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The Power of Protest: When Challenging Bad Governance is Justified

The Power of Protest: When Challenging Bad Governance is Justified

The Power of Protest: When Challenging Bad Governance is Justified - Afrocritik

It is reasonable to assume that as humans continue to be dissatisfied with their unique situations, protests will remain a ready tool.

By Chimezie Chika 

Why is Protest Important?

No truer words were uttered than when the great African-American human rights activist, Martin Luther King Jr, declared in one of his speeches that “every man of humane convictions must decide on the protest that best suits his convictions, but we must all protest”. In the bare anatomy of this splendid statement, there is a foregrounding of the importance of protest as an act which is so physically disruptive but yet so integral to humanity. An act of protest, in any form, is at its core an objection to a status quo. It may be that the particular status quo negates the expectations of a group of people and is therefore undesirable at that given point in time, or that the particular state of affairs has driven people into despair, to the extremities of a situation in which they can do nothing else except to speak out. In many ways, an act of protest is motivated by a disconnect between expectation and result. Scholars Andy Lavender and Julia Peetz in their paper, “On Protest”, reveal something instructive about protest. According to them, protest is devoid of purpose when it lacks meaning. This implies that protests come out of a strong impulse to express dissatisfaction. In short, there is always a purpose to it. 

Protest only happens where there is a dysfunctionality; its very forceful nature is designed as an affront to the architects of dysfunction, corruption, and all forms of systemic injustice, from racism to government malpractice and tyranny. Humans seek to build, to organise, and to substantiate leadership through contractual expectations of give-and-take; for example, people pay taxes to governments and companies in order to reap certain infrastructural or general benefits. Where these benefits have been destabilised or taken away, protest becomes possible. It is therefore in the very nature of humanity to seek redress through protest. It is a fact of human consciousness that one ceases to be cognitively aware when one fails to protest mistreatment in any form. As Nobel laureate, Wole Soyinka, notes in his book, The Man Died, “The man dies in all who keeps silent in the face of tyranny”. The Jewish Holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace laureate, Elie Wiesel, offers a similar insight in his Nobel lecture: “There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest”.

History has proven how protests can be used to amend wrongs in the most dynamic of ways. Successful protests in history have proven that the panacea left for people in dire situations is to express their grievances through forms of protests that are best suited to their peculiar dilemmas. In the largely democratic modern world, protest is usually formally directed towards the government by the citizens. The main reason for this is usually the failure of the government to address pressing issues. Because democracy has made the superintendence of the desires of the majority possible, no single individual or entity in a democratic dispensation has the sole power to hold people in thrall. The opinions of the majority should always take precedence. But even in cases where majority attitudes have been manipulated through populist rhetoric, through force or other means, allowances must be always made for people to reject that willingness. Here then is the importance of organising social systems around active groups such as trade unions and co-operatives to foster solidarity and oneness of voice. When that majority voice speaks or protests, authority is bound to listen or, at least, react. 

The Power of Protest

One relevant reason why protest is important in a democratic dispensation is to express dissatisfaction about a poor-performing government, to keep the government’s shortcomings in check, and to — if the need ever arises — to depose a failed government through democratic processes or more radical means. Psychologically, protests are testaments to the indestructible human spirit: despite their volatile history (cue China’s Tiananmen Square Protests of 1989 and Sharpeville Massacre in South Africa in 1960 or any of the others), the violent ways in which different political authorities across the world have responded to them, protests have continued to take place. It is reasonable to assume that as humans continue to be dissatisfied with their unique situations, protests will remain a ready tool. Directly or indirectly, too, many of these protests draw tremendous inspiration from the different successful protests that have taken place in Africa and beyond. 

