The best chance of a revolution Nigeria had was initially led by young obscure student leaders at the University of Benin campus in May 1989; they staged a protest that became famously known as the “Anti-SAP Riots” spilt into Benin-City and rapidly to other cities in Nigeria including Lagos, Port Harcourt and Ibadan. The masses were firmly behind the student protesters and bought their persuasive message of obscene leadership corruption, thoroughgoing military repression and the rejection of neoliberalism that was mercilessly immiserating their way of life. The guns of the repressive military regime no longer frightened the masses, they had left nothing to lose.
The riot was soon found out to be based on false rumours of the publications of the ostentatious lifestyle of General Ibrahim Babangida and his wife, Maryam, in the US Black celebrity magazine, Ebony. This did not seem to matter one iota. The momentum of the protests had exceeded a critical threshold, the masses were revolution ready.
Alas, the student leaders could not take it any further than protest. Inexperience and a lack of revolutionary ambition might have hampered their progress; the intention was not revolution originally. The sheer rapidity of the expansion and popularity of the protests/riots among the masses might have overwhelmed the student leaders as the opportunity for revolution became increasingly realistic. Each university campus the protests spread to it, in turn, spread to the university town and neighbouring ones. All Nigerian universities had to be shut down to avoid the further rapid expansion and popularity of the riots.
Student unionism had defied the usual Nigerian problem of the ethnic barrier but this was probably because the leadership of the protests was progressively dispersed among numerous student and activist leaders rather than having a central leader. This very dispersion of leadership may have also dampened a collective ambition to turn the protests into a revolution. Nevertheless, it must not be forgotten that the April Revolution in South Korea that that overthrew the autocratic government of President Syngman Rhee after 12 years in office was orchestrated by students and started out as a protest.
Nevertheless, President General Ibrahim Babangida’s response to the student-led protests/riots exposed many chinks in his armour and future pro-democracy protesters and military officers would capitalise on them. Babangida was forced to hold onto power by issuing ever-greater rents to the stakeholders that supported his government and resorting to black ops. These rents introduced a “culture of settlement” which made Nigeria a broad rent-seeking nation and corruption soared.
When eventually Babangida famously stated “I will step aside” and vacated office in fear in 1993, the genesis had begun at the University of Benin in 1989. A great opportunity for a bloodless revolution was missed and we might have had a very different Nigeria today.
Political revolutions typically are bloody, murderous, devastating and ruthless. This has never stopped political revolutions from occurring. Revolutions may not be bloody if the leadership in power hollows itself out of its supports but continues to rule as if power base is solid. Such bloodless revolutions occur when the leaders in power resort to “flight from office” when their ascendancy, legitimacy and rents have expired.
Many Nigerians will hope if such an opportunity for a bloodless revolution comes around again it will not be missed. Never again.