Sections 39, 40 and 41 of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria protect the rights of Nigerians to move about and express themselves freely through peaceful assembly and association for the protection of their interests. By virtue of these provisions, peaceful protest is an integral part of democracy which is adequately supported by law. Indeed, every modern democracy got refined to its present state through protests and honest governmental responses to them. Peaceful protest is a good thing in a democracy because when the forces of thesis meet the forces of anti-thesis, they produce synthesis. When a man meets a woman, they produce a child. A new thing is always born when opposites intereact faithfully and honestly. America’s modern democracy is built on protests. Coincidentally, protests against disproportionate police brutality on Black Americans is one of the major issues that will determine the US 2020 presidential election. It was peaceful protests that guaranteed Blacks in America equal rights with other races in US. Prior to their protests, they were treated as properties not persons. The Blacks in America were brilliant enough to route their protests through the American Constitution which holds the truth that all human beings are created equal to be self evident. This #ENDSARS protest bears in its belly the seed that could germinate a new Nigeria. However, until the child is born, anything can still go wrong. A bad, negligent or unqualified mid-wife can accidentally, negligently or mischeaviously kill the child if the delivery is mishandled. This is why we all have to be careful the way we handle the protests and protesters so we can reap the benefits of democracy dividends which peaceful protests engender.
By 1st October, 2020, Nigeria was 60 years of age. A generation is 40 years. The first generation ended in year 2000 just about the time our nascent democracy was restored. At 60, the present youths are children of a new generation that want to build a 21st century Nigeria on the firm principles of democracy and social justice. One of the protesters screamed aloud, “you cannot mess with this generation”. Their fathers were dominated by dictators and the military with the power of firearms but they are yearning to be dominated by good leaders with the power of love and affection. Police brutality has no place in a modern democratic governance and these young Nigerians will take none of it. It is in this regard that every true democrat welcomed the initial #ENDSARS protests that swept across the nation as legal and indeed justifiable.
There’s no doubt that there are genuine cases of police brutality. It is so common that even the police is a victim of police brutality. A look at the 5-point demands of the protesters reveal that the welfare of the police is part of the reasons for the protest. The demands include: 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 and prosecution of all reports of Police misconduct (within 10days); In line with Police Act, psychological evaluation and retraining (to be confirmed by an independent body) of all disbanded SARS officers before they can be redeployed; Increase Police salary so that they are adequately compensated for protecting lives and property of citizens. Nobody is spared of police brutality in Nigeria, including the police itself. A former Inspector General of Police was arrested while in office and convicted, not for destroying Okija shrine or extra judicial killings of Nigerians, but for embezzling the money meant for police welfare. A surprise trip by President Goodluck Jonathan to the Police Training College, Ikeja, revealed that the College fit into the description of shit-holes, where only animals burrow for survival. The army have been victims of police brutality. A Colonel was shot and killed along Lagos street for minor altercation with the police during IBB’s regime. Ostensibly, the police on check point didn’t realise he was an army Colonel until he was killed. And this is the point, anybody can be a victim of police brutality because our status and profession are not engraved on our foreheads and the person may become a candidate for the grave before the non-engraved status and profession are finally discerned. If the security agencies are not immune to police brutality, your guess is as good as mine, the fate of the common man. In a summary, their fate has been succinctly stated by one SARS operative, “I will waste you and nothing will happen”. In fairness to the SARS operative, many Nigerians have been wasted by SARS officials and nothing happened until now. No condition is permanent. There is time to kill and there’s time to make alive. This is the time to make alive every dead thing that has been killed in Nigeria.
We must note what this protest is not. It is not a sectional protest to topple the regime of President Buhari. The protest against police brutality is pan Nigerian. The only minor point of difference is whether SARS should be retained or not. Majority of the Southern youths are favourably disposed to the removal of the name SARS because they believe that SARS has acquired a notoriety in police brutality that has rendered its existence inimical to the psychological wellbeing of the citizens, while the Northern youths, who have been traumatised by the attacks of bandits and terrorists, believe that the name SARS has accumulated some goodwill in the fight against armed robbers and bandits and can be redeemed by weeding out bad eggs from SARS and reforming the police generally to remove police brutality. They are even protesting against insecurity in their region as we write. Whereas in the South, majority are campaigning against police sin of commission of brutality, in the North, majority are campaigning against police sin of omission in the fight against insecurity, terrorism and banditry ravaging the North. In either case, the police is culpable.
