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#EndSARS protest: What lessons for Nigeria?
For nearly two weeks, angry youths took to the streets, blocking major roads across major cities, demanding an end to police brutality and the disbandment of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS). Deputy Political Editor RAYMOND MORDI examines the lessons of the protests and implications for good governance.
The “EndSARS” agitation started innocuously as a protest against the notorious Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) and police brutality generally, but it later metamorphosed into a movement to demand good governance. The campaign started early in October in the social media, but it hit the streets when young Nigerians gathered in the front of the House of Assembly in Lagos State to demand the end of the unit. Within days, thousands of protesters had gathered in 100 cities around the world, with the #EndSARS trending globally. By October 11, the government announced that it was disbanding it once again.
But, the protesters refused to give up the struggle and started calling for wider reforms. The situation later degenerated; some say the agitation was hijacked by elements within the political class. While it lasted, the protests received considerable backing of Nigerians at home and abroad, as well the support of the global community. International celebrities such as Twitter founder Jack Dorsey, United States’ rapper Kanye West, footballers Mesut Ozil and Marcus Rashford and others had backed the protests. British auto racing driver, Lewis Hamilton also threw his weight behind the protest.
The potent combination of street protests and social media campaign appeared to have given young Nigerians a voice that has shattered the country’s culture of deference. Indeed, the campaign for the disbandment of the special police unit started in 2017 as a Twitter campaign, using the hashtag #EndSARS. Unfortunately, the call for reform by concerned Nigerians and civil society organisations were only met with short-term solutions, which failed to bring any sustainable change to the police force.
But, many observers have decried the mayhem that followed the recent protests. In the aftermath of the protest, pandemonium was let loose; looting and destruction of public property and those belonging to some politicians have continued unabated across the country, as the police themselves have embarked on a subtle protest by keeping off the streets.
This development seems to have sent a strong message not only to the government, but to the entire political class that the current situation requires tact to prevent it from getting out of hand. The government’s response to some of the demands is commendable. It has pledged to disband SARS, set up of panels to investigate and prosecute erring police officers and promised wider police reforms. Another rare gesture is the public apology by Vice President Yemi Osinbajo, who admitted that the government had not acted fast enough to address young people’s concerns.
Beyond the above concessions by the government, what does the development portend for Nigeria’s political future? Lawyer and human rights activist Monday Ubani believes the development would teach politicians to come down from their high horse, to recognise that they were elected to serve their people. Ubani’s words: “My take is that the political class should be a bit more sensitive to the plight of the people they are representing. One can say that it is the neglect of the people over time that fuelled the anger of the youth that manifested during the protest. The lesson here is that the political class should change their orientation and their mode of governance, so that they can make the Nigerian people happy, just like politicians in other climes are doing to their citizens.
“The issue of creating employment opportunities for Nigerians is also very important. Closely tied to creating employment is the need to invest more in the development of our human capital, as well as our infrastructure. To realise the above objective, it is imperative to reduce the cost of governance. Almost 50 per cent of the annual budget is used to service the appetite of our political officeholders.
“Nigerians in general, particularly the youth must realise that they can change the face of governance. The tendency of standing aloof and not showing interest in who becomes the leader, thereby allowing the political terrain to be messed up by politicians must stop. We can change the face of governance by actively participating in the electoral process and ensuring that the correct leaders emerge from the local government, state and the federal levels.”
Ubani, a former Second Vice President of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), is optimistic that by 2023 “the young ones can chase out the current political parasites that are occupying the electoral space and bring in patriotic citizens that can run this country in the interest of every Nigerian”. He said: “What I am saying is, now that the young ones have realised that they possess the numerical strength, we should all close ranks and forget the primordial sentiments that the political elites have always used to divide us, such as the issue of ethnicity and religion, so that those who have the interests of the Nigerian people will emerge. This can be done by coming together and either adopting a political party or forming one, to ensure that they control the political machinery to ensure that those who have the interest of the country emerge at primary and general elections.”
Elder statesman and Second Republic politician, Alhaji Tanko Yakasai is of the view that the protest of young Nigerians can be said to have yielded positive results because the government has acknowledged that it has taken note of their demands “loud and clear”. He added: “Thus, every Nigerian is now expecting the government to take urgent steps to address the issue of unemployment and poverty in the country. Whatever the government intends to do, it should not be a whitewash thing; it should take concrete measures that would address these issues because that is what has been holding back the country in its bid to develop.
“For me, there are two important lessons we can learn from the recent protests and the mayhem that we are witnessing in its wake. One, the message of young people is that they are angry because there is no job. The way they went about their protest, they did not attack any personality, they did not destroy any private property except the looting of warehouses where COVID-19 palliatives were kept all over the country. The youths are aware that the palliatives were not distributed; hence their decision to storm the warehouses where the goods were kept.”
