By Ray Ekpu
For 13 days the youths of Nigeria took to the social media and the streets to ventilate their anger against a notoriously callous wing of the Nigeria Police called Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS). They piled the complaints with eye witness accounts, victims’ accounts, and accounts of their relations concerning extortion and violence perpetrated by some of these men and women. They were stories already known to many people including those in power. These daring young people put forward a five-point demand to be met by the government which was met surprisingly swiftly by the same government that had been sweeping such complaints under the carpet for the past three years. I saw two benefits at that point (a) a protest organised efficiently and peacefully by Nigerian youths, a clear departure from the violence that accompanied past protests.
(b) a government that was responsive and responsible enough to tackle the problems raised with unaccustomed speed. These two situations gave me the impression that we were on the path to a new era of democratic governance. Then unthinkingly someone had the insane idea that if soldiers were sent to shoot the demonstrators the problem would be solved. Whoever gave the order is not a student of history, national or global history.
In every circumstance, violence always begets violence and it was not different in this case. With the ratatat sound of bullets, unarmed peaceful protesters were wounded or killed. The silence of the night was shattered and so was our own peace as a people. After that, the protest developed a life of its own. The protest had the Chisholm Effect which states that when things are going well, something will go wrong. Something went awfully wrong. Hooligans took over the driving seat and torched private and public property in Lagos and several states. Looting became the prime motive of the hoodlums. Politicians of different parties also became targets of the chaotic rampage. Governments had to impose a curfew in their states to restore order to our shattered lives. There are several lessons that we all can learn from these activities which can hopefully help us in future.
Number One: All protests must have identifiable leadership otherwise it becomes an organised mob. It is the leader that must draw the line when acceptable concessions have been made by the other side. The stretching of the protest from ≠EndSARS to ≠Buhari must Go and ≠EndNigeria was unlikely to achieve those unachievable targets. That threw the protest into a tailspin.
Number Two: All protests must have limited targets that are easily achievable especially if they are against a leviathan like the Federal Government. The Federal Government of Nigeria is a huge elephant. If you have to eat an elephant eat it bit by bit. Don’t try to swallow it in one gulp. You will choke. That is the problem that ASUU is having today. Even though its cause is just it will soon lose public support when parents begin to ask why their children are kept at home instead of in school. If ASUU accepts what the government has offered it still has a chance to negotiate for the rest without giving the impression of wanting all or nothing, now or never.
Number Three: Protesters must always bear in mind that any mass movement can be hijacked because some people are bribe-able or purchase-able irrespective of the justness or otherwise of the cause. Saboteurs are always in our midst. If they don’t exist, partisan politicians always create them.
Number Four: The looting that occurred in many states was an indication that we are yet to grapple, on a serious basis, with the issue of grinding poverty. President Muhammadu Buhari has promised that the Federal Government will take 100 million people out of poverty within 10 years. Dashing people a few thousand naira may bring temporary relief. The long-lasting relief must come in the form of investment in capital development, entrepreneurship, new knowledge, and agriculture for the benefit of our youths. Those who looted in the last few days because of hunger can only eat their loot for a few days. They will be hungry again. If that hunger is not killed on a permanent basis they will loot again when the next protest takes place.
Number Five: The Nigeria Police Force may be your friend but note that any time you step out for a protest, democracy, or not, you must watch out for friendly fire. The Nigeria Police Force does not believe in the right of the people to protest, even if peacefully. That is why they always talk of police permits which will never be granted. They see any and every protest as a challenge to constituted authority and an attempt at regime change. Their training is for regime maintenance, right or wrong.
Number Six: This protest has proved that our youths have the well-being of our country at heart, that they have the knowledge that the country needs today, and the organisational ability to get things done. They even took a few steps ahead of those on the other side, hiring security and dogs to protect them. They showed us that they are capable of thinking outside the box. Why can’t we inject more youths into the cabinet and challenge them to solve for us the problems that haunt us like an inscrutable mystery. Mr. Sunday Dare, Minister of Youths and Sports is an excellent example of the creativity that a brilliant youth can bring to the table. Isn’t his stadium adoption approach to solving a problem that had been waiting for years to be tackled innovative?
Number Seven: If the government didn’t know let it get the message loud and clear: All the policemen and soldiers in Nigeria can never police Nigeria effectively except they accept the people as allies in security management. The truth is that the security operatives are few and far less than the UN approved ratio of at least one policeman to 400 people. Even if you have one policeman with a gun can he face 400 people? The point I intend to emphasise here is that the security forces must work with the people if they wish to succeed. It is the people who know their neighbours, their co-workers, their club members, etc. It is people who provide intelligence for effective security duties.
Number Eight: In this protest which was hijacked by some hoodlums, some politicians were targeted, their property torched or vandalised. This is a situation no sane society should condone. My sympathy goes to all those who were victims of this protest. But there is a lesson for the politicians arising from this untoward happening. The lesson is that no security operative can truly, fully, save you from the wrath of the oppressed. What can save you – and the society – is good governance for all; one that ushers in a better, a much better, society than the one in which we are now; you could see that the protesters were providing the phone numbers and email addresses of politicians and urging the people to harass them for reforms. They were also asking that the humongous salaries and allowances of legislators be slashed. Even if the protest is now over that battle for fair and commensurate remuneration for politicians and for a better society is simply a battle postponed.
Number Nine: While those who shot unarmed protesters at the Lekki Tollgate may be known or unknown soldiers the problem they wanted to solve was not solved. Instead, it brought upon us new problems that complicated the country’s problem locally and internationally. Those who killed those unarmed protesters may or may not be revealed. If revealed, they may or may not be punished. But their conscience will do the job for the rest of their lives.
Number Ten: This advice is for the political elite. It would be nice for them to know that no problem can be swept under the carpet for ever. From all corners of Nigeria, people have felt the asphyxiation that has come with the unitary system of government that Nigeria is running. They have said so loudly but apparently the government has failed or refused to hear them loud and clear. The ruling party did a roadshow throughout the country on the issue. The people told them loudly and clearly what they wanted. Until now there is no movement in the direction of making reforms. It is futile to think that people can be bullied into keeping quiet on a matter as crucial as the restructuring of this country into a workable entity for the good of all.
Number Eleven: People in power hardly ever remember that power is a divisible entity. No one person, or institution, or country has all the power in its hands. This protest has demonstrated that very clearly. While the soldiers, policemen, and politicians have their slice, big or small, of power others including protesters and hooligans have their big or small. That is to say, that power is multi-dimensional and its possession is democratic. Power must therefore be managed by those who officially have it in acknowledgment not only of its ephemeralness but also of its divisibility. That should create an ambiance of humility rather than arrogance but in our society power wielders prefer the romantic appeal of power because it is, as Henry Kissinger, America’s cerebral former Secretary of State said: “the ultimate aphrodisiac.”
Number Twelve: Most of the protesters, supporters, and saboteurs did not wear their face masks throughout the protest period. We should all brace up for a surge in the figures of the COVID-19 pandemic victims in the days to come. Whether or not anyone thought he won the protest war, it will all amount to pyrrhic victory if coronavirus shows us its fangs more menacingly in the foreseeable future. No bullets will kill that one.