People Power: Between Reality and Conjecture
Author: Simeon H.O. Alozieuwa
Originally Published at Peace and Conflict Monitor on: 07/05/2011
The recent uprising in parts of Arab states has brought to fore the seeming efficacy of the people power. From Tunisia, Algeria, through Egypt, Yemen and Libya, the people raged against autocratic regimes that have held sway in those societies. In Egypt, the revolution swept away the authoritarian regime led by Hosni Mubarak. In Tunisia, although Zine El Abidine Ben Ali abdicated the throne and fled into exile with members of family and some members of his unpopular regime, the government did not fail as in Egypt. In each of the countries – Egypt and Tunisia, the capitulation of the maximum rulers did not therefore translate to the taking over of power by the people. In Egypt in particular, rather than the people, it was the military that stepped in and began to direct affairs in the post-Mubarak era.
As spectacular as these revolutions are, the failure of the people to seize the momentum and take over the political leadership in those countries, however, raises a crucial question. Do the masses really have power? Have the masses ever provided leadership for any country? In moments of agitations as seen in those countries, although situational leaders could emerge to lead popular protests, beyond the revolution how far have the masses’ situational leaders been able to transcend that stage and seize the political leadership towards the ultimate goal of social transformation? In short, how far have the masses gone to ensure a change in the social order after a successful revolution?
This paper concerns itself with the potency of people power. It notes that beyond inducing the capitulation of authoritarian regimes through popular protests, the people are rarely able to enthrone the leadership that can actually transform the society. An editorial of a respected Nigerian newspaper, for instance, succinctly captured what happened in Egypt as a “limited triumph of people power after 18 days of unprecedented popular protest that massed hundreds of thousands.”1 This paper interrogates the pattern that usually follows any successful people revolution – the inability or otherwise lack of coherent strategy for the people to take over the political leadership towards the ultimate goal of social transformation. The paper thus poses the question: is the revolution an end in itself or a means to an end? Why do the people seem usually carried away by the euphoria of having facilitated the downfall of the unpopular regimes, and in the process lose the initiative to other class? In this regard, is the revolution worth its while if it will only bring down unpopular regimes without a corresponding takeover of the mantle of leadership by the people? Precisely, in this context, is the people power really powerful or a mere prescriptive hogwash that only psyches up the suffering masses? Has it not merely lent itself to facilitating the vulture model2 of succession to power?
Rationale for Study
For most of her years as an independent country, Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation bore the yoke of suffocating military dictatorships. For a country which at independence in 1960 was reckoned as a beckon of hope for democracy on the continent3 prolonged military rule was not only unflattering to Nigeria’s image but obviously constituted a burden on her people as one military regime after another trampled on the people’s rights.
But after failed attempts to latch onto the democratic path and stay the course, first through the democratically-elected administration of Shehu Shagari, which was sacked by the military in 1983, and second, the failure to usher in a democratically-elected government, by a windy political transition programme executed by the General Ibrahim Babangida military junta from the mid 1980s through the early 1990s,the annulment of the June 12, 1993 by that regime finally unleashed the people’s angst against the military and solidified their resolve to throw off the burden of military dictatorship for good. In this regard, the civil society provided the leadership to the national yearning that finally crystallized into a popular movement, which ultimately culminated in the relinquishing of power by the military in 1999. Interestingly, by the time elections were over, power still resided in the hands of a power elite corps that had ran the country with the military all the years in a complex diarchal arrangement that could hardly exonerate the civilian politicians from the country’s numerous ills or blame the militricians4 entirely for them.
