Swans Commentary » swans.com March 14, 2011  



Reflections On The Tunisian Revolution And Other Arising Matters


by Femi Akomolafe





"If you push a goat to the wall, it will bite you."
—African proverb

"The limits of tyrants are prescribed by those whom they oppress."
—Frederick Douglass


(Swans - March 14, 2011)   These are definitely among the most exciting times we have had on the continent of Africa for a long while. Even for a continent that likes to spin surprises now and then, the happenings across Africa in recent weeks are enough to make one's head reel!

First, it was the people of Southern Sudan who had the opportunity of a lifetime to determine their own future. An internationally-brokered agreement they signed with the leadership of the Khartoum government gave them the right to choose whether to separate or to remain in a United Sudan. Wow!

Many tribal and national groups across the continent would kill to be given such opportunity.

When the colonialists sat in Berlin in 1884-5 and carved the thousands of tribal and national groups of Africa into fifty or so states to satisfy their colonial ambitions, they gave no thought to history, or geography or even common sense. Whole "nations" like Gambia, for example, were completely sandwiched between another (Senegal) and given the appurtenances of a national entity.

When the wind of change blew across Africa in the 1960s, and the former colonies were given at least their nominal independence, the leaders of the new countries, in their collective wisdom, thought it best to leave the colonial inventions alone, lest they will be courting serious wahala.

So the fictitious entities were maintained and the leaders were saddled with the ponderous task of building viable nations from the amorphous conglomerations cobbled together by European colonialists.

It didn't take long for tears to begin to emerge from the seams of these hotchpotch and patchworks of nation-states. Not only were the new countries geographical absurdities, many were simply economically unviable. Competition to share scarce resources among tribes and nations with deep tribal antagonisms (ruthlessly suppressed by the colonialists) soon led to civil and uncivil wars.

The Cold War rivalries among the superpowers, coupled with the shenanigans of erstwhile colonial masters, to continue to dictate tunes, also contributed to create the mayhem that has now become associated with the continent Conrad prefered to call the "Dark Continent."

South Sudan was not actually the first country to break free; that honor goes to Eritrea. But unlike the Eritreans whose independence was negotiated peacefully with Ethiopia, South Sudanese were the first to be given the power to choose their own destiny in popular plebiscites. Given the bitterness with which the war was fought, it was not surprising that the overwhelming majority of the people of South Sudan elected to govern themselves.

Meanwhile, in Nigeria the ruling People's Democratic Party (PDP) held its congress to choose its presidential candidate for the April 2011 elections. And the party did what it knew best: announcing logic-defying and dubious election results. No big surprises emerged as the incumbent President Goodluck Jonathan emerged the winner amidst claims and counter-claims of corruption and bribery with cows and cash!

In the meantime, in La Côte d'Ivoire (CIV) the imperialists are also doing what they know best: doing all within their power to impose their preferred candidate, Alassane Ouattara, as president by all means necessary.

As in everything they do, the imperialists have muddled the water and released enough disinformation to sell their perfidious lies. A local election, in a region not known for sterling election performance, was transformed into a major global production. The imperialists' script neatly reduced a contested election into a titanic battle between forces of evil versus good. Of course, their preferred candidate, Ouattara, was made to smell like roses.

The laws of CIV clearly stipulated that if at the end of three days after elections no results were announced by the Electoral Commission, the Constitutional Council was the only body that had the legal right to announce the final results. As the Electoral Commission did not come with the final results in time, the Constitutional Council followed the letter of the Constitution and after careful review declared Laurent Gbagbo the winner of CIV presidential election, thus incurring the wrath of the imperialists who would like the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) to launch a war that will, most certainly, consume the whole region.

The imperialists would want us to believe that they are fighting across the world to promote democracy and the rule of law. Yet, in CIV, they are doing exactly the opposite.

It has since emerged that the ambassadors of France and the USA became the chauffeurs of the head of the Electoral Commission and that they drove him to the hotel where Candidate Ouattara was, and remains, holed up. It was at the hotel, not at the headquarters of the Commission as the law required, that Ouattara was declared winner in the presence of his friends from the West.

To throw further dust into our faces, the imperialists and their trumpeting media keep telling us that the result they announced was certified by the United (?) Nations. They fail to tell us what laws empowered the UN to usurp the electoral laws of a sovereign state.