The Power of Protest - Afrocritik
Sharpeville Massacre | Getty Image

Throughout history, humans have been known to express their grievances by resorting to various physical actions (civil demonstrations, verbal remonstrance, and sometimes outright wars) when their expectations are not met by people in authority. One of the earliest recorded instances of protest emerged at the end of the Middle Ages in Europe. In 1507, a young German Catholic priest known as Martin Luther began to protest some of the practices of the Catholic Church — the only church and the most powerful institution on earth at the time — and the absolute power of the Pope. He published Ninety-Five Thesis, a book in which he rejected in large part the teachings and doctrines of the Church. By 1520, Pope Leo X demanded that Luther retract his claims against Catholic doctrine. When Luther refused, he was excommunicated from the Church. What popularised Luther’s teachings was his method: he made his views public by tacking sheets of paper in which he wrote down his “heresies” in public places. His protest against Catholic doctrine was therefore seen as a public confrontation. In 1529, twenty German nobles came together and issued the Imperial Diet at Speyer over the ban of Martin Luther and his works and teachings, and requested the free spread of evangelical faith. These nobles and their representatives became known as the “protestants” — a word that comes from their formal act of protesting against the monopoly of the Catholic Church — and the followers of Luther’s teachings were known as Lutherans. Thus Protestantism in Christianity was born. 

This powerful history of protest in Christianity against Catholic hegemony set the tone for not only the widespread use of the word but also for the very practice of it and the meanings attached to it. Protesting became a formal registration of discontent, as it were, and by its very nature, was largely seen as civil disobedience against constituted authority, especially of the nonviolent type. This type of protest gained ascendancy during the many independence and civil movements of the first half of the twentieth century. 

Perhaps no figure represented this type of protest as successfully as Indian nationalist Mahatma Gandhi did. Gandhi’s principle of nonviolence gained popularity due to its emphasis on less combative methods of expressing civil dissatisfaction. Known in Gandhi’s philosophy as Satyagraha, its methods were important in the struggle for Indian independence. On several occasions, Gandhi embarked on prolonged fasts, peaceful marches, and official boycotts of the British Raj. Some of the most successful of these actions include the Salt March of 1930, the 1932 fast against the segregation of the Untouchables, while still being imprisoned by the British Viceroy, and the 1947 fast that ended the Muslim-Hindu riots in Calcutta (now Kolkata), amongst others. Gandhi’s influence extended to early twentieth-century South Africa, just before the formation of the Union of South Africa in 1910, where he first introduced the tenets of the nonviolent approach to protest in the Indian resistance, both during the Anglo-Boer War and afterwards. 

While Ghandi’s nonviolence undeniably influenced later protest leaders such as civil rights activist, Martin Luther King Jr, its methods eventually proved unsuccessful in South Africa during the Apartheid. By the late 1960s, Nelson Mandela and his ANC associates took the decision to pivot into armed resistance with the establishment of a militant arm of the ANC, uMkhonto we Sizwe. Even when these moves finally led to the long incarceration of Mandela, it could be argued that ANC’s revolutionary resistance proved successful when Apartheid eventually ended in 1991. 

Between the 1950s to the 1970s revolutionary resistance, an extremely violent form of protest, seemed to be the choice go-to in Africa and the rest of the Black world. Its earliest organised example in Black history can be found in the Haitian Revolution (1791-1804) led by Toussaint l’Overture. In the latter years of the last century — and especially as a result of the rise of Marxism and communism — several independence and self-determination movements in Africa turned into violent protestations since other methods were not yielding the desired results. In a personal sense, such violence, when self-inflicted and directed toward a course, can have strong emotional resonance (for example, Bruce Mayrock, an American student who set himself on fire in front of the UN headquarters in New York in 1969 in protest over the war in Biafra). In the more general or collective sense, the methodologies employed are guerilla-like disruptions of peace as seen in the Mau-Mau Resistance in Kenya. Led by the very radical Dedan Kimathi in the 1950s and early 1960s, the Mau-Mau caused the British colonial government a lot of trouble. The defining violent protest of French colonial rule in Africa is the Algerian Revolution, a struggle that has gained some significance due to the revolutionary rhetoric of Martinican intellectual, Frantz Fanon, in his book, The Wretched of the Earth

Northern Africa is no stranger to protests that tread a thin line between civility and violence. The most recent example is the widespread Arab Spring of 2011. In truth, and never for the best, most modern protests in Africa and elsewhere degenerate from peace to violence. In most of these cases, the violence is often enacted by the state. Suffice it to say that there is an increased intolerance for civil disobedience, yet it is clear that humanity will always resist in situations where it feels slighted. 

