Talking Blues: The making of a revolution


Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi (26 October 1919 – 27 July 1980) was the Shah of Iran from 1941 to 1979. His reign was characterised by a pro-West orientation and autocratic rule.

Educated in Switzerland, he replaced his father, Reza Shah Pahlavi as Iran’s ruler when the British and Soviets forced him into exile.

It did not take long for the young Shah’s rule to be dogged by a power struggle with his premier, Mohammad Mosaddeq – who deposed him in 1953, only to be returned to the throne by British and US intelligence services in 1954.

While rapid modernisation and oil-field development programmes initially made him popular, his autocratic style, suppression of dissent, corruption, and unequal distribution of Iran’s new oil wealth fuelled public discontent.

As a result, opposition led by a broad coalition started growing and conducting demonstrations. This broad coalition, which included progressives, women and clerics, underestimated the strength and organisation of the Ayatolla, and before they knew it, Islamic slogans took over the demos and soon enough, women were asked at rallies to cover their heads.

In February 1979, the Ayatollah officially took power, and the revolution was declared over.

Meanwhile, a coalition of women was organising a commemoration in Tehran on 8 March 1979. On 7 March, Ayatollah Khomeini decreed that women were now mandated to wear the veil in government offices or — in Khomeini’s words — to not enter the workplace “naked”. As a result, what should’ve been celebrations turned into massive protests against the Ayatolla’s decree.

“Is this the freedom for which we all demonstrated and suffered? We didn’t have a revolution to go backwards!” said the women.

For six days straight, the women marched, fighting to take back their revolution, and a few days later, the high-ranking theologian Ayatollah Taleghani retracted Khomeini’s statements. With that apparent victory, the women’s mobilisation relaxed and fizzled out.

However, by 1981, it became compulsory for all women in Iran above the age of 9 to wear the veil. Other changes included gender segregation in the workplace, schools, beaches and sporting events. A slew of new laws governing divorce, child custody, inheritance, citizenship, and retribution followed, all tipping the scales against women.

And lo behold, the vital role the women played in ousting the Shah notwithstanding, they found themselves at the wrong end of the revolution they had helped ferment!

Allow me to digress.

In 1983, Thomas Sankara – a charismatic reformer and a Marxist authoritarian often referred to as Africa’s Che Guevara who gave Burkina Faso its name, which means “land of honest people”, rose to power at the age of 33 in a coup led by junior army officers.

Once in control, he made efforts to dramatically reconfigure social and economic relations in his country’s conservative society. His aims were eliminating foreign debt, attaining food self-sufficiency, and curtailing the influence of the French, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Bank.

He also focused on improving literacy, achieving high vaccination rates for children, reducing the power of wealthy ethnic and village elites, redistributing farmland to the poor, increasing agricultural production, fighting desertification, and cutting public officers’ salaries and perks.

Although he is most remembered for his modest salary and lifestyle, his boldest and most forward-thinking reforms were his pro-women policies and programs where he:

• encouraged girls to finish secondary school and earn income,
• introduced voluntary family planning programs, and
• required schools to allow pregnant students to return to finish their education.

Long before attention to women’s rights became ‘fashionable’, Sankara’s government had:

• outlawed female genital mutilation, forced marriages, and polygamy.
• appointed women to cabinet positions and other top government posts, and
• mandated women’s participation in village governing committees.

He was also the first African leader to recruit women into the military.

Sadly, Sankara’s is another revolution that ended badly.

He was toppled on 15 October 1987 by Blaise Compaoré, his closest friend and loyal cabinet member. (After seizing power, Compaoré rescinded Sankara’s initiatives, including his regime’s most progressive social reforms and up in flames went Sankara’s vision).

Let’s digress some more.

Six years after the democratic revolution of 25 January 2011, a military officer – President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi – was installed as Egypt’s president after a dubious election. Sisi, former army chief during the 2013 coup, initially peddled his ascendency to power as the only way to end the threat of terrorism blamed on the ousted President Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood.

Backed by the Army, Sisi presented himself as the ultimate guarantor of restoring stability and improving the living conditions of the majority. Within this context, vast segments of the population, especially those opposed to the democratic opening, supported the coup and saw in Sisi, a saviour in uniform.

This illusion did not last long.

Back here in Malawi, two years or so after the “2020 revolution”, ruling Malawi Congress Party (MCP) stalwarts still:

• abiding in the socio-economic sphere where most ordinary Malawians live,
• buying their goods and services from markets frequented by ordinary Malawians,
• patronising hospitals which ordinary Malawians use,
• sending their children to the same schools that children of ordinary Malawians go for an education, and
• earning their keep the same honest way that most Malawians strive to,

largely agree that under President Chakwera’s leadership, many Malawians are suffering.

Conversely, proponents of the same MCP but living in an alternative reality and most likely earning their keep in ways they cannot explain are oblivious to Malawians’ suffering. On the contrary, some even claim that things have improved despite evidence pointing otherwise.

However, the truth is that the promise of prospering together and many other pledges have proved elusive, not because of Putin’s war in Ukraine but for two reasons.

The first is that MCP and its leadership have lost touch with the masses. Those at the top are so insulated from prevailing economic hardships that they have forgotten how it feels to be poor.

They can no longer see or appreciate the poverty they knew too well and first-hand before going into government (kulowa m’boma).

The second one is corruption.

As such, the “2020 revolution”, rather than producing fruits for the majority, has proved to be just:

• as useless as was the 1979 Iran Revolution that ousted the Shah for Iranian women,
• as fleeting as the Sankara revolution in Burkina Faso, and
• as frustrating as the Arab Spring revolution in Egypt.

This poses questions galore: Why? How? What comes next?

Three things are clear.

The first is that we either have a follower for a president or an indecisive leader. Let me elaborate using Violet’s deployment to the Malawi High Commission in the UK.

Do you remember the president unambiguously telling a BBC reporter and repeating the same on arrival in Malawi that “Violet mwana wa Lazaro” is going nowhere ONLY to be overruled by someone he appointed?

Was that, in President Chakwera, leadership or followership?

Second, unlike when he was Leader of Opposition, President Chakwera no longer cares for Malawians’ woes nor bothers to understand how deeply the economic malfunctions under his leadership are hurting them.

Third, most Cabinet members – even after the reconfiguration – are out of their depths.

While these three, on their own, are enough to bring down a government, corruption is like fuel to the chaos. In fact, the corruption alone has the potential to motivate Malawians to conjure and sustain yet another revolution to reclaim their stolen revolution.

After all, don’t the Chewa say, “Wakufa sawopa kuwola?”

My take is that President Chakwera’s actions or inaction in the next few days and weeks vis-à-vis the Sattar Saga now gaining momentum will determine whether or not yet another revolution is on the cards in Malawi. One thing is clear: continued denials will only add fuel to the fire.

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