Their faces are gracing local and international news headlines. Their demands are unquestionably legitimate. Everyone agrees. Their style of protest may not be different from similar protest in Hong Kong, but their conduct so far has been exemplary. That is perhaps why their approach to the protest has drawn legions of fans in other countries. Celebrities in entertainment, sports and politics, all praise their non-violence style.
But make no mistake about it: Nigeria is on the spot. The world is watching events in the country. These are anxious times. In the past two weeks, and counting, across the states of the federation and the Federal Capital Territory, Nigerian youths are pouring into the streets under the banner: #EndSARS. They have taken their destinies into their own hands. They say it’s a show of resistance to police brutality, extrajudicial killings and other forms of assault by the notorious, now disbanded Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS). Simply put, #EndSARS is a tipping point, just a trigger to express other forms of discontent in the country. It has been brewing for a while, perhaps it’s boiling over now, and #EndSARS is the metaphor to illustrate how dissatisfied, disillusioned Nigerian youth feel about the system in the country. It supersedes the present administration.
There’s no doubt that SARS was a sad story for many who had at various times been at the receiving end of their bestiality. You may not know how mean these officials were until you have experienced their viciousness or have a loved one who had. Before the protests began, I got a panicked voice mail from my neighbour narrating his chilling ordeal in the hands of SARS officials who had tricked him from Festac Town, Lagos, to Abeokuta in Ogun state. He was hauled into a detention centre. What was his offence? That he allegedly bought a smartphone, which they claimed, belonged to someone else. That was a smokescreen. He came out alive after parting with N350,000. He was lucky he came out alive. Many others didn’t. Their victims are legion.
But, isn’t it ironical or even strange that the protesters are demanding for adequate funding for the police? As I watched the protests across many states, the candlelight processions in some states like Lagos, Anambra, Imo, Bayelsa and Abuja, the prayers by Muslim and Christian faithful, I knew there was much more to #EndSARS than meet the eye. It’s a battle cry against misgovernance in the land, a pain cry, the disillusionment, poverty, unemployment in Nigeria. It’s not for nothing that this is happening. Call it a class struggle, you may not be wrong. That’s how many of them saw the attack on the governor of Osun state, Gboyega Oyetola, last Saturday. That’s why this protest is gaining momentum every passing day. The intensity and apparent refusal to let go, in spite of the government acceding to the initial #5for5, and the goalpost has shifted to #7 for 7.
As some of aggrieved youths have said, this is an opportunity they must grab with two hands to make a bold statement. Trust deficit in successive administrations in the country is one of the reasons why they won’t let go, at least now. I have no idea when, and how long these protests will last. But we should all be afraid of the coming days. We are in a delicate situation. And with a government that has a thin skin, extreme caution is needed to avoid a looming anarchy. This is the present danger lurking. The government will say after all it has acceded to the initial 5-point demand, before it expanded to a 7-point demand, so what else do they want? The new 7-point demand includes: Institutional reforms cost of governance, Constitutional reforms in which the youths must have a sizeable representation, Education, Health reforms as well as Youth Affairs and Public Office reforms.
These demands are by any means, legitimate. Nigeria needs reforms in all sectors of the economy. High cost of governance is killing our democracy. What a legislator collects a month is more than what any lawmaker in Africa and the United States collects a month. That one in every five world’s out-of-school children is a Nigerian, is not in doubt. That about 13.2 million Nigerian children, aged 5-14 years, are not in school, has been proved beyond doubt. The impact of these numbers as contained in the protesters’ demand, will be felt for generations to come if urgent steps are not taken now. But to make all this happen, will take some time.
The Federal Government had since accepted the Presidential Panel’s recommendations, which among others things called for the dismissal of 37 police officials found to have compromised their official duties. The vice president, Prof. Yemi Osinbajo, has on behalf of the government apologised. He told the #EndSARS protesters that their feelings of frustration were justified. He apologised for government’s apparent silence and failure to do enough to stop police brutality in the country before now. He also said it was unacceptable that many people had been brutalised in the hands of the police. He also sent his deepest condolences to the families of those who lost their loved ones in the hands of what he referred to “wayward police officers”. These are kind words that should be listened to by the protesters.
It calls for dialogue and understanding, not a show of raw power and trading of blames as the Minister of Information and Culture Lai Mohammed tried to convey on Saturday night during the NTA Weekend File programme. It was wrong to say as Lai Mohammed argued, that the protest was a “smokescreen” to make things difficult for President Muhammadu Buhari presidency. Very often, the likes of Lai Mohammed have done more harm than good to this administration. Our country has been split down the middle by politicians who play fast and loose with the facts. You can feel the anger in the land.
This is the time for the government to show it has what it takes to bring us together. Incendiary comments won’t do it, and raw power won’t do it either. That’s why government should toe the path of dialogue rather than threats. It must warn the Nigeria Army that its Operation “Crocodile Smile” must be conducted with utmost respect and civility. Anything to the contrary will provoke chaos of unimaginable consequences. Osinbajo apology is the way to go. A listening government talks to its citizens, not at them. It shows compassion, not conceit. Government exists to make good things happen, and prevent bad things from happening. Sadly, that’s not how successive governments in Nigeria treat its citizens. They see them as “conquered people” who must do their bidding. That’s why what works in other countries seem not to work here. That’s why confidence and trust in government have been eroded in the country.
Altogether, #EndSARS should be seen as a new culture of what the people want from the government, the urgent need to reform, reinvent Nigeria to meet the dreams of our founding fathers. It’s coincidence that this is happening in Buhari presidency. But he should see it as a call to duty. After all, the presidency, as former American President Gerald R. Ford said, the presidency ‘is not a prize to be won, it’s a duty to be done’. It’s time to heal Nigeria. That’s the central message in the #EndSARS protests.