The days of rage are presumably over, as uneasy calm reigns. Though with some unintended negative consequences, the EndSARS protest has opened a new vista in Nigerian politics. It speaks to the urgency of the need for government to reconnect with the people. For too long, the political class has been carrying on with empty bravado, while the privileged few in control of power recklessly flaunt their wealth before the very people they are supposed to serve. But the youth-led protest has shown them in an unmistakable term that it can no longer be business as usual.
As a backlash, it seems the Federal Government has come to realise the vulnerability of its power in the face of public indignation. In the wake of the protest and the attendant mayhem and destruction of public infrastructure, President Muhammadu Buhari had to practically beg the youths to calm down and allow peace to reign, even as he gave a marching order to the serving ministers to go back to their respective states to douse the rising tension.
This is in addition to a special team led by the Chief of Staff, Prof. Ibrahim Gambari, which is already on tour of the country to consult with traditional rulers, who would then talk to the youths.
The Special Adviser to the President on Media and Publicity, Femi Adesina, in a statement, quoted Buhari as saying: “It is in the interest of the youths to keep the peace. They want jobs, infrastructure and development. I have sent a team led by the Chief of Staff, Prof. Ibrahim Gambari, to go round the country, talk to traditional rulers, who will then talk to the youths.”
Although the protest was primarily meant to end police brutality and the excesses of the anti-robbery squad, it has a wider implication on the pattern of governance in the country, which has been largely characterized by the culture of impunity, deprivation, oppression and absolute lack of empathy for the suffering the masses are going through.
In effect, what the president is trying to do by fiat is to create direct citizen engagement as an imperative of democratic governance.
It is a paradigm shift towards participatory democracy and greater involvement of citizens in decision-making process. If the trend is sustained at all levels, it will not only engender ownership of the process option, which is now the in-thing around the world, but also promote free flow of information as against fake news.
At present, the basic social capital – the trust and confidence that exist between the government and the governed – is essentially lacking. And a lot still needs to be done to rebuild it. But the reality is that many of the career politicians being tossed around for consultation have lost touch with the grassroots.
To rebuild public trust, therefore, there is a strong need for a total overhaul of the structure of governance towards decentralization.
This, in essence, means that authorities at various levels need to see the EndSARS protest as an opportunity to entrench participatory democracy.
Already, some ad hoc measures are being put in place to placate the angry youths. This may not be enough to sustain the fragile peace in the country. In today’s globalised world, citizen participation in the decisions that affect their lives is an imperative of contemporary society.
As the English, Sydney Smith rightly quipped: “Regret for the things we did can be tempered by time; it is regret for the things we did not do that is inconsolable.” For the failure of successive governments to make the people the centre-piece of the national policy, the political class in Nigeria has shot itself in the leg. From executive to the legislature, everyone is now visibly jittery, afraid of what may come next after the EndSARS protest, if nothing is urgently done.
The President of the Senate, Dr Ahmad Lawan, said this much, while urging the Federal Government to adequately fund agriculture to address the issue of youth unemployment and take practical steps to meaningfully engage them.
He made the remark at the 2021 budget defence session of the National Assembly Joint Committee on Agriculture, warning that Nigeria may not escape another youths’ restiveness in the mode of #EndSARS protest, if their concerns are not effectively addressed.
He said: “We escaped this #EndSARS protest; any other one may be inescapable.
“Let’s meet them where they are and many of them are in the rural areas. Let’s give them what we can and keep them in the rural areas and make their lives productive. On our part, we are going to be accountable.
“We need to be practical. Other countries have made it through this sector. Anytime we talk about diversification the first thing we mention is agriculture. We must work the talk for the sake of our economy and our youths.”
Beyond the rhetoric, a former Minister of Works, Senator Adeseye Ogunlewe, urged the National Assembly members to take charge of their responsibilities by formulating laws that would encourage power devolution.
