By Chidi Amuta
While protests are part of the lifeblood of a healthy democracy, their frequency can be a health check for a free polity. When a democracy stirs up numerous points of contention or indeed frequently evokes acrimonious dissent, it is either healthy and kicking or threatened and dying. A badly divided polity not only breeds protests in every direction, the protesting citizens soon graduate into factional mobs, each seeking to overwhelm the others. A land of clashing mobs is hardly a good place for the survival and growth of democracy nor a safe ground for social respite and economic progress.
Rewind to the onset of the Coronavirus health emergency in March 2020. The Nigerian government joined the rest of the world in declaring a nationwide lockdown. None anticipated the suddenness of the halt to normal life nor did anyone anticipate the duration of the lockdown let alone the extent of its economic impact. The closure of businesses and offices implied a sudden loss of order in major urban centres especially Lagos. There was also a disruption of livelihoods and social life as we have come to know it. Millions scurried indoors to avoid death by an unknown and unseen adversary.
A certain sense of communal empathy emerged in Nigerian urban centres. Emergency food supplies by governments and groups of better placed individuals were accompanied by generous donations of cash and supplies to support the less privileged. Even then, disorder soon erupted in places. Criminal gangs broke lose and began episodes of looting in highbrow parts of major cities. Gangs began notifying estates of their intent to raid and storm them in waves of violent robbery. Some celebrated the mayhem as the onset of the Nigerian Spring, a sudden sprouting of political awakening. The police was at first disoriented but quickly reorganized and intervened to calm the disruptions. The convulsion was mostly a hunger revolt energized by the subdued anger of poverty and inequality. In the process, the Nigerian urban mob discovered its disruptive power.
Rewind further to October 2020. The youth driven ENDSARS protests erupted and quickly spread to the consternation of Nigeria’s lax officialdom. A good cause protest powered by youthful entertainers and internet influencers quickly spread to major urban centres of the country. The protesters in a rare display of unanimity managed to keep their message of opposition to police abuse and brutality united and consistent for days. Spontaneously, a national consensus that had been lacking on nearly every issue was forged in a moment of anger and outrage. The mobs built up and gathered. Their anger went beyond police brutality. Hunger and inequality joined forces with political discontent to yield a fireball threatening to engulf the nation.
A democratically elected government that thought it had a popular mandate woke up to find itself and the nation overwhelmed by near anarchy. There was no time to resort to the instruments of conventional order or official blackmail. Government quickly dissolved the contentions rogue SARS unit of the police and replaced it with some strange animal called SWAT. That did not quite quell the riots and looting which had assumed a life of their own. Government cajoled the youth and promised a plethora of palliatives. The police was in temporary disarray. The army sensibly held its fire except at Lekki Toll Gate in Lagos. Major trumpeters of government propaganda adjusted their kaftans while looking for an appropriate spin. It was unwise to spin anything except to blame the social media and CNN. But at last, the mob had emerged as a militant force of public opinion in Nigeria.
The public quickly conferred political meaning on the protests and gleefully celebrated the youth who had found the courage that had continuously failed their parents. Meanwhile, Nigeria’s gruesome poverty and inequality found an outlet in the protests. An orgy of lawlessness overwhelmed the previously peaceful protests. Prisons in selected cities (Benin and Lagos) were stormed and prisoners released. Warehouses, mostly with government Covid palliative supplies, were breached and their contents looted and shared. Shopping malls were equally invaded, looted and vandalized. For days, law enforcement was overwhelmed. A contrite police force dissolved into thin air. A frightened political class scurried away from centres of power and literally pledged support for the rampaging youth. Hail the mob. Welcome to the triumph of the people of the street!
Let us now fast forward to January 6th 2021. A different type of mob showed up at the Capitol in Washington DC. A motley of partisan hoodlums and dangerous miscreants invaded the US Capitol. They were directly inspired by Donald Trump, a democratically elected president who had just been defeated in a free and fair election in the world’s most advanced and celebrated democracy. The aftermath is still haunting America’s democracy and its estimation around the world.
The Washington mob demonstrated a different kind of disruptive mob power. Political dissent uncontrolled by civility and overwhelmed by the forces of order can yield a mob which erodes democracy and its underlying notion of order. The events at the Washington Capitol on 6th January may have shaken the world into a shocking reality. The world’s most accomplished and best advertised democracy was upset and almost toppled by an irate mob of extremists and terrorists. It raised the question of what happens to a democracy when it is assailed from within by mobs of its own making.
