The wave of political unrest that rocked Tunisia in December 2010 following Mohamed Bouazizi’s self-immolation in protest of police ill treatment was never fathomed in the schema of the country’s intelligence.
Not even in the United States of America did the authorities have an inkling of the conflagration otherwise they would have nipped it in the bud. But everyone was overtaken by what was thought to be a normal daily ill-treatment of the ordinary folks by the police on the streets.
Certainly, the crisis was caused by the indiscretion of some overzealous police officers who turned against the people instead of protecting them.
The domino effect the Tunisia incident in Egypt and across the Arab world confounded the intelligence community who appeared dazed for their inability to unearth the crisis and probably provide warning signs.
But there were warning signs that were taken for granted. The clouds for the upheavals gathered for a long time without anybody taking them serious. Even, if there was intelligence gathering and or monitoring of the events in the countries, that didn’t extend to the obscurity of everyday ordeal of street traders and the impunity of law enforcement. Even at that, no one could fathom what each individual is capable of doing in the face of frustration. That is the limit of intelligence.
Nobody, not even the most avid of intelligence foresaw that a routine and unsuspecting street brawl between an ordinary vegetable and fruit seller, Mohammed Bouazizi, could spark a historic uprising that would mark the downfall of the 23-year old regime of the Tunisian President, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Ever since then, things have never been the same again both in Tunisia and Egypt.
Mr. Bouazizi was an unemployed graduate, who having been pushed to the wall took to hawking fruits and vegetables with a handcart on the streets of Tunisia to eke out a living. The Tunisian economy had in recent times taken a dip with rising unemployment and mass poverty just like what is happening in Nigeria – mass graduate unemployment, poverty, suffering and pain. Added to that is the unbridled and overbearing law enforcement that seems to target the same suffering youths.
Like in Nigeria where misrule has impoverished the masses of the people and at the same time made draconian laws to curtail peoples’ freedom, the Tunisian authorities apparently have laws against street trading that were enforced with impunity by overzealous policemen.
I want to stress at this juncture, that there would have been no street trading if the economy were buoyant with minimum unemployment. It is the lack of job and safety nets for the unemployed that often pushed people to hawk as a means of survival.
On that particular occasion, Bouazizi’s “merchandise,” presumably his only hope at time was confiscated by the police. After all his entreaties to have his “goods” released fell on deaf ears, the young man in a show of utter frustration with the system paid the ultimate price by setting himself ablaze! That set the stage for the unprecedented uprising that swept through Egypt and the rest of the Arab world.
The spontaneous reaction of placard carrying mobs calling for the end of the oppressive rule in Tunisia and Egypt couldn’t have entered into the imagination of the most avid of intelligence. And, that explains why the dramatic turn of events took everyone by surprise.
The nationwide street protests by Nigerians against police brutality for two weeks running is similar to the Tunisian episode. A video allegedly showing SARS police officers shooting a man in Delta State before driving off with his car, which trended in early October sparked off the current unrest.
Police denied the video and initially responded with force using tear gas and water cannons and even live rounds. Reports say at least two were killed in Lagos and three in Oyo State. The use of the hashtag #EndSARS and the continuation of the protests even after the police authorities promised to disband the controversial SARS showed the depth of frustration among the youths leading the campaign.
Nigeria’s unemployment rate as at the second quarter of 2020 is put at 27.1 per cent indicating that about 21,764,614 (21.7 million) Nigerians remain unemployed. Nigeria’s unemployment and underemployment rate (28.6 per cent) is a combined 55.7 per cent.
But everyone knows this is far from the truth. The truth is that only about 25 per cent of Nigeria’s active labour force of 48 million people is employed. The other 75 per cent are unaccounted for. And, these represent the teeming masses of the youthful population engaged in street trading, commercial motorcyclists (okada), taxi driving, mechanics, vulcanizers, market women, etc.
An unemployed person has misbalanced mentally. If the government would understand the psychology of an unemployed person who has no hope of eating one meal a day, it would understand that an unemployment mind is traumatized, incensed and as such abnormal. And, it is such bunch of idle minds that provide ready tools for unrest and destruction of lives and property at the slightest opportunity.
It is not normal to see any one in suit and tie who joins a protesting mob on the street. Of course, no normal employed person would leave his office to join a crowd of protesters. It is the unemployed, “not normal human beings” that would do that.
In Tunisia, it was the unemployed Bouazizi, who in Nigeria would be described as “not normal human being” that would set himself ablaze to spark off national uprising! It wasn’t the employed in Tunisia that sparked the protests; it was one of the forgotten masses of the people.
And, again, like in Tunisia as in Nigeria, the police were involved. Police high handedness in enforcing the law without human face is to blame for the upheaval in Tunisia that spread to Egypt and the Middle East. In the same vein, the shooting and killing of an unnamed innocent man in Delta State sparked off the on-going protests.
If the policeman that arrested Mr. Bouazizi had considered his plight as a university graduate hawking vegetables and fruits and released his cart after he pleaded with him, the young man wouldn’t have killed himself thereby sparking off riot that brought down the government.
Similarly, if the policeman in Delta State had applied some professionalism by letting the man go, a mob of protesters wouldn’t have reacted at nothing that has spread across Nigeria. Should we leave the cause and continue to treat the effect?
The maltreatment of Bouazizi in Tunisia was one too many. It turned out to mark the point of no return. Similarly, the shooting of the man in Delta State was one too many. People have a catalogue of horrifying accounts of their encounters with SARS officers. Many have been killed and forgotten. No one could predict that one “routine shooting” that is common in Nigeria could spark off a mob action. No one knows the sickness that will kill the sickly man.
What we’re faced with is the futility of intelligence in predicting revolution. The best intelligence could do is to predict the possibility of revolution based on observed symptoms of misrule, high level corruption, poverty, mass unemployment, looting of treasury, police brutality, political thuggery, undemocratic tendencies, election rigging, imposition of unpopular candidates, overzealous law enforcement, public discontent, among others. These are the signs and symptoms of revolution. But as to when and where it would start, no intelligence could predict that. The way out is for government at all levels to systematically address these ills and the systemic rot.
Ironically, it’s an obscure incident like the Bouazizi incident and the man in Delta State and police that could spark off unprecedented crisis. The police and other law enforcement officers should be humane and apply professionalism in dealing with members of the public. Every day they say is for the thief, but one day is for the owner of the house. The people own the land whether or not they are poor, rich, employed or unemployed. The people should be treated with honour, dignity and respect.