By Reuben Abati
Turkey is about five hours away from Nigeria by air, about 2, 634 miles from here, but the night there was a coup attempt in Turkey, July 15, with soldiers shutting down parts of Ankara and Istanbul, you’d think Ankara is a city somewhere in Nigeria and Istanbul is an extension of our country. Commentaries kept flying up and down on Nigeria social media space, with the coup attempt in Turkey becoming a trending topic. And yet the strongest connection between Nigeria and Turkey is probably trade, tourism, socio-cultural affinities, and the fact that many Nigerian travellers now find it easier and cheaper to travel through Turkey to other European capitals, with Turkish Airlines making all the profit and no Nigerian airline on that route! Still, if Turkey finds itself in a bad shape, as it has, that is not likely to affect the already sorry fortunes of the Naira or the forbidding cost of food items in Nigerian markets. On Friday, many Nigerians stayed awake and projected their own worst fears unto the Turkish situation.
By way of summary, there was among the Nigerian commentators an all-round condemnation of any attempt to upturn the Constitutional order either in Turkey or anywhere else in the world. When it was reported that a former Turkish President had remarked that the coup will not stand, because “Turkey is not Africa”, (former President Abdullah Gul actually said Latin America), there was also a feeling of outrage. How dare he make such a racist comment in the midst of such a serious situation?
When President Recep Tayyip Erdogan took to Facetime on his mobile phone to get himself onto television, and he pleaded with the Turkish population to take to the streets to resist the coup makers, and his call was heeded, not a few commentators at this end wondered if Nigerians would have answered such a summon to patriotism and whether or not religious and ethnic sentiments or the fear of being shot to death would not have kept the people indoors. Concerns were also expressed about the fate of Nigerians living in Turkey in the event of a blowout at the crossroads of Europe. By Saturday morning, the coup had failed. Erdogan was significantly back in control. About 200 persons had died, and over 2,000 persons were recorded as injured. As I monitored the situation in Turkey and the reactions in Nigeria, I was struck by how so much can be learnt from the strong interest that the failed coup attempt has generated among educated Nigerians.
Nigerians know what it means to have a constitutional order derailed by military intervention. Between 1960 and 1999, Nigeria moved from one form of military rule to another, characterized by obstinacy, and absolutism, experiencing only short spells of civilian rule. Similarly, the military in Turkey have since 1960 intervened directly at least four times (1970, 1971, 1980, 1997). And in all instances, the Turkish coup plotters always claimed that their role was to restore order and stabilize the country. This is a rhetoric that is quite familiar to Nigerians. Every military coup is justified on messianic grounds. In the latest onslaught in Turkey, the plotters claim they want to establish a “Peace Council.”
Between 1993 and 1999, Nigerians fought the military to a standstill, insisting on a definite return to civilian rule and the institutionalization of democracy. Sixteen years later, the democratic spirit is well established among the people, if not the Nigerian leadership elite. The people have seen what a demonstration of people power can achieve: they used it to get the military out of power, they relied on it to insist that the Constitution be respected and obeyed when a President died in office and certain forces did not want his successor to get into office, and again, they have seen people-power at work in removing a sitting government from power. Right now in Nigeria, to toy with this power of the people in any form is to sow the seeds of organized mass rebellion.
Not surprisingly, in the past few years, every display of the people’s supremacy in other parts of the world has attracted either interest or a copy-cat instinct among Nigerians. First, there was the Arab Spring, which resulted in calls for the Nigerian Spring, which later found expression in the politically motivated Occupy Nigeria protests of January 2012. And now from Turkey, the major point of interest for Nigeria has been in my estimation, how the people took to the streets to confront soldiers. The coup failed in Turkey because it lacked popular support. Turkey has for long been considered an embarrassment in Europe. A successful coup in 2016 would have put the country in a worse shape and done further damage to the country’s reputation. The people stood up for their country, not President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. They stood up for an idea: The idea of democracy. The three major political parties disowned the coup. Mosques called on the people to go to the streets and fight for democracy. Even Erdogan’s critics, including the Kemalists and the Glulenists, denounced the coup plotters. The images that came across were images of the police confronting the soldiers and disarming them (This was intriguing- can anyone ever imagine the Nigeria police protecting democracy: they would have since collected bribe from the coup plotters, there is massive corruption in Turkey too but their police fought for the nation). Ordinary citizens lay down in front of the coup plotters’ tanks and asked to be crushed; brave citizens disarmed the soldiers and took over the city squares.