OpinionSteve Nwosu

#ENDSARS: A Familiar Narrative, By Steve Nwosu

In a day or two from now, I expect  government will fully roll out the tanks to finally

Steve Nwosu
Steve Nwosu

crush the about-two week old #ENDSARS protests rocking the country. And the government action would be ‘justified’. Lawlessness has set in. The ‘protesters’ have physically attacked two governors. Police stations have been torched in Edo, there has been a prison break, the office of the Lagos State Rapid Response Squad (which, painfully, is one police formation many Lagosians can attest to their professionalism and efficiency) has been attacked, violence has broken out in Abuja, Lagos and many other states and the protests have increasingly become unruly. Pro- and Anti-SARS demonstrators are daily clashing, and some lives have already been lost, with so many injured. A national economy that is just reopening, after several months of Covid-19-induced lockdown, has been forced into another shutdown, as workers and business owners are forced to stay home as a result of barricaded streets.

There is tension in the land. The police are confused, not knowing whether to move against the protesters or stay off, as anything they do now can and will be used against them when time comes for stock-taking. And as government would readily parrot, no government worth its legitimacy would fold its hands and watch things degenerate to such a level.
 It is, therefore, a call to action. Edo State government has been forced to impose a 24-hour curfew on Benin-City. Lagos has closed down all school. Curfew is expected any moment. Soldiers have been ordered into the streets in Abuja, even though Army Chief Tukur Buratai would swear by his bayonet that he’s carrying out a pre-scheduled Operation Crocodile Smile exercise.
But then, the situation is not as straightforward as this narrative would have us believe. Far from a case of protesters losing their heads and deviating from the path of peaceful protest, what we have today is a case of government, through subterfuge, engineering a seeming departure from the actual to the contrived.
 Not a few people are in doubt that government has no hand in the turn of events. It began with politicians accusing and counter accusing themselves of bankrolling the protest. Many had even alluded it was a hidden agenda to sack President Buhari, even though the protesting youths bluntly refused to accept any support from known politicians, turning back their trucks of food and drinks sent for use of the protesters. Even as celebrities and their endorsement were a major strength of the protests, there were still some celebrities who were turned back, because their loyalty was in doubt. Even on the social media, the youths continued to troll and call out erstwhile politicians who seemed to have wizened up by switching camp to join the protesters. Three particular ex-senators were constantly reminded that they did nothing to right the wrongs while they had the opportunity as serving senators of the federal republic. They were promptly put in their place. Even when the first set of hoodlums attacked the protesters in Ikeja, fingers began to point to the same politician who was, ironically, been accused by agents of the federal government of being behind the demonstrations.
So, the protests remained largely focused and totally non-violent. So, when and how did violence and lawlessness creep in? Simple! It was when certain elements, opposed to the protests, and who were armed with stones, sticks, knives and sometimes, guns, began to disrupt the gatherings and deliberately destroying property and attacking people. Even in the face of these provocations, the protesters refused to get violent. They refused to display any weapons. In some instances, they even fished out the undesirable elements amongst them, and handed them over to the police. This was particularly so at the Lekki, Lagos, centre, where the demonstration was most orderly and attracted the most number of the society’s elite.
The elite areas, as can be gleaned from the situation at the Lekki tollgate epicenter, have remained largely civil – even carnival-like. And because it is elitist, all manner of ‘big’ men, and women, A-list celebrities, priests, professionals and all, openly came out to not only identify with the protesters, but actually went out to join the protests. Others supported with all manner of logistics, including meals, ambulances, public address systems, podium, solar panels, power generators, mobile charging ports for  telephone handsets, etc., while yet others stayed back to help clean the protest venue after each day’s activities.
Many of us believe that the infiltration, and ultimate hijack, of the protests by hoodlums, both on the Lagos Mainland, Abuja and other parts of the country, is not beyond the government. In fact, many of us see the proverbial hand of Esau and voice of Jacob in this drama.
In the Benin-City jail break, for instance, there is the unmistakable sign of insider involvement written all over the incident. Where, for instance, were the warders and all the security personnel usually attached to the prisons? How did so many inmates get onto the roof at the same time, and carefully negotiated their way through the barbed wire high fence without as much as a whimper of resistance from the prison personnel?
In Abuja, those who disrupted the protests were brought and dumped on the venues in open-back lorries. Their dressings and general physical structure clearly point to the part of the country they originated from. They are from the sections of the country whose political leaders had deliberately misinformed them of what the protest was all about. They had been told it was targeted the IG, COAS, the President and, a particular section of the country. That narrative, inevitably, coloured the nature and spread of the resultant protests in those parts of the country.
In Kano, for instance, while the police told the #ENDSARS protesters that it could not guarantee their safety, and therefore insisted that they cancel their proposed protests, the same police authorities provided security cover for the few clearly hired hands who protested in support of SARS. They even escorted them to government house, where a tactless Governor Abdullahi Ganduje received them. The Governor, in his now-typical Freudian slip, revealed how theirs was the kind of demonstration that should be holding. Ganduje didn’t even need to receive any petition from the pro-SARS/SWAT protesters. He reeled out all that the alleged petition demanded, even without opening it. It was either he planned the protest or co-authored the petition. Or both.
Ganduje’s Kano is, in fact, a typical case study of the problem with Nigeria, and how its leaders employ inanities to divert attention from what should really matter.
