Faithful supporters have christened Goodluck Jonathan “hero of our Democracy”. What was his achievement? He conceded an election that he fairly lost. Following his election loss, it was not uncommon to see this title applied to him by Nigerians on the Internet and members of his own party. Even the members of the opposition labeled him a hero.
For a time, it seemed that Yahya Jammeh of Gambia had earned himself a similar title. For a time, he too conceded an election he fairly lost. Just like Jonathan, he was receiving lots of praise from world leaders. In that moment, everyone seemed to forget that this was a brutal dictator who had held on to power for over two decades.
Nothing demonstrates more clearly how low the bar has been set for Africa. These men sacrificed nothing. Handing over power after losing fairly is the least that should be expected from an elected official. It should hardly be something that grants hero status.
True heroism is marked by courage in the face of great odds and a willingness to sacrifice all. It is in this spirit that we must shine a light on the true heroes of Nigerian democracy. They are not politicians. Rather, these are people who have stood for ideals bigger than themselves and have sometimes paid the ultimate price. It is time to pay tribute to these great men and the sacrifices they have made. I offer no apologies to how parallel their stories sound.
Nnamdi Kanu is the true hero of our Democracy. He encapsulates the ideals of freedom of expression. No subject is so sacred that a free people should not be able to question. It does not matter if that subject is the sovereignty of the nation state itself.
Kanu has suffered persecution from the Nigerian government because of his beliefs. He spent almost two years in jail despite court orders for his release. Rather than change his beliefs, he has stuck with them. Regardless of what one might think about his agitation for secession via referendum, he has become the face of the eternal fight for people to be free to express themselves without fear of government oppression. Nigerian soldiers invaded his home recently and he has been missing since then. His movement has been labelled a terrorist organisation.
Ibrahim Yaqoub El Zakzaky, the leader of the Nigerian Shi’a Muslim minority, is the hero of our Democracy. He embodies the ideal of freedom of religion. Being the primary figure of a minority religious movement in Nigeria, he is a natural target. He is the face of the eternal fight for people to be free to practice their religion. No one is free until everyone is free to practice their religion or non-religion freely without fear of government oppression or violent attacks by adherents of other faiths. Despite being peaceful, his movement has been labeled an insurgency. Nigerian soldiers invaded his home and in the process murdered his family, including three children in cold blood. ‘El Zakzaky has been shot, beaten and jailed for at least nine years in different prisons across Nigeria’ – he is currently in jail.
The Biafran protesters are the true heroes of our Democracy. Without weapons to match the Nigerian military, they have repeatedly stood their ground against cowardly soldiers who use them for target practice. To the Nigerian state, a call for referendum is a call for war. To the Nigerian state, agitating for secession is equivalent to terrorism. Hundreds of them are killed at every protest. Yet, they bravely show up for the next protest.
The Shi’a are the true heroes of our democracy. In a region dominated by Sunni Islam, the Shi’a minority have faced severe persecution often with the sanction of the state. For instance, a state government has made it illegal to identify with the Islamic Movement of Nigeria, an umbrella body of about 5 to 10 million Shi’a Muslims. They have paid the price for their freedom with their blood. Yet, they continue to come out boldly in the streets defying the authorities and paying with their lives.
No one is perfect. This is not to say that the ‘heroes’ mentioned are without flaws. Who isn’t? However, these people and movements and the struggles that they fight represent something bigger than themselves (or their flaws). They are heroes because they are willing to stand against tyranny and oppression. For these, they are better than the best of us.
Author: Chijindu Ukagwu