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#EndSARS: Nigerian youths come of age, but…


Idowu Akinlotan

It is unlikely that EndSARS protesters or the government ever envisaged the intensity and tenacity of the protests convulsing many states in Nigeria over poor and repressive policing methods calcified by decades of misrule. In the past few years, as the repression worsened and policing decayed, and insecurity became unmanageable, the government had enough time to anticipate a crisis of confidence between the government and the people, a crisis capable of truncating democracy, instigating chaos, and even fracturing the country. But there was no anticipation. Worse, when the protests began, perhaps inauspiciously and inchoately, the government thought that a few timely concessions would mitigate the discontent against the police. Bucking the trend, however, and surprising themselves even, the mainly youth-led protests have displayed maturity and organisation fired by modern gadgets, and lasting much longer than anyone ever guessed practicable. Nigerian youths have seemed to come of age.

For more than two weeks, the protests have demonstrated staying power and won significant concessions, including the dissolution of the hated anti-robbery unit, Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS). Though the protesters, whose age group is expanding as their demands have become elastic, have surprised themselves and the world, and are gradually widening the focus of their action, the government has contrastingly exhibited confusion, panic and, even in the flurry of their concessions, incompetence. It became clear that as the protests lingered something tragic about governance in Nigeria was unearthed. Four times or so, SARS had been tinkered with on account of the squad’s blatant excesses and the people’s very audible groans. But four times and more, the squad had become even more flagrantly repressive, cocky about extrajudicial killings, and acted clearly above the law and the constitution. That the government and law enforcement were unresponsive to the anguished cries of the people is a reflection on their incompetence even more than their irresponsibility.

Now, the country has come to a sorry pass. And questions are being asked about just how the Nigerian government and the presidency are structured. The Muhammadu Buhari presidency has seemed to respond very quickly and uncharacteristically to the protesters’ demands, regardless of the continuing expansion of the list of grievances, but there has been neither convincing understanding of the dynamics of the revolt nor coherence of action and policies. Last week, this column addressed the beginnings of the EndSARS protests and concluded that changes would be artificial until the deeper structural problems afflicting the country were resolved. That conclusion still stands. For amid the welter of concessions, especially given the nature of Nigerian democracy and the cultural and political underpinnings of the country, change and reform would probably never be far-reaching enough.

The government had more than a four-year head-start to do something comprehensive about SARS after Amnesty International focused disturbing attention on it in 2016. But unable to draw a line between the unit’s acceptance in many northern states and its egregious and homicidal tendencies in most southern states, the government simply pussyfooted. This inability was a failure of governance and, more accurately, a reflection of the quality and empathy of the leaders. SARS began fairly well in 1992; but it soon morphed into a monstrous apparatus of repression, state murder and extortion. The danger is that as many states in the northern part of the country voice their support for SARS on account of their problems with banditry, thereby faintly painting the protest in ethnic and regional colours, the government may be tempted to embrace strong-arm measures to restore order to the streets. Northern governors have qualifiedly endorsed SARS, asking only for some tinkering with the police unit. Whatever judicial panels they set up will thus find little or nothing against the squad. Southern governors on the other hand, whose indigenes have borne the brunt of the squad’s atrocities, have insisted on radical change in policing even after the SARS proscription. If the protest does not end soon, a deeper polarisation may be exposed that is certain to complicate the effort to forge a great and stable country where justice drives life and politics.

The options available to the government to bring the ballooning protests to an amicable but just end are severely limited. The problem is beguilingly simple, but the solution is not so easy. They could wait it out and hope that the protesters will exhaust themselves as the government begins to implement all the reforms desperately enunciated last week. The country’s economic condition is in a precarious state that it is unlikely to enable a long revolt, especially as schoolchildren return to school this week and the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) theoretically reaches an agreement with the government. If nobody does anything stupid to provoke the other, the combatants may soon declare victory and move on. After all, the protest has been largely successful.

But there is also the option of military deployment to disperse the crowd. If the government considers this measure, they will have to throw this dice with the bravado and bluff of a poker player, and gamble that the crowd would melt before the overwhelming force of the military. So far, according to some reports, the government has resisted this option, fearing that unlike the genocidal state violence against Shiites that led to the killing of hundreds of sect members, killing a few protesting youths, many of them students, may potentially become an incendiary that would cause a major conflagration, render the Nigerian government a pariah, and expose military leaders and their families to global sanctions. They would be extremely courageous to embrace this option holistically. If at all, they might embrace the option in a modified form by forcing the roads and highways open and leaving the protesters to go on with their demonstrations, feastings and carnivals. They would, however, require the most exquisite balancing act, which they are not reputed to possess, to pull this option through without any miscarriage.

The bigger onus rests with the Buhari presidency to dig deep and find the magic wand to outlast and outmanoeuvre the protesters, many of them gifted techies even by global standards, most of them having nothing to lose, and nearly all of them surprised by just how effectively they have organised their revolt and achieved phenomenal success in a few dizzying weeks. The presidency has been gobsmacked by the swiftness and suddenness of the revolt, and are unsure whether the protest is spontaneous or sponsored, but it is nevertheless deeply alarmed. It fears that if its response is mismanaged, the protest could spiral out of hand and lead to an overthrow of the ancien regime, a goal seemingly not too far out of reach as the youths expand their demands from five to seven. The protesters have suddenly begun to realize that the old patrician order of governance, upon which the Nigerian government has rested for decades, particularly under military rule, is both untenable and unsustainable.