Early in the year 2011, Egyptians ostensibly spurred by the uprising in neighbouring Tunisia, but actually giving vent to decades of frustration with Mubarak’s dictatorship, poured onto the streets against a regime that had ruled the country for upward of three decades and half. As in Nigeria, by the time Mubarak and his government was forced out of power, the country’s military took over the leadership of the country. It suspended the constitution, dissolved the parliament and announced plans to organize elections within six months, while mouthing the stability of the country as a major concern. But the military intervention effectively forestalled the taking over of government by the ‘people’ or by fundamentalist group as the Moslem Brotherhood who were banned by the Mubarak regime since 1981 when he came to power. As the Nigerian Tribune puts it:
Indeed, while the ouster of Mubarak is an important goal of the protesters, the takeover of power by the military suggests a hijack of the revolution by the military, which has enhanced its power since the departure of Mubarak.5
In interrogating the concept of people power as a methodology for effecting a change of the social order against regimes that are perceived to be anti-people, the paper questions its value as a strategy for social transformation especially against the backdrop that as in the two cases under consideration- Nigeria and Egypt, rather than the people, another elite group took over from the discredited elite corps, a situation that will ensure the reproduction of the latter group. We concede that the people’s revolution in Nigeria which forced the military did not take the same form as what obtained in the Arab states. However, Nigeria serves as a model of what happens when rather the people, another elite corps succeed the ousted group.
Some Conceptual Issues:
What perhaps is most interesting from the onset is the one-sided approach of how most of the theoretical expositions have treated the concept. To Dahl, for instance, who noted the difficulty in the exact use of term, and which has entailed that a variety of different words, such as control, influence, authority, persuasion, might, force, coercion, and so on, 11 have been used to define the concept, his “intuitive idea of power … is something like this: A has power over B to the extent that he can get B to do something that B would not otherwise do.”12 For Deutsch on the other hand, “The weight of power or influence of an actor over some process is the extent to which he can change the probability of its outcome.13
Bachrach and Baratz, however, brought a new perspective to the concept by identifying ‘the two faces of power.’ To them, one face is participation in decision making, in resolution of political issues. The other is the capability, primarily, through the manipulation of the prevailing mobilization of bias, to keep grievances about the current allocation of values from becoming political issues.14 In other words, power to the duo is about the ability, on the one hand, to influence someone to do something which ordinarily he would not have wanted to do. On the other hand, it is the ability to ensure that certain things which ordinarily could have happened or which someone would have done, is not done.
People Power and Civil Society
In conceptualizing the concept of people power, a Nigerian public intellectual, Osagie has noted as follows:
As it is turning out, people power entails the organisation of otherwise anonymous citizens into political pressure groups, social network phenomena on the Internet, and now increasingly ethnic and religious stakeholders for the purpose of effecting desired changes in the polity.
People power has domestic and international manifestations. At the national level, people consider such national institutions as government at different levels and political parties as too distant from communities to understand and empathise with the aspirations and interests of people living at grassroots level.
In most African countries, people power considers NGOs, CBOs, labour unions, student unions as instruments for protection of the people from oppression and marginalization by government and big business. In more computer-literate countries like Egypt, Tunisia and Nigeria, social networks are increasingly being used as instruments for political and social mobilisation.15
Although Osagie contextualized people power in specific particulars to the functionality of social media in the uprising in the Arab world, our emphasis however remains on the concept itself; its capability to bring about ‘fundamental political and social revolutions’. The term civil society in relation to Africa is however credited to Professor Jean-Francois Bayart who used it as part of the analytical tools for looking at the problems of political domination on the continent.16 In conceptualizing its relations to Africa, he traces it to the ideas of democracy and human rights itself:
The concept of democracy and human rights are the products of western history. They derive from the value placed on the idea of the individual which pre-colonial societies did not share and which was introduced into Africa in the wake of colonial rules.17
He afterwards proceeded to define civil society as “a society in relation with the state…in so far as it is in confrontation with the state, or more precisely, as the process by which society seeks to breach and counteract the simultaneous totalisation unleashed by the state.18