But mobs are older than democracy. It is in fact the collective urge to tame the wildness of mobs that compelled the emergence of the oldest democracies and organized societies. Athenian democracy and the Roman polis emerged out of the desire to discourage the citizens from resorting to mob processions to press home their desires. Mobs by their nature however have no way of being predictable. They are unruly, irrational and fired by passionate intensity. It is often the case that the left wing mob quickly transforms into the right wing sort. Therefore, no one can set the limits for mobs. They get out of control, assume a life of their own and plot their own irrational trajectory. Those who pose to lead mobs walk a dangerous path because the life of a mob is a vortex, forever sweeping away their leaders and gyrating from ‘Hail Caeser!” to “Nail Nero!” and from “Sai Baba” to “Buhari Must Go!”
The unstructured will of the people expressed in occasional mob eruptions, even in a democracy, needs to be controlled or regulated by the force of law, the constitution or at least the rules of civic engagement and orderly procession. Individual rights and checks and balances could decay with time and open democracies to mob lawlessness. At other times, the hunger for democracy and popular participation in the affairs of republics can give birth to mobs as in the birth of revolutions. But the momentum of spontaneous revolutionary uprising can degenerate into anarchy or invite a despotic crackdown. The French Revolution gave birth to the Reign of Terror and a season of purges and wildly celebrated decapitations. Napoleon came as a force of order that was never intended by the throngs that stormed the Bastille and decapitated king and queen in an orgy of revolutionary frenzy.
Democracy comes about in response to the hunger to tame man’s mob instincts. Democracy as some ordered mode of organization of society is an attempt to organize us away from the bestiality of nature and the spontaneity of mob eruptions; the Hobbesian imperative. Therefore, when democracies begin to decay, man returns to his bestial instincts in the form of mob behavior.
For Plato, democracies degenerate into anarchy as the poor plunder the rich and profligacy breeds bankruptcy. Lawless mobs breed and feed on anarchy which creates a desperate need for order and a hunger for the return of organization and civility. Tyrants rise to fill this need hence mob anarchy often leads to the rise of tyrants.
The tyrant appeals to the instincts of the mob because he appeals to and embodies their worst instincts and base nature. The tyrant and demagogue is the darling of the mob because he is the mob personalized. This accounts for the instantaneous popularity of all sorts of populist tyrants and authoritarian demagogues. Mobs in their quest for democracy and popular participation are often deluded into celebrating and heralding autocrats dressed up as democrats until they shed their disguise.
Democracy becomes mob rule when the rich and powerful hog the society’s wealth. Government itself becomes a mob of the rich that runs riot in its scramble for the loot of national wealth. Its actions become mob reflexes and they recruit others from the rabble to join the free for all festival of organized crime in the looting of national treasure.
The best way to stop a ruling class from transforming into a riotous mob of mindless looters and autocrats is to create a large middle class with a huge stake in stability and order. The middle class is calmed and recruited by access to creature comforts. Stable paid employment in industry or services guarantees access to creature comforts- mortgaged housing, leased automobiles, weekend shopping on credit cards, periodic family vacations, subsidized elite education for the children and domination of the popular media in a free exchange among free citizens. Throw in the little liquidity that puts butter, cheese and bacon on the breakfast table and the buy-over of the middle class is complete. The feeling of ‘rented’ satisfaction is what bribes the middle class into a sense of part ownership of the democratic republic and its sustaining institutions. Democracy in the form of periodic elections guarantees the stability which the middle class needs to enjoy these creature comforts in perpetuity and thus guarantees the stability of the polity. So, every democracy needs to consciously cultivate and sustain a middle class. This is the secret of the stability of Western societies after the overthrow of monarchies, the onset of the industrial revolution and the emergence of parliamentary democracy.
In the absence of a middle class as a stabilizing force, the political elite is at the mercy of the mob of peasants and the riotous urban poor. That unwashed mass degenerates quickly and often into a mob which could either promote an unqualified authoritarian ruler or tear him down in moments of hunger and frenzied anger. In such a situation, the alternative recipe for order would be to combine aristocracy and kingship to restrain the will of the people.
One way to engineer an autocracy from a democracy is to adopt policies that stifle or eviscerate the middle class, creating a chasm between autocratic leadership and the poor masses. There is then no intervening class that can ask questions, raise objections or express dissenting opinion. Under the guise of economic nationalism, the national interest, protectionism, isolationism and regulation, the determined autocrat reduces the thrust of national discourse to a defense of the ‘national interest’ as defined by his interest in power. In the process, the autocrat shrinks the frontiers of middle class privileges and weakens that class and deprives it of the power to hold the political leadership to account.
The emergent autocrat replaces the voice of the people with the monotony of his own voice, the master’s voice. Outright media clampdowns or disguised regulatory protocols that stifle the popular media are rolled out. Parliament becomes a rubber stamp conclave. The rule of law is replaced with the rule of lull through the appointment of pliant or outrightly incompetent judges ever willing to stand justice on its head to protect the interest of the ruling clique. The popular mandate which emplaced the rulers is mangled into a permanent stamp of approval for the reign of authorized terror.
