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Takeaways from #ENDSARS
THE ENDSARS protests have come and gone. But they ended on a very sad note given events that trailed their closure albeit, abruptly.
First was the forceful dispersal and killing of some of the peaceful protesters at the Lekki tollgate in Lagos by men in military uniform and elsewhere by other security operatives. This quickly gave room for the hijack of the protests by hoodlums and sundry characters precipitating another wave of killings, burning and looting of government and private properties across the country.
Both events ruffled nerves culminating in denials and counter denials of responsibility. Mutual recrimination also had a field day between the government and the larger society on the propriety of deploying armed military men to quell peaceful protests such that resulted in the number of deaths that is now a subject of intense disputation.
But the protests and the controversial manner the government handled them have also brought in their wake, profound questions that touch on the raison d’être for the institution of modern governments. They raise posers as to the purpose of government and whether it is an end unto itself or a means to an end- public good?
And in attempting to answer these questions, the social contract theory of state comes in very appropriately. Though there are other accounts of how the modern state came into being and the purpose it came to serve, the social contract variant appears the most universally appealing because it best aligns with the nuances of modern democratic engagement.
In very simple terms, it conceives governance as a contract between the ruled and their rulers. Man in the state of nature, somewhat became dissatisfied with the atavism of that order described as nasty, short and brutish. In order to stave off the war of man against his fellow man, they resolved to give out some of their powers to a sovereign who will in turn protect and provide for them. But they reserved ultimate sovereignty for themselves since they are the ones giving out some of their powers for their collective protection and provision. Having given out those powers, they still retain the ultimate power to keep the sovereign at check and can withdraw it depending on their perception of its use.
It is this social contract theory that finds practical expression in modern democratic engagements through periodic, free, fair and credible elections. Through the periodicity of free, fair and credible elections, the ultimate sovereign- the people determine those to preside over their affairs. They are by this arrangement, ipso facto the ultimate holders of real political power.
Those who exercise political power do so, on their behalf and must always be accountable to them for its use. This relationship is brazenly assailed each time the collective will of the people is subverted through unwholesome electoral processes or anti-people decisions by those elected to superintend over their affairs.
We have gone this far in order to contextualize the dynamics of the #ENDSARS protests and some issues that arose from it. This is more so as the feeling one gets from the reaction of the government is that it is yet to come to terms with the reality that real power belongs to the people and that governments are agents of the people’s will. If that relationship had been clearly understood, perhaps, the arrogance of power or corruption of it evident in aspects of President Buhari’s last broadcast would have been substantially played own.
The president recognized the right to protests is constitutional. But while admitting his government’s acceptance of the five-point demand of the youths, he mixed up matters when he said “sadly the promptness with which we acted seemed to have been misconstrued as a sign of weakness and twisted by some for their selfish unpatriotic interests”.
The impression this conveys is that the government did the country a favour by acceding to demands of the protesting youths by disbanding SARS and promising police reforms. How doing the right thing should be misconstrued a sign of weakness remains largely confounding. But it exposes the mindset of those we elected to superintend over our national affairs. Statements of this nature convey the unmistakable impression that our leaders are yet to come to terms with the right mix in the relationship between the leaders and the led in a democratic engagement. They cast the government as an end rather servants of the people. Little wonder all the wrongs that have been going on in our governance processes.
We are contending with a law enforcement arm that was set up to protect the society from armed robbery and related violent crimes. But instead of rising to the challenges of their statutory duties, they became law unto themselves robbing and killing the very people they were supposed to protect. They levied spurious allegations against innocent people, sent some of them to their early grave and got official cover for such heinous crimes.
Yet, the government had the temerity to tell us in our faces that the protesters took the overdue disbandment of SARS as a sign of weakness. What can be discerned from this is that the government was not fully convinced that it took the right decision by accepting the demands of the youths. Otherwise, the claim of its ‘goodwill’ being taken for a sign weakness would have been totally uncalled for. But perhaps, unknown to authorities, the reluctance they saw in the reaction of the youths stemmed from lack of trust on promises from the government.
That was why the protests trudged on despite the disbandment of SARS with promises for police reforms. Even with the setting up the various judicial panels of inquiry by state governments, fears are that not much may come out of them. Such fears are easily reinforced by statements conveying the impression that the federal government did not quite accept the reality that disbanding SARS and police reforms are in the overall interest of the Nigerian people.
As pointed out in this column a fortnight ago, #ENDSARS is just a metaphor for all the systemic dysfunctions afflicting this unity in diversity. It is a clear rejection of the serial mindless looting of our commonwealth that has reduced our citizens to hewers of wood and fetchers of water, a rejection of the scandalous salaries and allowances paid to unproductive legislators and a rejection of a judicial system that has become a verity of Thrasymachus notion of justice-the interest of the stronger in a given state. It is a collective uprising by young elements dissatisfied with the continued frittering away of their future by uncaring leaders-a bold statement that there is a limit beyond which we cannot stretch the patience of the people. It denotes a clear signal that ultimate power resides with the people and that a people deserve the type of government they yearn for. Sadly, attempts were made by those who wish to continue manipulating the youths to inject the ethnic poison to what had turned out a national mass movement. These were the dialectics that activated the youths’ protests and it is gratifying the government admitted having heard the message loud and clear.
If that message was received very clearly as claimed, we should also presume that the objective conditions that precipitated the embarrassing looting of the so-called COVID-19 palliatives are clear testaments to the raging abject poverty in the land. Did I hear an aide of the president contending that the looting was not an indication that Nigerians are hungry? What else could it have been rather than a clear confirmation of the verdict of the World Poverty Clock that rated Nigeria the world poverty capital?
When government functionaries speak in this manner, the impression is that they are very far from the existential realities of the vast majority of our people. It is the same mindset that complicated issues on the devious activities of SARS until the centre could no longer hold. Such a mind frame is potentially dangerous and may have accounted for government’s inability to come to terms with the reality of the genuine demands and needs of the people.
#ENDSARS and the concomitant lootings are signals of the larger systemic dysfunctions of a malignant federal order. The issues are at the very heart of the survival of this country and only far-reaching reforms to substantially dilute the overwhelming powers of the federal authority can serve as a soothing balm. Anything to the contrary will amount to postponing the evil day. The protests provide yet another opportunity for the government to put its ears on the ground to tap the real mood of the constituents.
Takeaways from #ENDSARS