Some Afro-Centric scholars have, however, contested the claims that democracy and by extension the civil society were alien to the African society until the advent of colonialism. Omoweh and Boom for instance argued that “In spite of the diversity of the culture, beliefs, and production system in pre-colonial Africa, its traditional political system helped foster inclusiveness, participatory political and development process.19 They went on to highlight that:
The philosophical framework of African pre-colonial politics was communal, inclusive and participatory in the sense that, the locale of power was distributed along various groups and institutions, which were all concerned with promoting the development of the community. Though members disagree on political and development issues, such differences were resolved at levels of age grades and institutions. That way, communal interests took precedence over individuals and their parochial interests. In essence, the political arrangement in pre-colonial Africa was unique in the sense that it was reflective of the socio-cultural beliefs, and production systems of the people, and emphatic on ground-up and broad-based participation in the political development of the community.20
Omowen and Boom share a fond memory of the role of the civil society in ousting autocratic regimes in Africa in the not so distant past. For instance, in Cote d’Ivoire, military dictator, General Guei was chased out of the country by popular uprising galvanized by the civil society after he indicated his willingness to succeed himself in power as a civilian president. In Nigeria, they also note, there happened a “state of disarray through public strikes, demonstrations and civil disobedience which swept through Nigeria after Babangida nullified Abiola’s election- and which finally led to the enormous loss of legitimacy that forced him to “step aside.”21 This to them evinced “the potential for a vigorous and active civil society in Nigeria.22
In spite of the robust defense of Africa both on democracy and civil society, they however did not hesitate to situate civil society within its specific value in the continent especially its role in the ‘crusade’ against autocratic military regimes. They contend:
…the term ‘civil society’ during military rule was mainly discussed with [a] view on the urban-based, intellectual human rights groups, which formed the core of anti-dictatorial activities and whose activists and members faced widely published prosecution. During the military rule, the effectiveness of these groups relied not so much on an elaborate infrastructure, huge membership or big budgets, but on their unity against a common enemy and the willingness of members to make huge sacrifices in their struggle.23
Their observations that despite widespread criticisms against the current (democratic )government, the common enemy (civil society) seems to have disappeared and the unity among the various groups as well; that some prominent members of the civil society who quit active politics so that the current experiment with democratization is not ‘hijacked’ by money-bag politicians but have rather joined the bandwagon than shown any indication for a change24 seem clearly suggestive of the limitations of the African civil society. Indeed their superficiality. Hall also defined the civil society as “an opposite of despotism, a space in which social groups could exist and move; something which exemplified and would ensure softer, more tolerable conditions of existence.”25 Seligman on his part, while conceptualizing it as “an ethical ideal of the social order…that harmonises the conflicting demands of individual interest and social good…”26, conceives of civil society as “ that realm where the concrete person, that particular individual, subject to his or her own wants, caprices and physical necessities seeks the attainment of these’ selfish’ aims…that arena where free, self-determining individuality sets forth its claims for satisfaction of its wants and personal autonomy.”27
Larry Diamond’s definition of civil society offers us a broader perspective on the subject in that it in addition listed certain characteristics which a civil society exudes:
the ream of organized social life that is voluntary, self-generating, self-supporting, autonomous from the state, and bound by the legal order or set of shared rules… it involves citizens acting collectively in a public sphere to express their interests, passions and ideas, exchange ideas, exchange information, achieve mutual goals, make demands on the state, and hold state officials accountable. It is an intermediary entity, standing between the private sphere and the state.28
He listed the characteristics of the civil societies as follows:
- An organized civil society serves as a check against the excesses of government, human rights violation, abuse of the rule of law, monitoring of the application of constitutional provisions.
- Increased the participation and the skills of all the various segments of the society and instills a sense of tolerance, thrift, hard work, moderation, compromise among the various competing parties in the society.
- It serves as an alternative to political parties and can offer a refuge for those who are shut out from their rights due to non-membership of given political parties.
- It serves to enhance the bargaining power of interest groups and provides inclusive mechanisms for them.
- It has a role in mitigating the excesses of fundamentalist extremists and maximalists who tend to have a very narrow view of life in the context of either/or. It thus also provides other alternatives for negotiation within a multi-faceted society.