His words: The president’s decision to engage the people is a good development. But what is more important is the role of the members of the National Assembly who got the votes of most of these people. They should go back to their constituencies and tell them whatever Buhari wants to hear from them. They will listen to them more than the ministers and Prof Gambari-led team. My own belief is that those members of the National Assembly will be able to interact more with the youths than these big men. To my mind, they are more useful, they are more important than anybody that is at the top because these are the people they meet anytime they come home on weekend. The local government should also be involved. The problem of Nigeria has passed rhetoric and grammar because people are thoroughly hungry. We must give them hope. We must let them know that they are creating jobs for them. They must also include palliatives in the form of social security. If that is not done, the peace we enjoy now is going to be temporary.
“Ahmad Lawan must put his thoughts into law. He should initiate bills that will make sure there is full employment in the land. The National Assembly has a key role to play in the survival of this country and the lawmakers must take that responsibility very seriously. They should stop playing the second role to the executive. They should create laws that will make people happy with the government. Every Nigerian that is unemployed must be given money.
“We have 58 items on the exclusive legislative list. They should dismantle them and pass a law that will give more powers to the states and local governments so that the grassroots people can have access to the government. We cannot be pushing everything to the president. It is the National Assembly that can save this country. Look at the Southwest leaders urging the president to revisit the 2014 national confab report. As far as I am concerned, that is not democracy. They should have put their thoughts together and give it to their elected representatives.”
Lending credence to the same issue, Chief Chekwas Okorie, said the president’s initiative on citizen engagement was an indictment on the members of the national and state houses of assembly who had lost touch with their respective constituencies.
He said: “Let me say that the initiative of the government to send delegation to the various constituencies to engage the people and hear directly from them is a good one. Since the government is distance from the people, the president felt that it is the right time to have direct interaction with the people at the grassroots and explain government’s activities and more importantly get a feedback. Having said that, this is actually an indictment on the representatives we have in Nigeria. Clearly, those elected representatives have been very distant from their people. They are the ones who ought to be getting feedback on a sustainable basis. Some of these needs at the grassroots ought to be reflected in the national budget they pass every year.
“What the government has done is at the spur of the moment which is not sustainable. It is only good for the time being. At least, the people will feel a sense of belonging that the father of the nation wants to hear them directly. But for how long will they leave their primary assignments to start going to their constituencies to get a feedback when there are people elected to do that? This is a clear indictment of the elected representatives. I will want them to have a rethink. They should try to engage their constituencies more proactively and try to get their feedback. Some of them run away, only for them to come back during campaigns and that is not good enough.”
While commending some of policy measures introduced by the Federal Government to address the problem of youth restiveness, Okorie condemned the CBN order to freeze the accounts of EndSARS protesters, warning that it could lead to further crisis.
He argued: “There are a number of intervention programmes to engage the young people, farmers and traders to assist them to do what they are doing. And I see commitment in implementing them.
“This EndSARS protest should not be assumed that it has gone. The reaction of some agencies of government to those who took part in the genuine struggle is becoming counter-productive. I understand that the initiative to freeze the accounts of those who led the protest came from the Central Bank of Nigeria. I want to use this opportunity to say that it is a very bad initiative. It is in contradiction to the president’s earlier position that these people had been heard loud and clear and that their five point agenda had been met, starting with the disbandment of SARS. Now, most of them who came out legitimately are being targeted. The hoodlums who later joined the protest have no bank accounts not to talk of freezing them. It is not late in the day to let those who did legitimate protest go and defreeze their accounts. Nobody will lose anything by so doing. However, they can still continue with their investigation if they feel there are some sponsors to subvert the government of the day.”
On his part, a former Minister of Transport, Ebenezer Babatope, advised the Federal Government to work more on information gathering so that it actions could be well guided. He said: “I believe youths need encouragement, they need to be appeased. Therefore, I do not see anything bad in what they are doing. They should give young men and women of this country the required encouragement. There is a need to calm the nerves for what has happened.
“However, as part of citizen engagement, government has to open its door to all Nigerians. It is by so doing that the government can be guided by proper information. Part of the problems we have had is misguided information. If the government is guided by proper information, it will take good action.”
While the move to engage the citizen at this time is seen as a welcome development, many people are, however, skeptical about the sustainability of the initiative.