How can a peaceful protest end up with killing and maiming, burning and looting in a matter of days? For those of us who have seen plenty “peaceful” protests in our lives, it is not too hard to explain. The moment you hit the streets and fail to read the road signs — so that you will know where and when to turn, reverse or park — you are at the risk of losing control of the steering wheel. You will end up carrying all kinds of passengers — thugs, hoodlums, gangsters, cultists, politicians and all manner of opportunists. In fact, you may unwittingly provide cover for state agents to target the assets and possibly the lives of perceived opponents and rivals. So it goes.
In the best of times, peaceful protests can go awry — much less in these hard times, with oil prices down, government revenue falling, the currency losing value, prices of goods and services rising, and, to add fuel to the fire, COVID-19 taking our breath away. A majority of the people are already bleeding and groaning with the removal of subsidies on petrol and electricity. And with the huge population of unemployed, underemployed and unemployable youth, we knew all along that an uprising was a strong possibility at some point. That a peaceful protest against police brutality, tagged #EndSARS, would spark off this massive carnage was what we probably did not budget for.
With the protests infiltrated by rogues, the anarchy was inevitable. My biggest fear was military involvement. Those who witnessed the massacres by soldiers during the pro-June 12 protests in 1993 and other riots under military regimes would agree with me that it was not a pretty sight. I was praying that troops would not be called in to quell the #EndSARS protests. But I was wrong. On Tuesday evening, soldiers invaded the Lekki ground and started shooting. Initial reports said there was a massacre, although there is yet no identified victim: no names, no addresses, no relatives; just grainy videos with tailored commentaries. Hopefully, we will have a much clearer picture soon.
This is my “executive summary” of the #EndSARS campaign. It started as a genuine protest on social media. It went to the streets. Government saw the danger and accepted the five demands of the protesters. Police disbanded SARS. States set up judicial panels to probe police brutality. Despite getting these concessions, protesters remained adamant. Then came the partisan and sectional dimensions — with #BuhariMustGo and #EndNigeria added to the hashtags. Mayhem started. Looting. Shooting. Lynching. Curfew. Then Lekki happened. And President Muhammadu Buhari, silent for so long, finally addressed the nation, basically declaring: “The fire next time!”
After Buhari’s broadcast, I could see defeat on the faces of the youth. Many started tweeting about relocating to Canada, declaring a total loss of faith in Nigeria. #ItIsFinished began trending. This is sad but I would like to appeal to the Nigerian youth not to give in or give up. The #EndSARS protest did not fail. For one, the protesters got the government to act on their demands — which is a major victory by any definition. SARS has been disbanded. I can bet that whatever police unit replaces SARS will come under stricter scrutiny. Judicial panels have been set up. We expect to see the murderous police officers face justice. Police reform is now an imperative. These are big wins.
Moreover, the youth have shown that they have the ability to organise. These are the same youth we condemn for voting more in Big Brother Naija than in general election. We have often described them as lazy, entitled and obsessed with Instagram, fast cars and bling. By starting a campaign against SARS and taking to the streets to protest police brutality, they brought the country to a halt and attracted international interest. Everybody started paying attention to them. We started celebrating the coming of age of our youth. Older people started scrambling to associate with the cause. Ladies and gentlemen, this is surely a positive development. Let’s not discard it.
What next? According to data from the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) released before the 2019 general election, the youth — described as those between ages 18 and 35 — made up about 51 percent of the 84 million registered voters. If you expand the age bracket to 50 years (to accommodate other young Nigerians like me), the figure jumps up to 81 percent. That is mind-boggling. What the youth should be thinking now is how to use these humongous figures to bring about new things in Nigeria in 2023 — rather than flee to Canada. They should realise Canada was not built in a day. Its people fought hard to build the country with their sweat and blood.
Just a brief journey into Canada’s history: there were two rebellions against “bad governance” between 1837 and 1838. The rebels were arrested after the uprisings and put on trial. Samuel Lount, one of the organisers of the Upper Canada Rebellion, was publicly hanged. He is regarded as a martyr till today. Over 100 rebels were sentenced to life imprisonment. What the rebel leaders wanted was political reform. They had a common agenda for Canada. Even though they paid the ultimate price, Canada was never the same again. Reform came. Today, Canada is one of the most developed countries in the world. But Canada was not always like this. People paid the price.
What’s my point? The youth must begin to conceive a new political order and the role they can play in birthing it. The #OccupyOjota protests of 2012 helped in building the momentum that uprooted the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) from power in 2015 and installed the All Progressives Congress (APC). In 2023, the #EndSARS momentum can become a movement that will help uproot both APC and PDP from power and birth a new political culture where government officials will begin to pay less attention to the perks of office and more to their responsibilities to Nigerians. And I mean at all levels — local, state and federal. That would be the best legacy of #EndSARS.