- It can serve as recruiting ground for, and the training of prospective members of the political or economic classes to enhance the quality of participants in government. In effect, it is a leadership recruitment field.29
While it may be accepted that the civil society in Africa, and perhaps as elsewhere has lived up to several of these functions, in the two cases under discussion, they appear to have a narrow understanding of these functions. For instance, in reference to function number three as listed above, there is the tendency for civil society to restricted itself one, as a rallying point for persons who have been shut out from the state’s official circle. These persons or groups are consequently provided with an opportunity to negotiate their inclusion into the apparatus of the state – thus the number four function of the civil society is fulfilled. The problem with this conceptualization of its function however arises when it is bound to dawn on the civil society that without transcending merely serving as a platform to rallying ‘disgruntled’ members of the society, who appropriate the civil society platform to negotiate their ways into government or positions of authority, with a view to influencing public policy, the marginal representation which this obviously amounts to is incapable of helping it effectively enthrone the desired social order, which in the first place informed the reason for coming to seek that ‘more tolerable condition of existence.’ This clearly is the case with members of the civil society in Nigeria who joined the bandwagon and were no longer bent on real change.30 Omowen and Boom explain the reason thus:
…the CSOs (Civil Society Organizations) still remain to be mainly urban-based with considerable difficulties in spreading towards the rural areas. As one commentator put it rightly, the civil society groups tended to orientate themselves outside- to gather international support- during military rule and have not yet learnt to re-orientate themselves inside to gain wider spread within the country, especially in the rural areas.31
Apart from exposing its externality, especially in Africa, the nature of civil society both in Africa and elsewhere going by the characteristics elucidated by Diamond, indicate that the civil society has characteristically been straight-jacketed. But the suggestion that civil societies should also ‘gain wider spread within the country, especially in the rural areas, ’equally underlines a concern that it should grow beyond its extant characteristics. We propose that against the backdrop of its members desiring to make positive change in the polity and unable to do so by virtue of using existing ‘corrupt’ political structure,32 the civil society should found their own political parties for the purpose of establishing the necessary structure which members can use to contest elective positions in government. Only through this pragmatic re-configuration of itself can it serve as a vehicle for social transformation. In other words, as a recruiting ground, the civil society should erect its own structures and not rely on ones built by the forces it as at war with.
The Nexus between Revolution and Civil Society
Our concept of revolution derives from that which issues from the French Revolution- which views revolution in its political terms. The purpose is to operationalise the concept and distinguish it from that which “comes only with the transformation of the economy, the founding of the modern state and rise of science and technology”47-in other words the bourgeois revolution.
The Encyclopedia Americana first notes that revolution is a “term used to designate a fundamental change in the government or the political constitution of a country, mainly brought about by internal causes and effected by violence and force of arms on the part of a considerable number of individuals.”48 In order however to escape the confusion which has arisen by equating the concept with such terms as coup, insurrection, mutiny, rebellion, and revolt, it became necessary to define revolution as “a struggle more or less successfully and completely accomplished, in which the ruling power of a country passes from one economic class or political group to another class or group.”49
Gamble notes that its contemporary usage “became widespread only after the experience of the French Revolution and the idea that a political act would introduce permanent fundamental change, transforming the basis of a social order, and having effect far beyond the political sphere itself.”50
For emphasis, the thesis of this paper is that what is generally perceived as people power cannot be described as potent if it is only capable of inducing change in the political leadership without the people effectively taking over power in order to effect the desired social transformation – the idea behind the Marxian ProletarianHowever, not in any of the Arab States or in Nigeria were the masses able to take over after the revolution. Revolution in our context therefore goes beyond the governments of Ben Ali and Mubarak caving in to the pressure mounted by the people or the Egyptian military take over proceedings or as in Nigeria, where the ‘militricians’ handed over to their civilian counterparts. As has been noted by Lenin:
People always were and always will be foolish victims of deceit and self-deceit in politics until they learn to discover the interests of some class or others behind all moral, religious, political and social phrases, declarations and promises. The supporters of reforms and improvements will always be fooled by the defenders of the old order until they realize that every old institution, however barbarous and rotten it may appear to be, is maintained by the forces of some ruling classes. And there is only one way of smashing the resistance of these classes, and that is to find, in the very society which surrounds us, and to enlighten and organize for the struggle, the forces which can – and owing to their social position, must – constitute the power capable of sweeping away the old and creating the new.51
People Power: Reality or Conjecture