Yakasai also said some saboteurs within the political class must have capitalised on the peaceful protests to destabilise the country. His words: “Another lesson is that those who capitalised on the protest to unleash mayhem on the rest of Nigerians thought that their action would be the beginning of the end of Nigeria as a state. They must be disappointed with the outcome of the entire episode because they have failed. Even the young protesters have proved that they are patriotic Nigerians, who would not allow anybody to use them against their fatherland. The political class must recognise that the times are gone when young persons can be manipulated to achieve their selfish political gains. The young people all over the country did not act as a tool for any political party or politician; they merely expressed their grievances over unemployment and hunger in the land.”
The elder statesman said the attacks on businesses that are perceived to be associated with All Progressives Congress (APC) National Leader, Asiwaju Bola Tinubu must have been masterminded by the latter’s political opponents who are bent on tarnishing his reputation and that it has nothing to do with the protesting youths or hoodlums. He said: “I read that his television and his newspaper were attacked. In my view, political opponents must have taken advantage of the situation to try to undermine his reputation or standing within the political space to settle scores with him. It shows that Tinubu is a force to reckon with in the political arena. For him to be able to produce three governors after he left office is not a mean feat; there is no single individual that can compete with him in Lagos. That is enough reason for his opponents to want to destroy his legacy.”
A chieftain of the APC in the Southeast, Chief Chekwas Okorie, said what caused the protest is the lack of commitment by successive administrations, including the Muhammadu Buhari led one, towards reforming the police force. He said: “This continued for a long time until it got to a head. As is typical with most revolutions, what triggered the protests was an innocuous incident that took place in Ughelli, Delta State. Having said that, I must commend President Buhari for the swift response to the demands made by the protesters, by quickly addressing the one that could be done immediately and giving directives for the one that would take some process to be accomplished. If I had my way, it was at the point that the protest would have ended.”
At the end of the day, he said what began as peaceful and legitimate protests by the youths were hijacked by unscrupulous elements to cause mayhem. He said ethnic jingoists who tried to change the narratives, particularly in Lagos, Kano and elsewhere in the North, are the enemies of a united, progressive Nigeria because they sought to give the mayhem that came in the aftermath of the protests some ethnic colouration.
Okorie said poverty is at the heart of the problem and that a hungry man is an angry man. Data from the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) reveals Nigeria’s unemployment rate as at the second quarter of 2020 is 27.1 per cent. With this state of affairs, the APC chieftain is of the view that Nigeria is sitting on a keg of gunpowder and that the political class must take the bull by the horn, to put things the way they should be and heal the nation.
He added: “The political class must recognise that the era of nonchalance and vulgar display of ill-gotten wealth by them to the chagrin of the ordinary people is over. There may come a time when the youth would rise and vent their anger on their representatives. Look at what happened to Senator Ndoma Egba. Though he is no longer representing Cross River Central Senatorial District at the National Assembly, but his constituents showed their displeasure at his conduct over the years by vandalising his mansion in Calabar, carting away valuables before setting it ablaze. The hoodlums had earlier burnt down houses belonging to other sitting National Assembly members from the state, Sen. Gershom Bassey and Hon. Essien Ayi.
“On the other hand, the experience of Rabiu Garba, the Divisional Police Officer (DPO) at Fegge, Onitsha, Anambra State attests to the fact that good name is better than riches. Garba who is from Adamawa State has adopted Fegge as his home. He organises soccer tournaments for the youths of Fegge at their stadium where he also goes to play table tennis weekly. It is interesting that when rampaging youths came to burn his police division, he neither fought nor fled. His mere presence, unarmed, foiled the attempt to burn the station. They recognised him and dropped their weapons and started chanting his praises. It does not matter that he is not an Igbo person, but his good works are what is being celebrated everywhere.”
Public affairs analyst Prof Dele Fapohunda said the protest is an expression of age-long bottled ill-feeling against the ruling class, irrespective of ethnicity or religion. He said: “When social facilities are not available to law-abiding citizens, then the government is viewed as irrelevant and therefore each will embrace one-man governance. A major characteristic of one-man governance is force.”
He said the ever-increasing pool of unemployed youth is in itself a disaster which the so-called leaders pretend never existed, “as they drive their legitimacy by tokenism in the name of dirty gifts during electioneering”. As a result, the food safety expert said no Nigerian respects any promise from any government official.
For Fapohunda, the greatest lesson is that government at various levels has lost the trust of the people. He added: “In order to win the confidence of the people and give credibility to public service, public office holders must eschew the idea of going abroad for medical treatment; they would also have to stop sending their children abroad for schooling. They should also stop the practice of frequently travelling abroad on flimsy excuses. In fact, there should be no foreign trips throughout their stay in office and two years after that, except for purposes of bilateral engagements. Every public officer since independence has shown no genuine commitment to Nigeria. Indeed, they seem to swear to dismantle, dismember and destroy Nigeria.”
#EndSARS protest: What lessons for Nigeria?