A little poser here might help put things in perspectives: How would Americans have reacted in 2000 had the UN usurped the powers of the US Supreme Court to declare the winner of the US presidential election?

We were still trying to digest all these events when the thermonuclear bombshell landed from Tunis!

My Yoruba people have a saying: Ile ti a ba fi ito mo, iri ni yio wo. ("The house built with spittle will be felled by dew.")

In twenty-three short days, the determined people of Tunisia made a short work of overthrowing the despotic regime that had been misruling them for twenty-three long years.

This is an event that no pundit expected; absolutely no one.

To his eternal credit though, the US Ambassador in Tunis, Robert Godec, had warned his superiors about the impending doom. According to a leaked memo, the ambassador had written:

Tunisia is a police state, with little freedom of expression or association, and serious human rights problems... The problem is clear: Tunisia has been ruled by the same president for 22 years. He has no successor. And, while President Ben Ali deserves credit for continuing many of the progressive policies of President Bourguiba, he and his regime have lost touch with the Tunisian people.

They tolerate no advice or criticism, whether domestic or international. Increasingly, they rely on the police for control and focus on preserving power. And corruption in the inner circle is growing. Even average Tunisians are now keenly aware of it, and the chorus of complaints is rising. Tunisians intensely dislike, even hate, first lady Leila Trabelsi and her family. In private, regime opponents mock her; even those close to the government express dismay at her reported behavior.

Meanwhile, anger is growing at Tunisia's high unemployment rate and regional inequities. As a consequence, the risks to the regime's long-term stability are increasing.

How prescient! Luckily for the ordinary, long-suffering Tunisians, but unluckily for the imperialists, no one heeded Ambassador Godec's prophetic warnings. Those whom the gods will destroy, they first made deaf and dumb.

It was the immortal Frederic Douglass who aptly observed that "The limits of tyrants are prescribed by those whom they oppressed."

Although it has been termed the "Jasmine Revolution," methinks it ought to be called the "Fairy Tale Revolution."

The Tunisian revolution came from absolutely nowhere and at a pace that left everyone dizzy. Although according to the leaked report mentioned above the US embassy in Tunis did warn about the grave situation in the country, many analysts would have scoffed at the very idea of a revolution in Maximum Leader Ben Ali's Tunisia.

Jordan? Maybe. Morocco? Possibly. Algeria? Probably. Egypt? A real probability there. But iron-ruled Tunisia? Nah!

And talking about irony of ironies, the Ben Ali government, not known for any public relations niceties decided in December of last year to burnish its image. It splashed a 15-page advertorial in the December 2010 edition of the London-based New African magazine, self-promoting itself as the best thing to happen to Carthage since Hannibal. The advertorial boasted:

Tunisia is gradually pulling itself out of the 'developing world' into something akin to China's current status. Though the revolution is not yet complete (there is still a lot to be done), the country is surely on the right track. The first impression of Tunisia, from its capital Tunis, is a country at peace with itself. Peace in the sense of stability that gives a country the time and space to plan and implement its plan; the kind of implementation that leads to a balanced national development... A good 50% of the national budget is allocated to youth-related issues such as education, training, employment, ICT, sports, and health.

The boasting continued breathlessly: "Tunisia's success story has also been driven by its middle class, which makes up over 80% of the population. And 80% of the population owns their own home. All this, of course, is thanks to the foresight of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali."

Alas, a few days after the almost lascivious New African story hit town, Tunisia was to explode in anger culminating in the revolution that left many with egg on their faces. And it came from absolutely nowhere.

A young man, Mohamed Bouazizi, long employed and much abused by petty officials of a virulent dictatorship, was pushed once too far.

Half-orphaned at a tender age, Mohamed was fending for his family by selling vegetables with a push-cart. He never had much of an education -- contrary to media reports that he was a university graduate -- he had stopped schooling at 19 so that he could help his five younger sisters get better education. Since age 10, Mohamed had been responsible for taking care of his mother and five younger siblings.

His attempt to join the army was refused. He, like many Tunisians, unable to get employment, took to selling vegetables and other stuffs on the streets.

Daily humiliations by police officers were part of the youngster's routine life until one day in December 2010, he was pushed once too far and he thought he had had enough.

On the morning of December 17, a female police officer slapped the youth and other officers joined to kick him to the ground and confiscate his pushcart -- his only means of livelihood. His efforts to retrieve his only means of sustenance were met with more humiliations.