We are optimistic that this protest will give birth to a new Nigeria because we have a vigilant generation and a willing government. The two parties seem determined to engage honestly and faithfully to reap the fruits of this peaceful protest. For the first time in Nigerian history, the protesters made demands on the government and the government accepted the whole demands of the protesters and vowed to implement them. Gov Sanwo-Olu of Lagos alluded to this. President Buhari is a man strictly driven by honesty, contentment, godliness and good conscience. He is willing to carry out anything he believes is right no matter whose ox is gored. People close to him believe that he agreed to the demands of the protesters because he is convinced that theirs is a just cause that should be carried out without delay. In meeting the demands of the protesters, the Inspector-General of Police dissolved SARS accross the 36 states Police Command and the FCT on Oct 11. President Buhari, on Oct. 12, addressed the nation to the intent that the disbanding of SARS was a first step in the comprehensive reform of the police. On Oct. 13, the IGP ordered all defunct SARS personnel to report at Force Headquarters in Abuja for debriefing as well as psychological and mental examinations. On the same day, the Presidential Panel on the Reform of SARS accepted the five-point demand of the protesters. The Police Trust Fund Committee has been inaugurated to enhance the welfare of the police. The National Economic Council (NEC) presided over by the Vice President with the 36 State Governors and FCT Minister as members met on Oct. 15 and directed the immediate establishment of state-based Judicial Panels of Enquiry across the country. The panels, as directed by the Council, are to receive and investigate complaints of police brutality and related extra-judicial killings with a view to delivering justice and compensation for all victims of the dissolved SARS and other Police units. The NEC also mandated every governor to take control and initiate dialogue with the protesters in their states and the FCT. Yes, dialogue is the key. It’s only dialogue between the opposing forces that can bring peaceful solutions. Violence has no place in a democracy because we should learn not to quench our thirst for justice by drinking from the cup of the blood of the innocent. The Governors were mandated to set up the panel of inquiry because the Supreme Court has held that the Federal Government has no power to set up such panel with regards to human rights inquiries. That’s why the Oputa panel came to naught.
Let us point out that the IGP was tactless in establishing a tactical squad (SWAT) to take over from SARS just some hours after SARS was dissolved. He should have allowed tempers to cool before taking steps to announce a replacement, after all, he has the power to deploy the entire police force to maintain law and order without attaching any nomenclature to it. The haste in naming a new squad created the impression in the minds of the protesters that it is SARS in another guise which may not be but perception is reality in the world of the unknown. The #ENDSARS Protesters have to realise that any protest that lasts more than 7 days without identifiable leadership in a diverse, multi-ethnic, multi-religious nation is calling for anarchy. The government has accepted the five point agenda of the protesters and has commenced implementing them. Even if you accuse them of insincerity, who do they negotiate with to prove their sincerity? Some Nigerians survive on daily income and any blockade of movement for everybody by protesters means that some Nigerians will go hungry that day. Such classes of people will be vulnerable to be used by fifth columnists to destabilise, attack the genuine peaceful protesters. Some diabolic politicians can sponsor some thugs to attack genuine protesters to give incumbent government a bad name. There could be the possibility of some elements of the security agencies who may act against the protesters in order to protect the rights of others especially when the protests start turning violent or simply to please their bosses who understandably will be uncomfortable with prolonged protests with no identifiable leadership.
Burning down private and public buildings, police and filling stations, bus terminals and buses, attacking and releasing prisoners, blocking roads completely and permanently do not constitute peaceful protests and they put a dent to the genuine intentions of the original peaceful #ENDSARS protesters. I recall when Prof Wole Soyinka led a protest in Lagos in this democratic dispensation. He insisted that the protesters maintain a single lane and ensured that other passersby and motorists were allowed to move about freely. The BBOG organisation, led by Oby Ezekwesili and Aisha Yesufu, protested for months and captured both domestic and international audience but never blocked any road completely and permanently for days. These protests fulfilled democratic requirements for peaceful protests and were unhijackable by hoodlums. They had identifiable leadership, were peaceful and respected the rights of other Nigerians. No casualties were recorded and this should be emulated. The deaths of protesters, officers of the law and innocent citizens during these protests are regrettable, condemnable and our hearts and condolences go to them. It is time for everyone to sheath their swords and return to the drawing table for dialogue in the interest of our democracy. We must learn to settle our differences through dialogue, negotiation and compromise in the spirit of give and take for without peace there can be no meaningful development.