Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Revolution as a collective psychotherapy: the Tunisian Experience By Abimbola Lagunju

During the preparation for a visit to Tunisia for a professional meeting recently, I expressed my concern to the organizers of the meeting about the appropriateness of holding the meeting in a country that just underwent a revolution and was preparing for elections. The mental image of Tunisia that I had conjured in my mind was greatly influenced by the events in Libya and also by mentally substituting Nigeria for Tunisia and imagining what Nigeria would look like under these extraordinary circumstances. The organizers reassured me, but I was uneasy until I reached Tunis. I did not know what to expect, and I had made sufficient cash provision to purchase an early ticket out if the situation was as I had imagined.

This was my second visit to Tunisia. The first was in 2004 when Ben Ali was in power and the second was in September 2011, when he had been chased out. I began my observation from the airport. The body language of the Tunisians working in the airport (immigration officials, customs, cleaners, airline staff, and shop assistants) was very instructive. They were quite relaxed as they went about their duties professionally. I did not feel the tension, frustration and apprehension that normally translate into verbal violence in these workers. The airport workers that I saw this year are markedly different in their mien to those that I saw in 2004. A revolution acting on the psyche of a people? Was I imagining things? I reserved my judgment until I came out of the airport. The picture was the same – a friendly people, relaxed, smiling and going about their duties diligently. From Tunis to Hammamet, the Tunisians that I met exuded serenity of a people who had just been relieved of a burden. I felt relaxed – the organizers of our meeting were right after all. No doubt the departure of humiliated Ben Ali was a major therapy for the Tunisian people.

Kefif Macek, a dental surgeon, a political activist and one of the leaders of the Tunisian revolution compared the long reign of the ousted president Ben Ali to a long nightmare, which when suddenly ended was a surprise even to the most ardent demonstrators in the cities and villages in Tunisia. Indeed, all dictatorships are nightmares and waking up through revolutions, peaceful or violent to effect a change is an inevitable event. The fact that no nightmare lasts forever is lost on many sit-tight and oppressive leaders, who, trusting in their absolute control of the state machinery of violence ignore the rightful aspirations of their people. These yearnings gather momentum and become an unstoppable force that ultimately overwhelms and consumes the dictator – a temporary shift in the power equation.

People take part in a revolution for different reasons – some for very personal reasons, because they have at one time or the other suffered injustice from the dictatorship; for some, the burden of oppression has become too much to bear; for others, their self dignity has been trampled upon by the corruption and arrogance of the dictator, his family and political party (when there is one); for others the economic hardship has become unbearable and yet for others, they need a new political breathing space, new faces in the political and economic spheres. Without doubt, everyone that participates in a revolution has his own axe to grind with the dictator or a system. However, they all share something in common – a clean break-up from the past, liberation from the oppression that a dictator or a system represents. A waking up process from a long nightmare. A desire for a new paradigm.
However, the desire to break up with the past is not synonymous with having a vision for the future. In the euphoria of the moment, many assume and believe that the unknown future cannot be worse than the past. Every participant in the revolution expects his grievance to be addressed in the new dawn. Individual and collective expectations in the post-revolution period then grow out of proportion and become a burden to the new dawn with a yet to be defined vision and project. “How do you see the new Tunisia in fifteen to twenty years? I asked Hayet Moussa, a Professor of Sociology in the University of Tunis, who also participated actively in the revolution. After a brief hesitation, she said, “Difficult to predict. Difficult to see even what Tunisia will look like in a couple of years. We must however be vigilant that our revolution is not hijacked by internal or external forces. Our freedom, as Tunisians must be protected.”
“But what exactly are Tunisians looking forward to in the new dispensation?” I insisted.
“Dignity and freedom!” Hayet said without hesitation and Kefif nodded his agreement.

In the quest to create a new political, economic and social order, Tunisians have demonstrated an unparalleled political maturity not only to the Arab world but also to the whole world. Sub-Sahara Africa has a lot to learn from this political astuteness. The challenge to Tunisians at this moment is to create a new Tunisia which will satisfy the expectations of the majority of the people. Tunisians are taking their time to accomplish this – it has been eight months since the departure of Ben Ali and the country continues to function. I quickly remembered the dark curtain of uncertainty, manipulation and the complete paralysis of the Nigerian state during Umaru Yar Adua’s illness and subsequent death. Tunisians have demonstrated to the world that a determined people can make a country function even in the absence of an elected or a self-imposed leader.

As a Nigerian and a Sub Saharan African, I could only admire the determined spirit of Tunisians to make their country a better place. I made a mental comparison between Tunisia (which I was visiting for a second time) and Nigeria. Tunisia has the infrastructures that will keep Nigerians happy for a very long time – they have exactly what we yearn for – good roads, stable electricity, water supply and planned urban and rural development. Nigeria has the wild liberty particularly in freedom of associations that will keep the Tunisians happy for a very long time. There is some degree of unity among Tunisians, whereas this is an abstract concept in Nigeria. Nigeria has weak state institutions while Tunisia suffered under sycophantic ones. In both countries, the state institutions prioritize the desires of the rulership rather than the aspirations of the citizens. Both countries suffer from high level of unemployment among its youths. However, Nigeria largely surpasses Tunisia in the corruption index. Nigeria appears to have all the right conditions for a revolution.

But can a people-led revolution, as was the case in Tunisia, ever happen in Nigeria? It is most unlikely. The Nigerian rulership enjoys and exploits the ethnic, lingual, religious and political differences which characterize the Nigerian citizenry. The Nigeria project is absent in the vision of the average Nigerian; it is doubtful that the Nigerian rulership also has any notion. No Nigerian ruler has ever stated clearly, verbally or written, what is his vision for Nigeria.  Thus, if perchance a revolution happens in Nigeria, it will come in the form of different groupings (ethnic most probably) fighting among themselves rather than a united front against the rulership and its failures. It will be a “revolution” to “disappear” Nigeria as a nation-state and not to improve it.

As I boarded my plane out of Tunisia, I felt a sense of pride and a sense of loss. Sense of pride because the spirit of the people, the collective will, which underscores a nation-state has prevailed against a tyranny in Tunisia. Sense of loss, because this collective will is absent in the Nigerian space. The spirit is alien to us.
And God knows we badly need some collective psychotherapy!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Quite apt! After 24 hours of attempting the revolution, all the rogue politicians have to do is fabricate a story and send it out through sms. Nigerians will use their own money to kill the revolution by themselves!! Abimbola, I feel your sense of loss!!!