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#EndSARS and the endgame

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#endsars-and-the-endgame

Festus ERIYE

WHAT started as a simple, targeted protest against police brutality has collapsed into an orgy of mindless violence across the country.

Today, several states are under a curfew. Troops and anti-riot police squads have been deployed across the country. In many cities public and private buildings have been razed. The death toll in the last 24 hours is likely to be in double figures at the end of the reckoning.

We’ve learnt from past mass actions – whether it was the June 12 annulment agitation, the SAP riots or the many protests against fuel price increases since 1999, that at some point they spiral out of control of those who think they are running things.

You assume you’re are in control but you are really not. You can’t even guarantee the conduct of your supporters even if you had handed them a code of conduct manual. As for hoodlums and others who just see violent acts perpetrated in the charged environment as fun and games, you have no hold. It presents the government with rationale to step in with brute force – brandishing the good old law and order card.

Let’s be clear, the fresh-faced young men and women who kicked off these agitations were not throwing stones or starting fires. They were waving Nigerian flags, chanting, dancing and tweeting their frustrations. But the longer it lasted, even after the authorities had given them a sop, the more of a threat they became.

SARS was a small, clay-footed monster, swiftly sacrificed by those who created it, in a self-preserving act of appeasement. In quickly calling time on the much-hated police unit, the authorities thought they could buy time and defuse a phenomenon they couldn’t understand.

A government that has been so intolerant of minor protests like the Revolution Now ones before now, folded spectacularly with minimal push from the agitators. Nothing captures official nervousness as much as the rushed announcement of SWAT barely days after the protests started.

For government, the main challenge was how to restore normalcy, but it knew it couldn’t use deadly force. It would be messy and fraught with unknown consequences. This isn’t the world when Tianenmen Square happened and Nigeria isn’t China – a global power that can thumb its nose at everyone and get away with it.

While state and federal authorities dithered, looking for a solution that wouldn’t make them future candidates for International Criminal Court (ICC) trials, youths at the barricades and the unseen hands pressing their buttons, sensed they had the government on the ropes and pressed their advantage.

This was the very revealing and critical juncture that has brought us where we are today. The authorities were willing to end SARS and commit to police reform at their own pace. But the protest movement not only wanted these things activated at the speed of a tweet, they had moved on by brandishing a new shopping list of demands which the government wasn’t interested in.

The challenge for protestors was converting what had been a stunning success in terms of their achieving their original objective, into something broader – creating a new Nigeria of their dreams.

It’s like here’s this great platform, everybody jump on board! Come if your agenda is feminism, come if you want better roads, lower electricity bills, come if your beef is with federal lawmakers’ salaries, you’re welcome if you want regime change. That was the break point!

Police brutality was an issue all could relate to irrespective of faith, ethnicity or political conviction. But the moment the agenda went beyond that, the door was opened for introduction of our national poisons.

Slowly but surely agent provocateurs began spinning it as a North versus South opening salvo in 2023 presidential politics. For some it was a bid to kick President Muhammadu Buhari out of office through unconstitutional means. Yobe State Governor and interim head of the All Progressives Congress (APC) even suggested that advocates of restructuring could be fanning the flames.

I am less surprised by the way the narrative has swung, than by what it revealed of protest leaders who live on Twitter but know very little about the country they seek to change. They should have seen the ambush coming, instead they ran into it with eyes open.

Each side must now decide their endgame. How far do the protesters and their leaders want to go? They may not have a figurehead, but they have leaders. What is their exit strategy? Or is it a kamikaze movement that’s only interested in mutually assured destruction?

Is this about reforms or overthrowing the system that currently exists? What would they put in place that’s an improvement on what we have now?

Earlier, I referred to SARS as a small monster, the 60-year-old system that controls this nation is a hydra-headed leviathan that’s not going to be undone in a hurry. It took time to grow, it would take time to dismantle.

The protests have achieved so much in highlighting police brutality. They have done even more in rousing our disconnected political elite to the level of poverty and misery in the land. There is deep-seated frustration and anger that any wise government should not ignore – even if they manage to temporarily tamp down the chaos.

For the #EndSARS movement all is not lost. The young people driving it have shown that they have the capacity to achieve great things politically if they can learn from their mistakes. They must learn how not to squander public goodwill. The strategy of blocking roads only guarantees more suffering and frustration for those on whose behalf they claim to be fighting. Many no longer found the protests so entertaining when businesses began to suffer and livelihoods negatively impacted.

A little humility also doesn’t hurt. Don’t lecture people about how the additional suffering is for their own good. Let them buy into the sacrifice willingly.

People can always return to their demonstrations in a world where such long-running protests are now normal. The George Floyd/Black Lives Matter protests have been on for five months, those in Hong Kong even longer. We must overcome the shock of the new and get used to a new generation that wants to ‘soro soke (speak up).’

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