddle with the new found freedoms of the Libyans will remember their capacity for sacrifice, and their unyielding yearning for freedom.
For the Nigerians who are dreaming big dreams about change based on what the Egyptians, Libyans, Yemeni, and the Tunisians before them have achieved, they should snap out of their dreams and face the reality that there will be no Arab Spring in Nigeria. Those nations did not arrive at change by chance. They did not pray it down from the heavens, they did not wish it into being, they did not tweet democracy into existence, or Facebook it to reality. They fought for their freedoms on the streets and alleyways, on fields and in government torture cells. They were ready to pay the ultimate price for its realization, and some were martyred for the cause.
Nigerians love short cuts. Our predilection for the path of least resistance spans the entire gamut from politics to sports and to education. Students pay to pass examinations. We turn up at major global competitions like the World Cup, which the rest of the world has put in years of training for, unprepared, and we seriously expect to win. We have an optimism that sometimes borders on the absurd. And our desire for a sweet, simple, painless, internet driven, SMS text message based struggle for freedom is evidence of the mass delusion we suffer from. .
When we lampoon our leaders for their perennial failures to move our nation forward, we point to nations like South Africa, America, Israel and Egypt and hold them up as models. We conveniently forget that those nations got where they are today not by taking short cuts or making inane compromises.
We sit on our hands pontificating about what is wrong with our political system, yet we refuse to engage or to offer viable options to the status quo. We know we want a nation that works. We want a nation that we can be proud of. We want a nation that lives up to its promise. But sadly, we are not ready to give the sacrifice and the work that it takes to get there.
We all know Nigeria has problems. We also know that unless those problems are urgently resolved, we will see neither growth, nor progress. There are two practical ways in which Nigerians can resolve their current geopolitical problems. We can either allow the politicians to handle this the way they always have: ignore the fundamental fact that Nigeria is not a nation but a collection of nation states, and make inane compromises that will patch up the wounds, and ensure that that the country limps on until the next genocide inevitably arrives. The alternative is for the people to take their destiny in their hands, stop hiding behind religion, quit sniffing their Premier League opium, and migrate from the comfort of tweets and online commentaries and pour into the theater of struggle. The second alternative is hard and dangerous. But that is how the Arab Spring was born. That is how freedom is won.
Should we fail to do what is needed, and betray the generational task before us of creating a Nigeria that can work; our generation must go down in infamy as the cohort that murdered the promise of Nigeria. Should this tragedy happen on our watch, we will be forever assailed by the chronicles of History, as the custodians of a nation that killed its destiny. Should we rise to our full stature, and engage as we should, the Nigeria that will emerge from this crucible of fire, will be one that will persevere and thrive. We will recognize it when we see it. While its final form is yet to be defined, it will have some basic features: it will be a collection of nation states, a willful gathering of regions, each free to grow at its pace; it will drop its centripetal unitary pretentions, and be reinforced by the centrifugal realities of ethnicity and religion that exist within it.
The only way to move forward is to negotiate the terms of Nigeria’s unity, in an unfettered fashion. Many have chosen to call the forum for such a negotiation a Sovereign National Conference. A Sovereign National Conference will take work. While many might think that a truly loose federal structure, based on regional engagements might make sense, the proponents of that conference must convince the Birom & the Jos Fulani; the Kataf and the northern Kaduna Hausa-Fulani that they will all have an equitable place in a New Nigeria. They must realize that Sovereign National Conference must answer the question of what will happen to the Okun-Yoruba, who are geographically Northerners, and have remained a perpetually ignored minority in the North? It must assuage the worries of the Itshekiri, the Urhobo, the Efik and the Kalabari about their rights as new minorities in a strong South – South Region.
None of the Nigerian progressive groups that scream and rage about a Sovereign National Conference can show anyone a list of 5,000 names of Nigerians that they have mobilized towards their cause. We talk about a Sovereign National Conference – yet no one has articulated how that conference will be organized, described a path to its realization, or described how its members will be selected. Should one form of tyranny merely be replaced by another, however progressive its credentials might be?
We have dreamed of a sovereign national conference for years, but dreams alone will not birth that necessary gathering. Dreams alone did not sustain the Libyan revolt. Dreams alone did not bring hundreds of thousands to Tahrir square every day for months. Dreams alone did not feed the Yemeni protesters. Dreams did not print the banners of Tunisia’s change agents. Our dreams must be met by collective, principled, and organized action.
Nelson Mandela has a classic book on the travails and sacrifices that must accompany the path to freedom titled “Long Walk to Freedom”. If Mandela were Nigerian, that book would have been titled, “Short Cuts to Freedom – Why they Always Fail”
By Malcolm Fabiyi