Nicolae Ceausescu, the communist dictator of Romania — for the better part of two decades — got high on whiffs of his own importance like all dictators are wont to do. On December 24, 1989, he stood in a public square and, surrounded by a mammoth crowd, amidst the smouldering ruins of the country’s economic and social infrastructure, exhorted them about the good of his regime.
There was nothing unusual about the day. All listened. None moved. Suddenly, an unnamed woman shouted, “Liar!” It was shocking she dared because he wielded much power over Romanians. Ceausescu continued his speech but the woman shouted again, “Liar!” A few others took up the refrain and before long, many more joined. They not only shouted, they grew restless. Ceausescu realised that the crowd was going out of control. He fled.
It was the beginning of the revolution that consumed him and his wife.
When I heard a former US secretary of state, Condolezza Rice, tell this story, she described that encounter as: “The Ceausescu Moment.”
Revolt happens at that moment of encounter when the wall of invincibility that surrounds a leader falls and citizens see the banality of power. In that instant, they develop a if–I-perish-I-perish attitude and move to topple the statue with the feet of clay. I believe one of the reasons Nigerian leaders hide behind a retinue of aides and security men, bullet-proof vehicles, siren-blaring convoys, high fences, or prefer flying in acquired private jets is to prolong this Ceausescu Moment. They don’t for nothing create endless bureaucracies to sustain the veiled curtain that separates them from those they pretend to lead. Nobody needs the aura of power more than an inept leader. Distancing achieves this.
The irony of political office is that it needs a measure of mundane to forge its mystique. When President Barack Obama hangs out in pizzerias or children chase him around in the Oval Office, or the British Prime Minister and his wife take the tube while carrying their own bags, or an image of David Cameron opting to stand inside a train while other citizens sat down and close enough to him, it’s a demystification that re-mystifies them.
The Governor of Rivers State, Chibuike Amaechi, recently said there could be no revolution in Nigeria because people are too “timid”, and I am reminded of the “Ceausescu Moment”, how leaders in the past had been deceived about the elasticity of people’s patience. By the way, Nigerian people are not the only “timid” ones; if our leaders were not timorous, they would not hide behind the paraphernalia of office to shield themselves from we-the-people.
Amaechi, unfortunately, is not the typical politician whose tongue runs faster than his brain cells can catch up but in this instance, his mockery of Nigerians betrays his attitude. I have previously written to question the desirability of a Nigerian revolution, yet, I will not write it off entirely as impossibility. That the idea of a revolution has been banalised in Nigerian public discourses does not erode the fact that at least, a revolt –or maybe just the fear of one- is necessary for Nigeria to upset the status quo of blatant irresponsibility in leadership, break the jinx of directionlessness and, galvanise social change.
To, however, say it can never happen is taking the unassailability of leadership too far. The French Revolution, the cardinal theme of Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, blind-sided the aristocracy when it berthed. Like Amaechi, the French royals were convinced that the people were timid and would live with whatever was handed out to them. But then, the masses proved them wrong. The slave revolution of Domingo was unthinkable to the slave masters until it hit them and from there, changed the course of history. The question, for me is, “How long will it take before peoples’ patience is exhausted? How much more can they take before they decide that everyone’s cup is full and it is time to start pouring them out?”
Violence, as Frantz Fanon tells us, is necessary as a social purifier. Without uprising of some sorts, the society can hardly witness serious social change. But then, because such acts of revolts hardly ever come without human and material costs, they must never be treated flippantly. The most spectacular regime change of the Arab Spring occurred, in my opinion, in Libya. Moammar Gaddafi was a leader who loomed large in the imagination of the citizens of Libya and other countries of the world but when his Ceausescu Moment came, it was youths who could go nowhere near him in his days of power who literally and practically poked a stick into his anus! That would have been unthinkable a year earlier. Like Saddam Hussein, he was caught hiding in a hole like a rat; like Benito Mussolini in Italy, Samuel Doe in Liberia and Adolf Hitler in Germany, he died like a dog.
Does Amaechi and, perhaps, others who have written off the possibility of an upsurge know how long Ceausescu took his people for granted and had got away with it? Do they know how long black people sat at the back of the bus before Rosa Parks decided she had had enough? People spend years collecting angst on their bodies until one day, they snap. When the woman who shouted “liar!” at Ceausescu left home that morning, maybe, the last thing on her mind was that she was going to galvanise a revolution. It “just” happened; sometimes it is planned ahead, and other times, it is spontaneous like the Tank Man of the Tiananmen Square massacre. There is always that moment when things slide out of control because someone shouted “liar!” or a frustrated youth sets himself on fire; a moment when a state agent refuses to obey orders, or someone just decides that his life is no longer worth living and he would die with as many people as possible. This Ceausescu Moment is a reason Amaechi should improve his attitude or, at least pray that when the walls come crashing, he is able to get behind the wheels of his bullet-proof jeeps quickly enough. With the way things are going in the country now, with youth unemployment and poverty at an explosive level side by side a sickening thieving and corrupt political elite, I will not bet with my kobo that “that moment” is not in the horizon in Nigeria. The thought, however, is gripping as it is disturbing.
And Ekiti Deputy Governor bows out…
It was sad news to hear that the deputy governor of Ekiti State had died. I met her once in Lagos and she was such a pleasant person. Good night, Madam.