Behold, how good and how pleasant it would be for Nigerian youth to unite in the quest for good governance! They can be more politically active. They can be more involved in choosing councillors, council chairpersons, state lawmakers, governors, federal lawmakers and the president. It does not mean only the youth will occupy these positions. In addition to contesting, the youth can engage with the aspirants and candidates, scrutinise them, advance the agenda of good governance, monitor the performances of those elected or appointed, and mobilise for recall or removal if they fail to deliver. Canada was not built in a day. Nation-building is not a sprint. It is a marathon.
I hope the youth have also learnt their lessons from the #EndSARS fiasco. One, you don’t go to war without visible leadership. You will end up creating anarchy and mob action. We can now see the consequences. Things completely went out of control and there was nobody to call the mobsters to order. Leadership is key in every life endeavour. Two, you don’t go to war without a plan. There should be Plan A, Plan B and even Plan C. I did not see any plan apart from “we no go gree o”. Three, because of lack of leadership and strategy, the protests continued when they should have been called off. Now over 70 people are dead. This is extremely disturbing and disheartening.
Four, you must take your wins and know when to retreat without surrendering. When SARS was disbanded and judicial panels set up, that was the time to retreat. That was the time to say: “We are suspending the protests. If nothing changes, we will return to the streets.” Some people were even demanding that Buhari should sign an “executive order” to show that SARS had been disbanded. It got that ridiculous. Some rejected the panels because there was no “youth” and declared a boycott. I have come to learn that boycott is not an effective strategy. Campaign for youth inclusion in the panels but mobilise to engage with the process and follow through to get justice.
Five, you must stay the message. Nigerians were united in the call to stop police brutality. It was nationwide. Contrary to the propaganda, there were #EndSARS protests in Kaduna, Kano, Kwara, Nasarawa, Adamawa and some other northern states. It was not a purely southern thing. Unfortunately, some people sneaked in their #BuhariMustGo and #EndNigeria agenda and things began to fall apart. More so, protesters started losing focus when they moved from the unifying agenda against police brutality and expanded it to an omnibus campaign for restructuring and ending corruption and bad governance. It is impossible to achieve everything at a go.
Finally, the youth must learn from their elders. As the Yoruba would say, no matter how many Gucci shirts a child has, he can never have as many rags as an elder. Some youth actually think the story of Nigeria started in 1999 or 2015. Actually, people have been fighting for a better Nigeria for 100 years. Our forefathers played their roles and left. We are still fighting for a better Nigeria. We cannot all adopt the same style and strategy. Ultimately, we need to engage constructively to change the rigged and warped system. From my little experience, starting a mass action without a strategy, without a fall-back plan, and without giving an inch can only lead to anarchy. Lessons learnt?
AND FOUR OTHER THINGS…
While the argument is still ongoing over whether or not there was a Lekki massacre, I will keep asking just one question: why on earth would soldiers shoot when the protesters were clearly peaceful and orderly? Lekki was the best organised of all the protest points. Shooting into the air alone at such a large gathering can create a pandemonium and lead to a stampede. Hundreds could have been crushed! It is not enough for the government to say nobody was killed. In the 21st century, we must be discussing how our security agencies can manage an orderly gathering without firing a bullet: whether live, rubber or blank. We need an investigation to establish the facts. Urgent.
BURNIN’ AND LOOTIN’
I will never, ever support anarchy and mob action, but I can never, for the life of me, understand the wickedness that dwells in some of our leaders in this country with the alleged hoarding of COVID-19 relief materials. The warehouses are now being attacked and looted. While we can legally argue that this is wrong, we were all in this country when poor Nigerians were being given miserable packages as “COVID palliatives” during the lockdown. In some cases, a whole household got a little bag of foodstuff that would not feed a five-year-old. The #EndSARS campaign has opened a can of worms. What about the insanely inflated costs around sanitizers, face masks, PPEs and COVID tests? Evil!
FAKE NEWS FIESTA
Those who manufacture and distribute fake news may think they are having fun but they will have to start having conversations with their consciences at some point. If their goal is to set the country on fire, perhaps they should retreat for a minute and ask themselves if even they, and their families, will survive the inferno. Two have stood out in recent weeks. One, using an old video of Niger Delta militants surrendering their arms under the amnesty programme to broadcast a message that Fulani militias were being given arms to attack Yoruba people. Two, using the drama sketch of a body wrapped in national flag to claim that it was a victim of the Lekki shooting. Wicked.
ON MENTAL HEALTH
I was a speaker at the #UNASHAMED2020 Conference on mental health organised by the Asido Foundation. Kudos Dr Jibril Abdulmalik, the CEO/founder and consultant psychiatrist, who is doing a great job drawing attention to mental health issues in the country. Having suffered depression myself nearly nine years ago, I shared my own experience with participants and promised to contribute to the demystification of mental health issues in Nigeria using the media. Korede Bello, the artiste, has apparently been doing a wonderful job in this area. I got to understand that every human being suffers mental illness in different degrees. No-one should be ashamed. Therapeutic.