The “Babangida Must Go” Protests: A Missed Opportunity for Revolution
Young, obscure student leaders in 1989 led the best chance of a revolution Nigeria had at the University of Benin campus in May 1989. These young leaders staged a protest that became famous as the “Anti-SAP Riots”. This protest-turned-riot spilt into Benin-City and with pace to other cities in Nigeria, including Lagos, Port Harcourt and Ibadan. The masses were behind the student protesters with an incredible firmness. The people bought the persuasive message of the obscene leadership corruption and thoroughgoing military repression. However, it was a rejection of neoliberalism. The free-market Structural Adjustment Policies (SAP) Babangida introduced was merciless in impoverishing most Nigerians and spurred the citizenry. The people and the student protest were one people with a united aim. Guns borne of the repressive military regime no longer frightened the masses; they had nothing left to lose.
The riots, unbeknown to most participants, were the child of false rumours of a publication. That is, of the ostentatious lifestyle of General Ibrahim Babangida and his wife, Maryam, in the US Black celebrity magazine Ebony. Its falsehood did not seem to matter one iota. It was a flashpoint that had triggered a real, looming need of the citizens. The momentum of the protests had by then exceeded a critical threshold; the masses were revolution ready.
Alas, the student leaders could not take the early momentum of the demonstration any further than protest. Inexperience and a lack of revolutionaries’ ambition might have hampered their progress. The intention of the protest was not revolution to begin with. SAP deterrence and policy reversal by the Babangida-led government was their goal. 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 ever more doable. Each university campus the protests spread to would further diffuse to the university town and neighbouring ones. All Nigerian universities had to be shut down by the government to prevent the entire nation from being consumed by an unstoppable momentum of the protests/riots. Babangida and his government were frightened; student riots had never been so popular with the public.
Student unionism and leadership had defied the usual Nigerian problem of the ethnic barriers. But this was perhaps because they devolved the leadership of the protests among countless 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 is worth noting that the April Revolution of 1960 in South Korea. It overthrew the autocratic government of President Syngman Rhee after 12 years in office. Surprisingly, it was the handiwork students and started as a protest.
President General Ibrahim Babangida’s response to the student-led protests/riots exposed several chinks in his armour. Future pro-democracy protesters and military officers would capitalise on them. Babangida had no choice but to hold on to power by issuing ever-greater rents to the stakeholders that supported his government. And resorting to the techniques of black ops against his opponents. These rents introduced a “culture of settlement” which made Nigeria a broad rent-seeking nation and corruption soared. Many of the student leaders, men and women of ability, sought safe-haven overseas.
Eventually, when Babangida made his famous statement, “I will step aside” and vacated the office in fear in 1993, something was forgotten. The genesis of his submission had begun at the University of Benin in 1989. Karl Popper says the best way to stop getting bad leaders is to make the ones in office frightened of the masses. The daring students leaders scared Babangida to death. Yet, an excellent opportunity for a bloodless revolution passed the student leaders by. And we might have had a different Nigeria today. However, Respect to them!
Political revolutions by nature are bloody, devastating, and ruthless; it 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 the power base is stable. They wake up one day to find their military and police no longer support them and are sympathetic to cries of the masses. Such bloodless revolutions occur when the leaders in power resort to “flight from office” when their ascendancy, legitimacy and rents have expired. Such was what happened with the April Revolution in South Korea.
Many Nigerians will hope if such an opportunity for a bloodless revolution comes around again, missing it is not an option. Never again. The Babangida Must Go Protests remains a key lesson when the necessity arises.