In particular, the Buhari presidency may already be experiencing an epiphany that opens their eyes to the provocativeness and dysfunctionality of their many insular policies such as the Water Resources Bill, prejudiced grazing routes and rights policies, inappropriately nicknamed RUGA, and skewed security appointments. Indeed, if they are smart, they should also begin to see how fortuitously the protests have nudged them back to the path of governmental rectitude which a federal structure presupposes. The Buhari presidency will probably survive this protest if it does not do anything rash and bloody, not because it is likely to project the kind of wisdom the country pines for, wisdom it had both resented and scorned, but because of the complex and counterbalancing ethnic and political configurations of the country.

On their part, the youths may have grown up almost overnight, but the new power they have just tasted imposes more responsibility on them than they realize or are probably ready to shoulder. It is not clear why they are expanding their demands so capriciously, from a five-point demand to a seven-point demand, especially as they sense the government’s dilatoriness and weakness. But having been on the receiving end of police brutality and governmental impunity for decades, and having been constantly short-changed and wrong-footed for the better part of their lives, it may make sense to them to wring as many concessions as they can from a government they have dismissed as sightless and witless. But they must know that because the revolt is virtually leaderless and depends almost wholly on the unanimity haphazardly wrought from the social media, they stand the risk of overreaching themselves and unable to end a war they started so brilliantly.

Worse, because the EndSARS protest is leaderless, it is not impossible, as is already becoming evident, that some actors may unwisely be sponsoring and insinuating political agenda into the protests. If the protesters are unable to guard the sanctity of what began as a revolt against essentially law enforcement atrocities, the focus of the protest could become distorted and its objectives compromised. They seem sure this scenario is far-fetched. But it is not. Without a leader or group of leaders, they must now walk a tightrope of not making themselves available to be used to fight either the PDP or APC or any cause remotely partisan, whether overtly or covertly. The protesters themselves are spread across political parties. Given the dynamics of the protests and the difficulty involved in divorcing the cause of the protests from politics, it is not entirely assured that if the protests linger for a little longer, their objectives would not be stealthily compromised.

Already, many northern states have indicated that while they sympathise with the protests in the south and denounce law enforcement excesses, their priority is not the abrogation of SARS. Their priority is to end insecurity, and they think that regardless of what the south believes, SARS is indispensable to ending that menace. By widening their demands from five (#5for5) to seven, thereby including grievances that involved political and legislative issues, the brains behind the EndSARS protest risk diluting their objectives and opening a chasm between them and their northern compatriots. It is a dangerous opening the government may soon exploit to maximum effect. The socio-political aspects of the protest, which is improperly couched as a campaign for good governance or #7for7, is essentially a long-standing problem intrinsic to the founding of Nigeria. If the founding fathers had a tough time forging a consensus among themselves on these issues, and successive governments and national legislative assemblies similarly failed, it is risky for the EndSARS protesters to imagine a few weeks would be more than enough to birth a great society to deliver on (a) Institutional reforms (security); (b) Cost of governance; (c) constitutional reform; (d) Education reform; (e) Health reform; (f) Youth development reform; (g) Public office reform.

As noble as these objectives are, it is an unwise dilution, of what is otherwise a great and impactful protest, to seek other social and political objectives from the ongoing revolt. The SARS menace was and still remains very real and alarming. The victims of police brutality and impunity are in their thousands. Some were maimed, some were raped, some had their lives either terminated extrajudicially or their livelihoods completely destroyed, and others were victims of horrendous injustice, so barbarous and so heinous that it is shocking a police establishment either indulged in these crimes or connived at them. The protest should be about these crimes against humanity, about exposing the police leadership structure that enabled these atrocities, and about how and why the government turned a deaf ear to the groanings and wailings of victims.

These goals, including tangential law enforcement issues, are achievable and are tantalisingly within reach if the protesters do not wander off into realms that will inevitably pit one part of the country against another, invariably divide the people along existing fault lines, lend the government an excuse to shirk its responsibility and falsely claim to be fighting for national unity, and give the romantic impression that decades of political injustice can be corrected with a few weeks of protests. That the protesters have won significant concessions does not also mean that their methods, particularly of shutting down major highways, have been welcomed or embraced by a majority of Nigerians.

However, Nigerians must be pleasantly surprised that a government that has seemed so sanctimonious and aloof, one that is sometimes lacking in empathy and decisiveness, can be rattled so easily and compelled to listen and make swift concessions. Much more, the country may now be assured that their youths, previously thought to be docile, have an admirable worldview, can call their souls their own, and can indeed be trusted to risk everything in defence of what they believe. But it remains to be seen how, after the protests, Nigeria will produce a much saner and ethical law enforcement organisation when the country itself remains unstructured, chaotic and unethical, and when the military, by presumptuously and needlessly issuing a statement on the protests last week, seems so embarrassingly ignorant of its role and place in a democracy.

It also remains to be seen whether this government or any succeeding government has learnt any lessons from the revolt, particularly in respect of the youths it has failed to educate properly and plan for. To curb the frustrations and alienation many Nigerians feel today, particularly among the youths whose participation in the ongoing protests is a logical progression from their state of helplessness and hopelessness, the quality of Nigerian leaders must be much higher than it is. But ultimately, the responsibility of putting competent leaders in office rests on the protesters and the people themselves, a task they cannot complete in one protest, given the country’s ethnic and religious variegation, but must keep working on if their society is not to disintegrate or fail altogether sometime later.

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