Machiavelli added his devilish voice to the theory of mobs. For him, a clever prince can profit from the chaos of mob rule if he can weaponize the mob as a battering ram against a decaying regime. We see this in action with the French Revolution and, to a lesser degree, the American Revolutions. In more recent times, the Arab Spring provides one modern example where the Machiavellian principle was usurped by a mob powered by the new technologies of the social media. Mobs of youth and commoners armed with cheap cell phones and other internet devices massed out for weeks in public spaces to demand the exit of longstanding authoritarian figures. In Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Morocco, the Arab Spring secured the hasty downfall of these figures. Mubarak’s autocracy was replaced by a mob led Islamic Brotherhood party. Ghadaffi was ousted by a combination of Western air raids and local mobs only to be replaced by chaotic hordes of militias, factional war lords and fanatical terrorists.
There is nothing new about the role of mobs in a democracy or indeed any polity. Depending on where we are coming from ideologically, politicians and pundits acknowledge the presence and uses of mobs and of course call them by different names. When a mob destabilizes a reactionary or backward establishment, we call it ‘peoples power’ or ‘Arab Spring”! We praise them from the comfort of our homes in front of television screens. When the extremism of a conservative leader breeds a band of extremists who troop out to disturb the peace, we feel that democracy has been vindicated. It was mobs that thronged the grounds of the presidential place in Manila to sack Ferdinand Marcos and expose Imelda Marcos’s 1000 pairs of shoes!
But in general terms, mobs are an aberration. Yet they can be bred by the very forces of democracy. When the mainstream of a democracy tends to sidetrack the wishes of the majority, a popular mainstream gathers and soon erupts as an opposition mob. At other times, democratically elected rulers consciously breed friendly mobs in order to reinforce their hold on power by elevating their programmes into a cathechism or creed. Nazism, Trumpism, Bolshevism etc.
Similarly, the silent buildup of forces to oppose these hegemonic ideologies also breeds its own mobs. In America, the Democrats incited an anti-Trump mob that went by fancy names like “Black Lives Matter” to unseat the racist president. Either way, mobs behave the same way. They share the common trait of going out of control in brazen defiance of authority, law enforcement and order.
Public order is upset. The crowd gathers in the open spaces. Someone throws stones at nice shop windows. Another overturns a car and sets it on fire. Some others come up with placards that summarize the things that are wrong with the polity. Law enforcement is challenged and even overwhelmed. Authority is rattled and the pedestals of elected power are shaken. The mob derives its power from the momentum of separate spontaneous acts of cowardice dressed as courage.
Beside the conscious creation of a mob by an ambitious leader, democracy has a way of creating mobs by default. When they fail to deliver on the promises that brought them to power, democracies invite the disruptive power of factional mobs. When a democracy delivers poverty instead of prosperity, it unconsciously breeds an irate oppositional mob of the poor, the deprived and the alienated.
In all this, there are looming lessons for Nigeria. In recent times, Nigerians have found cause to frequently mass out in angry protests. Arewa Youth solidarity rallies in the northern states and Abuja. Yoruba Nation protests all over the South West. IPOB marches in Onitsha and Aba. Nigerian factional rallies in Pretoria, Washington, New York, Ottawa or London. The demonstrators are either tribal squads, separatist hotheads and diverse zealots of one inspiration or the other. Arguably, the last six years have witnessed more Nigerian protests, demonstrations and outright mob riots than at any other time since after independence.
Now, as political temperatures build up and divisive tendencies increase, the possibility that the tradition of protest and angry mob actions will grow to influence the 2023 general elections is increasing. Politicians are increasingly discovering their religious, regional and ethnic roots. In the process they are buying into the emerging mob temperament and configurations.
President Buhari’s cultic followership in the northern urban centres is becoming increasingly mob like as they troop out in throngs of “Sai Baba” mobs each time he visits. Any aspiring national political leader in the South West who runs counter to the current fad of the Yoruba Nation is likely to incur the wrath of a grassroots mob. I can also see IPOB mobs decreeing that general elections should not hold in parts of the South East. Either way, we cannot ignore the voice of factional mobs in the 2023 elections.
When a political elite becomes insensitive to the conventional forms of expression of public opinion, they make alternative expressions inevitable. Protesting groups of citizens are one thing; but incensed mobs fired by sectional spirits are another. A combination of desperate economic inequality and extreme political division has elevated protesting citizens into vicious and angry mobs in major regions of Nigeria. That is where the danger lies. A nation besieged by countless armed factions is heading towards an already contentious election season.