 Yes, Nigerian politicians, in or out of government, have one magic wand they use to hypnotize us into line on just about any issue in the country. It is the ethno-religious trump card. And it always works.
These trump cards are made eternally potent by the twin malady of hunger and illiteracy. With the people deliberately kept hungry and unlearned, it becomes easy to spur them into murderous action by playing on the two sentiments of ethnicity and religion. The reasoning is that they are too uneducated to understand the issues, and that they’d do anything, including murder, to get the next meal. That is why our politicians weaponize hunger and illiteracy. And when these two fail to provide enough brain-blotting effect, the smart politicians throw in the ultimate opium; religion.
And so, it came to pass that few months after Ganduje had thoroughly mishandled the Covid-19 pandemic in Kano, and people were dropping dead by their scores in Kano, the governor was quick to play the caring and pious Muslim, by providing free caskets for people to quickly bury their dead – in keeping with the dictates of their faith. It meant, he cleverly discouraged any request to have autopsies performed on the dead – since such inquests could put a lie to the propaganda of ‘mysterious’ deaths and seasonal ‘heatstroke’ fatalities. And all this was while he tried to make a kill (off the federal government) from the same corona virus he was ready to swear was not in Kano yet. It was only after he got clear signals of an impending FG largesse that Kano finally became a Covid-19 hotspot.
But, even with Kano steeped in the pandemic, no sooner than the gradual easing of the first lockdown began than Ganduje dusted up his religion trump card. He asked the state pilgrim board to immediately commence the process of processing pilgrims for hajj to Saudi Arabia – even as the Saudi authorities were yet to reopen the mosques and sites. Suddenly, nobody remembers that Kano made, and is still making, a total mess of the Covid-19 situation. Smart diversion!
Now again, as Nigerian youths rise in unison against widespread police brutality, general injustice and bad governance, the clown from Kano, who is a master of inanities, has found new relevance for himself.  His making his entranced followers that see the anti-SARS protest as same thing as anti-Buhari protest. And he knows that is a particularly sour nerve in domain. A call to action. A battle cry. Ganduje knows this. He religiously feeds that sentiment.  And ultimately exploits it to the fullest.
 But there is only one bottom-line for Ganduje: bootlick Buhari, to prove to him that you remain loyal. That way, the governor can get away with murder in Kano.
The Kano model, with minor variations is exactly what is playing out in several other states, with respect to this anti-SARS protest
But my take in all these is simple: The federal government is desperate to stop the protests: which is a genuine desire of anybody in the shoes of the President Muhammadu Buhari administration. However, since the government either lacks any sincerity of purpose, or much capacity for creative thinking (that could present a more enduring win-win solution), it has resorted to the all-too-familiar, and usually very tempting, tactic of infiltrating and discrediting the protest. The style has never changed: if government doesn’t succeed with divide-and-rule, it would deploy state-sponsored thugs to introduce violence into an otherwise peaceful protest. That stage-managed violence would then provide the justification for government’s predetermined action: military/police crackdown, which is what both the FG and the Army have been hinting on since the last three or four days.
Of course, this approach also works, but it only leads to a temporary solution, by ignoring the ailment and treating the symptoms. The ailment would definitely relapse, even more aggressively, especially, if government fails to carry through its promise of far-reaching reforms.
But then, the question remains: where do we go from here?
This brings us to the issue of the protest not having any easily identifiable leader – which is not a bad idea on its own, by the way. In fact, the major advantage of not having an easily identifiable convener is that it reduces the chances of those who want to break the protest identifying anybody to arrest or compromise – like it almost happened in Akwa Ibom, over the allegation of N4 million inducements. However, the reverse side of the coin is what we are currently witnessing now. Without an identifiable leader, there is no person to serve as rallying point to address the protesters. As a result, even after government has yielded some ground, there’s no one to call the house to order to appraise what has been put on the table, and determine the next line of action, or if in fact the protests should continue or be called off.
What that means is that the initiative is thus given back to the government to decide how best to end the protest, as it can definitely not go on forever. For allowing it to go on without a clear roadmap, and waiting for the day the protesters would stop turning up, is a sure recipe for anarchy.
But one way government can end the protests is to actually begin to sincerely address the matters raised in the now popular five-point demand. We do not have to wait for the next budget cycle. And while we are at it, we do not need to betray our insincerity with some ill-timed Crocodile smile or poorly thought-out and hurriedly put together SWAT. We do not need to sponsor two-per-kobo groups to counter the protests or order some gutless governors to whip up ethno-regional sentiments.
Even if indeed the SARS atrocities only obtained in the Southern and Middle Belt states, it does not reduce the gravity of the problem and the need to address it. The whole country is paying the bill for the fight against Boko Haram, for instance, even though the problem has remained largely localized in the North.
Finally, if the central government is empowering the states to probe these atrocities, it must also empower them to enforce the recommendations therefrom. For our archives are presently filled with  similar recommendations which the federal government and the police authorities have bluntly refused to implement or enforce. And that is probably why the protesters are reluctant to take the federal government’s word to the bank. Our government no longer has credibility. So, after so many years of ‘earmarking’, the youths now want to ‘eyemark’ the promises.
  • Steve Nwosu, MD/Editor-in-chief, The Xpress newspapers

Mr. Nwosu actually sent in this article on Tuesday. We apologise for the delay in publishing it.


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