By Ide Owodiong-Idemeko
Since its birth as a nation, many nationalist struggles can be identified as milestones that have contributed to no small measure in shaping the Nigeria experience.
One can recall the struggle for independence, the 1962 anti-Anglo Defense Pact students’ riots, Ali must go protests of 1978, the SAP riots of 1989, June 12 protests, and the NADECO struggle between1993-1998. They were waged by Nigerians; at times, like in the case of Ali Must Go protests, championed entirely by youths. And all, to a great extent, prevailed in the objective of achieving and dispensing social justice to the beleaguered masses.
Instructively, the common denominator in all of Nigeria`s struggles over the six decades of her existence, has been institutional/political reforms; Alas, a faithful and meaningful execution of the gains of such triumphs has often eluded the leadership of the country for as long as the six decades of the country’s political independence. And like the quest for the holy grail by the knights of king Arthur, not without a lot of disillusion though, Nigerians have kept at the quest to strengthen the building blocks of country’s journey to a more stable nationhood; well, until the turning point of October 8, 2020, following the shooting of a young person in Delta state by men of the notorious Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS).
And for almost two weeks thereafter, another dimension was introduced to the dynamics of the struggle to make the Nigerian nation a better and democratically functional society. The substance of this struggle is novel; and the impact more extensive than anything that went before it.
This is the #ENDSARS protest which has rocked the Nigerian state to almost its foundation. It’s been digitally driven; the Nigerian youths who have been in the forefront of the protest have surpassed what puny effort their parents attempted at confronting the monstrous status quo, the bold young people have surprised even themselves at their own courage and resilience; in their spontaneity and mass mobilization at a snap notice; and with bare fist have terrorized the SARS that menaced the land for years. The shock of the outcome will stay with us for years to come.
No doubt, the unprecedented action of a demography hitherto seen as lazy, fun-loving, and known for complacency is bound to awaken demons in any society. However, as threatening as this thunder-strike out of the blues may be to the nation’s corporate existence, can Nigeria as a society make a new order out of the seeming chaos?
Seen from the point-of-view of the political elite, the main fear is that the protest possesses the potential to morph into a full-blown revolution capable of disrupting the status quo if not promptly brought under check. In actuality, the magnitude of the protests brings into focus like never before, the stark power of Nigerian youths who make up more than 65% of the nation`s population, a force waiting and begging to be mobilized for the betterment of Nigerian society.
Although the spontaneity of the protests exposes the vulnerabilities of Nigeria’s political structure, it however presents an opportunity to listen to the voice of reason as encapsulated in the demands of the protesters. Make no mistake! Nigeria is on the verge of a precipice and must never be allowed to tip over. It is time to rein in the forces capable of its destruction through constructive engagement. It is no brainer that the scales weigh in favour of the youths by sheer force of numbers, vigour of youth, education, technological savviness, and age on their side.
Add to that, the immediacy and global reach of social media communication. Certainly, there should be better ways to deploy such a humongous force than being confrontational.
Yet, a study of the root causes of the raging crises will reveal that the #ENDSARS protest was provoked by the unmitigated brutality, reckless extortion and extrajudicial killing of mostly young Nigerians by a notorious unit of the Nigerian Police, the Special Armed Robbery Squad (SARS). The nefarious activities of this police unit, that had become addicted to daily and random application of brute force against citizens it was set up to protect, was left unchecked by the top hierarchy of the Nigeria Police Force for too long. The frightening statistics of its misdemeanors denigrates the moral fiber of the police and justifies the compelling demand by the youths that they should be dissolved immediately.
This time, the Nigerian youth, challenged by the necessity of time and history has boldly stepped forward to fill the gap left by the mostly negligent generation before them. When and where the institutions of accountability were silent, the youths have, through the ubiquitous protests, vehemently spoken up against the wanton excesses of the Nigerian state, which have serially betrayed their present and future.
The actions of youths in cities across Nigeria are tantamount to an uprising which purpose is to clean the Augean stable of a sinking and decaying nation. The absolute lack of accountability and a sense of duty – both to Nigeria and her citizens – coupled with the abrogation of justice and merit within the national service ecosystem has of course brought about the appalling state of things and now we are forced to contend with a clearly avoidable crisis.
Thankfully, to paraphrase a popular street parlance, there is a new sheriff in town who demands accountability. Interestingly, in response to the Five-Point-demand made by the #ENDSARS protesters, the Nigerian state, whose acts of omission and commission directly contributed to the sorry state of affairs, have taken responsibility, disbanded SARS and initiated programs that will eventually lead to sweeping reforms within the Nigeria Police Force. Beyond rhetoric, the youths are now asking for concrete actions of reforms to be undertaken.
Therefore, the ill-advised and intemperate deployment of troops to shoot at and kill a yet-to-be-determined number of unarmed protesters at Lekki toll gate in Lagos is utterly despicable and condemnable, though hardly a surprise.
The Arab spring happened less than ten years ago. The vests protests in France rolled for several months, Black Life Matters protests rocked America only a few months ago, therefore a paranoid Nigerian system went into a flee or-fight mode at the very scent of a mass revolt; and fought back the only way it knows how. But it can only ignore the available resolution options to our eternal peril.
Hence, the Federal Government must do all in its powers to identify the culprits in this genocidal act and speedily bring them to justice. This is not the time for esprit de corps or cover up; it is pertinent that all practical measures are taken to promptly douse the flames that are threatening to consume the body corporate.
An Ibibio proverb says, caution the chic and caution the hawk. It is equally condemnable the atrocious acts of burning of public assets, looting of stores and shops owned by private citizens. It is not a pleasant sight to watch bank buildings and properties of high profiled citizens go up in flames, torched up by hoodlums masking as protesters. The impact of these dastardly acts is huge, and those perpetrating these acts seem ignorant of the fact that they ultimately end up having to pay for such damage to public assets through the taxes they pay, as well as suffering the unmet needs those vandalized facilities had served.
Moreover, the private citizens that have had their stores and shops looted had through their businesses provided employment to many of these teeming youths calling for change. We cannot all bite our noses to spite our face; so, there must be a point of détente; and that point is now.
A protracted crisis has the possibility to unleash anarchy. This potential, however, should not be tested, especially, in the admixture of the present cycle of insecurity, Covid-19- induced economic despondency, terrorism, and widespread banditry and brigandage. It would just be backbreaking and too much for a nation already bursting at the seams with youth unemployment and double-digit inflation.
As for the generality of the population, it is a time to heed the voice of reason. It is time for all stakeholders in the Nigeria project to come together and dialogue for the emergence of a just and egalitarian society, one that recognizes and respects our diversity and inspires belief and a sense of belonging.
Finally, in the limitation of our present circumstance, we must not lose sight of the infinite potentials in our youths and our land. The effort at rebuilding the country and regaining the trust and confidence of the citizens would be enormous. The consequences of not making this effort will be dire. Let us seize the opportunity provided by the moment!
Long live the Federal Republic of Nigeria!!!
Mr. Ide Owodiong-Idemeko is National Coordinator of the NGO 1001+Voices Initiative for People Empowerment.