Something snapped and Mohamed Bouazizi poured inflammable liquid over his body and set himself alight outside the local municipal office.

Mohamed Bouazizi was 26 years old when he became the unlikely martyr of an unlikely revolution.

The death of the young man sparked the unrest that soon consumed the whole country. Angered by the youth's desperate gesture, and the high-handedness of petty officialdom, Tunisians of all economic, social, and political strata trooped to the streets. The battle cry was: "Bread, water, and no Ben Ali."

The government launched a crackdown that killed some 200 people. But the protesters were unyielding. The people had simply had enough of tyranny.

President Ben Ali, like the true dictator he was, left things too late. The man who throughout his lengthy stay in power took Tunisians for granted and never deigned to even address them was forced to talk to the people three times in as many weeks.

He first blamed the unrest on "extremists," and attempted to wield the big stick. When that didn't work, he tried a carrot, vowing to create 300,000 jobs. Tunisians were not impressed. They wanted more than bread and butter; they yearned to be free.

When the dictator finally acknowledged the political nature of the protest and promised not to run for re-election in the 2014 elections the protesters smelt blood and went for the jugular, demanding the immediate departure of the man whose corruption had made their lives unbearable. His gesture to release political prisoners and free the media was also met with jeers. It was, for the long-suffering Tunisians, too little, too late.

His visit to Mohamed Bouazizi at his hospital bed failed to placate the restless protesters -- as were his sacking of ministers and the release of jailed protesters. Tunisians had simply had enough, and were not prepared to settle for anything less than the departure of the much hated dictator, and his much more hated wife, the incorrigibly corrupt First Lady Leila Ben Ali.

Finally, when the political elite realized that nothing less than the departure of Ben Ali would save the day, they sacrificed their chief. In the early afternoon of January 14, Ben Ali's confidant and Prime Minister Ghannouchi announced that he was taking over because the president was temporarily unable to perform his functions.

A day earlier, Ben Ali and his family had flown the coop. A bitter twist in his sad saga was that his friends in the West deserted him when he needed them the most. Like the late Shah of Iran and Mobutu Sese Seko, who also believed that they had friends in the West, he was abandoned after faithfully serving the interests of the imperialists.

It was the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia that granted the fallen dictator refuge.

It's difficult not to laugh as one watches the imperialists scrambling to make themselves relevant as their pet project in Tunisia collapses into smithereens. Dwarfish Sarkozy came out to offer "support" and to call for "democratic elections as soon as possible." The European Union offered financial support. Switzerland announced that it has blocked the assets of the fallen Tunisian dictator.

The question these imperialists fail to answer is why did they support and prop up a detested dictator for over two decades? Do they expect to be taken seriously by their offer of support, whatever that means?

Emboldened by the success of their brethren in Tunisia, Jordanians, Algerians, Egyptians, and Yemenis are also taking to the streets to clamor for change.

Following the Tunisian script, Egyptians trooped out in massive number to protest against Hosni Mubarak who, for thirty-two years, has emasculated his nation in his subservience to the U.S. Eighteen days of protests saw the army gently ease the detested dictator out.

Libya's delusional leader Muammar Qaddafi, however, refused to yield ground. Rather than bow out graciously, he declared war on protesters whom he dubbed terrorists on drugs supplied by al Qaeda. Thousands are reported to have died in the battles that have effectively divided the country in two.

It is noteworthy that these uprisings occur in countries that are relatively affluent. Both Libya and Tunisia are rich countries by African standards. They boast of infrastructures that are light years ahead of those of many African nations, which goes to confirm the Theory of Rising Expectations -- human beings want more than bread and butter.


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About the Author

Femi Akomolafe (see his profile on Swans) is a computer consultant, a writer and social commentator, an avid reader, and a passionate Pan-Africanist who lives in Kasoa, Ghana. Femi is known to hold strong opinions and to express them in the strongest terms possible. As he likes to remind his readers: "As my Yoruba people say: Oju orun teye fo, lai fara gbara. It means that the sky is big enough for all the birds to fly without touching wings." Femi Akomolafe's views, opinions, and thoughts can be accessed on the blog he maintains: http://ekitiparapo.blogspot.com/.   (back)


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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
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Published March 14, 2011