Other forms of protests may be less physical but channelled through artistic forms without lessening their relative impact. Artistic mediums such as music, literature and fine art can also be used for protests. To wit, history provides fitting examples in Africa. In South Africa in particular, music was a big part of the anti-Apartheid resistance. Miriam Makeba’s 1977 “Soweto Blues” became an anthem of the Soweto Uprising. “Bring Him Back Home” a song by Hugh Masekela (who was also the songwriter behind “Soweto Blues”) protesting the imprisonment of Mandela was widely adopted during the anti-Apartheid struggle. Popular South African reggae musician Lucky Dube had a discography heavily skewed towards anti-Apartheid songs. 

Fela Kuti, perhaps the most intrepid protest musician to emerge from Africa, constantly released trenchant music in the 1970s and 1980s through which he expressed anger and disaffection against political leaders in Africa, particularly against the iron-handed military dictatorships in Nigeria at the time. In his song, “Zombie”, Fela is at his most courageous. This courage and fearlessness played no small part in his frequent incarcerations at the hands of the Nigerian governments of the time. These restrictions and manhandling were also suffered by writers like Ngugi wa Thiong’o who protested political incompetence and corruption throughout his writing career. The reasons for Wole Soyinka’s own imprisonment (documented reflectively in his memoir, The Man Died) came out of similar political provocations. In fact, it has been thoroughly argued that post-independence African literature is inexorably protest literature on the basis of the colonial nature of its antecedents. As eminent Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe stated with characteristic sagacity in his essay, “The African Writer and the Biafran Cause”, “It is clear to me that an African writer who tries to avoid the big social issues of contemporary Africa will end up being completely irrelevant, like that absurd man in the proverb who leaves his burning house to pursue a rat fleeing from the fire.” This rationale applies in every respect to the very act of protest. It is, to put it gently, simply absurd not to protest an unfair situation with whatever tools one has available to one. 

Gripsweat - Fela Kuti Zombie CREOLE RECORDS EX/VG++t

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A Fundamental Right

Why is protest part of every cartilage of human existence? My first observation is that it is a result of acute self-awareness. The right to protest is recognised by international law through many other primary laws. Psychological research shows that the reasons for protests are not limited. Whatever the stimuli might be, what matters is that by instigating civil turbulence of some sort, an aggrieved or marginalised group can achieve the goals for which they had organised a protest in the first place

There are several cases where governments employ force or military might to try to quench protests. The recourse to violence is often attended by streaks of illegitimacy and totalitarianism. While this was previously a characteristic of dictatorships, we are beginning to see it even with civilian regimes in Africa, a prominent recent example being the Lekki Massacre in Lagos in October 2020.

It is 2024 and Nigeria is already pulsating with protests about food prices and mounting hardship due to a number of mitigable variables caused by poor economic management. Having seen that there seems to be no plan to cushion the effects of the hurtling inflation, the continued corruption, and the egregious incompetence of the government — there is too much going for any thinking person to keep quiet and not protest — Nigerian cities are beginning to fill up with impetuous crowds surging through the streets, holding placards aloft and screaming for these issues to be addressed.

But this is not a peculiarly Nigerian problem, for, as it stands, there is nary an African country today where protests of some sort are not going on. From the war ravaging Sudan in the North to the complex exploitation and corruption in the Democratic Republic of Congo, we see people all over the continent crying out for justice. Recent trends too have shifted protest patterns to more dynamic avenues of self-expression, especially with the tyrannical crackdown on protesters across the continent. Many protests in the last few years — from the Black Lives Matter movement to various environmental causes — have subsequently moved to the internet through the agency of social media, where they have nevertheless successfully impacted social, political, and gender-based issues. Though it must be noted that even here, with these uses in mind, government sanctions on social media usage have accelerated in Africa. 

But no amount of restrictions will significantly daunt the very basic human instinct of survival, from which the act of protest springs. When threatened in any way, we can always expect humans, in Dylan Thomas’ poetic phrasing, to not to go quietly into that good night; expect them to rage and rage against the powers that be. 

Chimezie Chika’s short stories and essays have appeared in or forthcoming from, amongst other places, The Republic, The Shallow Tales Review,, Iskanchi Mag, Isele Magazine, Lolwe, Efiko Magazine, and Afrocritik. He is the fiction editor of Ngiga Review. His interests range from culture to history, art, literature, and the environment. You can find him on Twitter @chimeziechika1.

Cover Image by George Dronov from Pixabay.

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