By Oseloka H. Obaze
Like Woodstock Rock Festival, the now immortalized and famous end-the-war peace protest held in August 1969, which attracted an estimated audience of more than 400,000, Nigeria’s 2020 #EndSARS protests will go down in the annals of history for variants of reasons; the good, the bad and the ugly. The #EndSARS protests, which started as a knee jerk reaction from Nigerian youths and a nation that hitherto seemed inured to police brutality, extortion, extra-judicial killings, will eternally be remarkable for lessons learned and missed opportunities. As a Hakeem Baba-Ahmed, aptly observed, ‘trust’, which was already in high deficit, became not just a casualty, but the “biggest fatality” of the protests.
Before now, a great chasm has existed between and betwixt Nigerian youths and Nigerian leaders; both as parents and as leaders. The only common ground was the need for “change” in Nigeria; change of morality; change of governance methods; change of groupthink disposition; change of the structural mosaics, change in security methodologies; change in wealth creation and wealth sharing modalities, and change in leadership style and personalities. Nigerian youths were insensate over their geriatric parents dominating leadership and political space interminably; while paying lip service to youths being the ‘nation’s greatest assets’ and ‘future’. That Nigerian parents were seemingly averse to youthful leadership, compelled the #NotTooYoungToRun pressure group and the signing of the Not too Young to Run Bill in May 2018.
In yielding to the demands of Nigerian youths, Nigeria’s leadership seemed perceptibly insincere and content with assuaging the growing demands, by “flipping the proverbial bone to the dog”. Be it inducement or settlement, the respite it earned was as temporary as the mindset that elicited the actions were perfunctory. Yet there was an unrelenting constant, which the leadership seemed to have ignored. Leaders, stakeholders, masses and plebeians and above all the youths, agree on the need for change; for restructuring and resetting Nigeria by any name. The notion and concept has its skeptics, and they are unrelenting in their pushback. These skeptics, coincidentally, are also parents, leaders and power brokers.
The #EndSARS was not incidental. It was not a surprise. It was long overdue. The cup was already at its brim; it just needed to overflow. And overflow it did, with angst, emotions, reckless abandon; and ultimately, with mayhem and blood on our streets. For most Nigerians, the handwriting on the wall had been quite visible. All has not been well with the nation. Her malaise has been mostly self-inflicted. The singular bane; poor leadership, anchored on extremely poor and sheepish followership. The awareness of the national miasma was so real, centre stage and evidently in the minds of the leadership for VP Yemi Osinbajo to warn about possibilities of the Nigeria breaking up. Then the youths struck!
It took just another senseless killing for the last straw to snap. The youths seized on the #EndSARS hash tag which dates back to the summer of 2017, to drive home their concept of “change” demands. Their orchestrated generic, peaceful, hi-tech and social media driven and well-organized approach to protest, was a game changer. The youths knew it. The leadership knew it. Their parents knew it, but watched with trepidation and so did the observing world.
The campaign yielded some dividends. Uncharacteristically, the FGN acceded to implementing the #5for5 demands, which included, “Immediate release of all arrested protesters; Justice for all deceased victims of police brutality and appropriate compensation for their families; Setting up an independent body to oversee the investigation & prosecution of all reports of police misconduct (within 10 days); In line with the new Police Act, psychological evaluation & retraining (to be confirmed by an independent body) of all disbanded SARS officers before they can be redeployed; and Increase police salary so that they are adequately compensated for protecting lives and property of citizens.”
Whether the FGN was being sincere in accepting the change plank is now debatable. But the Government did disband SARS and did set up judicial panels to investigate SARS’ atrocities. Those measures were clearly evidence of good intent at making amends, and arresting a deepening national crisis by adopting some positive building blocks of nation-building, when it mattered most. However, as the din of the protests reverberated, gaining momentum, some pro-establishment Fifth Columnists -true to type- contaminated the otherwise peaceful protests with hoodlums. The hoodlums, interestingly, were Nigerian unemployed youths. On Tuesday 20 October, 2020, now referred to as “Black Tuesday” events took a worst possible turn, when a contingent of the Nigerian military showed up at the Lekki Toll Gate in Lagos, and allegedly shot at unarmed protesters. The rest is history.
As of yet, neither the FGN nor the Nigerian military has admitted that protesters were shot and that there were fatalities. Yet, emerging evidence now corroborated by the military, are indicative that the military got involved at the behest of Lagos State Government. The shooting triggered angry national response, replete with nationwide looting, burning of police posts and public buildings. The incidental discovery that Covid-19 palliatives meant for distribution to Nigerians were being hoarded by at least Ten State Governments exacerbated the unfolding crises. But perhaps, what worsened the situation was that the propitious opportunity for the FGN to render an apology to the present generation of Nigerian youths was scuppered on 22 October 2020, when President Muhammadu Buhari in his belated national broadcast, failed to do the needful. He blatantly glossed over the issue of the Lekki Toll Gate shooting, and the required show of empathy. That was a huge missed opportunity; an element of trust betrayed.
Just as there were evident fatalities during the protests, during the alleged shooting and in the post-shooting period; trust also died. Beyond the prevalent trust deficit, there is widely held belief domestically and abroad that there has been an attempt to cover up the shootings. Trust also died, because Nigerians uncovered palliatives meant for them being hoarded under various pretexts; some were diverted and even being sold in open markets. Justifiable and moral as it is to criticize those who opened warehouses and grabbed palliatives across the nation, it is commonsensical to admit that Nigerians officials who callously made the orderly and peaceful sharing of Covid-19 palliatives impossible, made the ongoing disorderly and riotous grabbing of the palliatives inevitable. The immorality of such official conduct that borders on criminality resonates.
For Nigeria, the genie is out of the bottle. The #EndSARS protests have unfurled and made real the chasm between the now generation and their parents’ peers now governing Nigeria. The unfolding challenge is now a face-off between the youth and the aged; the haves and the have-nots; those in power and those outside power. With trust betrayed and lost, the question becomes who will blink first? In Nigeria as elsewhere, equity, fairness and justice are the fundamentals of peace and security. These are also some of the grounding tenets of democracy. The concerns and fears of Nigeria being on a slippery slope remain genuine. The worries are deep-seated. Unfortunately, despite lessons learned, there remain in Nigeria, a shameful and habitual leadership fault-line. Nigerian leaders only react to violent agitations; always belatedly and mostly, in very crass if not heinous manner. To a certain degree, that has been the case with the #EndSARS protest. How the FGN handles the judicial inquiry outcomes, the Lekki Toll Gate shooting, and future youth protests, will determine the nation’s consequential trajectory.
Obaze is MD/CEO Selonnes Consult, in Awka.