In the wake of the revolution in the Arab states, Richard Eisendorf, a media and democracy specialist did note that “The peaceful protest and the tens of thousands who have been advocating for a more open society exemplify the best of democratic practice.”52 He then posed the crucial question: “Does Egyptian civil society have what it takes to fulfill the demonstrations’ aspirations and will they be able to work with the military for a smooth transition to democracy?”53
Nigeria’s scenario suggests an answer. Despite the diversity among the protesters as in Egypt and indeed other Arab states in the grip of the ‘Days of rage,’ the people shared a common commitment-a commitment to a free society.54 Some eleven years after the end of three decades of authoritarian military rule in Nigeria, Nigerians were agreed that the much desired social transformation was far from achieved. The views expressed by two prominent Nigerians in this regard may be quite illuminating. In the words of prominent constitutional lawyer, Professor Ben Nwabueze:
I want a wholesome transformation…. I want a bloody revolution. We need a revolutionary change, a bloody one and those who survive will pick up the pieces. Corruption has eaten deep and everybody is involved, only a bloody revolution will remedy the situation. That was how France was saved. If you read about the French revolution, that was what saved France and Europe is what it is today because of the French revolution. I cannot see the country being saved other than through a bloody revolution.55
For his part, former defence minister, Theophilous Danjuma agreed that Nigeria was far from transformed and yet optimistic that as far as our country Nigeria was concerned, “one man in position of authority can transform our country, only that we have not been lucky to have such a man.”56
Perhaps very significant was that as in all the cases, while the entire momentum truly became mass protests, the forces behind the demonstrations remained the middle class, educated youth, many of whom work in civil society organizations. That to us is the tragedy of the people power- its inability to transform the existing social order. The situation is Egypt may even prove worse than was the case in Nigeria. In the latter for instance, the military were a discredited class. Although the civilian politicians had colluded with the military to perpetuate authoritarianism, the people were disposed to tolerating the corrupt politicians than the military. In Egypt, the military which hijacked the revolution commanded the respect of the Egyptian society, because of its professionalism. This presents two possibilities: the Egyptian military may want to live up its reputation by instituting a social order approximating what the people desired. It may on the other hand, exploit the people’s trust and institute in the long run a worse a social order. The Nigerian military which initially was perceived in mode of a modernizing agent but failed to live up to the ‘revolution of rising expectation.’
Summary and Conclusion
We have in this paper questioned the potency of people power. Our main thesis is that mass protest has never in reality yielded to a change in social order. In the process, we submit that mass revolution has never gone beyond facilitating the fall of an unpopular regime. In other words, the masses are hardly ever organized to provide political leadership. Although desirous of a social transformation, but always ever imbued with the mass psyche, they end up only facilitating the liquidation of existing political order. Lacking coherence, if any viable strategy on how to capture power in order to institute the desired social order, the people’s revolution only fits into the social change as conceptualized by Nigerian Sociologist Adebayo Ninalowo:
Social change is a temporal alteration in the composition, structure or process of day-to-day- operation, activities and functions in the society, either in its totality or constituent parts. In other words, the concept of social change is marshaled to capture an alteration over time, the direction, implementation of policies or plans, complexity, roles, functions, et cetera, in varying degrees…57
But the desires of the masses of those countries obviously were beyond ‘temporal alteration in the composition, structure or process of day-to-day operation, activities, and functions in the society.’ Indeed “People may regard a given prevailing status quo, regime, programme or national goals as legitimate or illegitimate in terms of the ways by which dominant ideology or values are consistent with those of the generality of the people since they also have and harbor specific interests that might often be at variance with the dominant elitist ones. [So that] The alignment or reconciliation of general interests and values with the dominant ones is said to enhance the possibilities of social-political legitimization of the status quo.”58 The masses incidentally have always entrusted into the hands of an alternative force or class the task of translating their yearnings into tangible social realities. It has never paid off. The masses therefore always suffer the malady of perpetual delusion. Its failure to realize the indispensability of political party structure in the power equation exposes always its major weakness. Until therefore, the civil society which actually drive mass protest come to terms with the reality of forming political parties with which they can contest power, the desire for transformation will continue to be a mirage. In Nigeria, the interests of the dominant elites who took proceedings in the post-military era were obviously at variance and inconsistence with those of the people, so that a decade afterwards, the yearning for fundamental change –revolution- still persists. In Tunisia, the people poured back onto the street to press for more fundamental change which the ouster of Ben-Ali did not promise. It is not likely that the transition programme to be mid-wifed by the military in Egypt can yield an elite class whose interest will be consistent with those of the people. We make the same generalization to the remaining Arab states where the people’s revolution had swept through.
Bio: Simeon H.O. Alozieuwa, PhD, author, scholar, based in Abuja, Nigeria