The nationwide #EndSARS protest has thrown up many possibilities and probabilities. It has tried our collective resolve as a people; tasked our will, patience and emotional absorbency. But it’s the dialectics of leadership that caught my fancy the most. The deployment of language by our leaders especially. And this is where Governor Ifeanyi Okowa of Delta State scores high.
Instructively, the current and by far the most effective wave of #EndSARS protest was ignited by an incident in Ughelli, Delta State early this month. Despite the initial misrepresentations of facts surrounding the issue, officials of Delta State government, particularly the governor, were able to contain a near-volcanic eruption starting from Ughelli. But Okowa calmed frayed nerves. He stilled the raging storm by persuasion. Every protest is a conversation between the protesters and their oppressors. Okowa read this quickly. He came to the protesters not with harsh words or domineering ethos. He aligned with the oppressed. He took side with the protesters. Empathy is the chief tool of strategy. Okowa deployed empathy. He became ‘we the people’. He was careful not to ruffle already bristle feathers.
Hear his voice: “I appreciate all the #EndSARS protesters that came out today in Asaba and across Delta State for conducting a very peaceful and organised protest. As a parent, I am glad that you have gathered yourselves nationwide to protest police brutality.
“As leaders, we acknowledge that we have failed — even as parents. In my own home, when my children spoke about this protest, I realised that this is a collective pain that is shared by all Nigerian youth. This is why, as we move forward, I want you all to know that your voices have been heard loud and clear. SARS has been disbanded, however, I assure you that this is not the end.”
This is the voice of leadership. Every good leadership must give hope, not create fear. It must inspire and motivate; not demean and denigrate. Okowa did not arrogate to himself the authority to silence the voices of vanquished men and women. He did not grandstand from the Olympian crest of most Nigerian leaderships. He levelled with the people. Put himself in their stead. He acknowledged that the leaders have failed the led. He admitted the excesses of SARS and the police. He did not defend incompetence. He did not opt to be politically-correct by defending the police hierarchy. He simply spoke truth to power while not exonerating himself. I wager that as a father, he must have been pained by the sordid tales told about SARS and other police officers and rank-and-file by the youths and sundry victims of the SARS savagery.
He strikes the right chord once more here! “Moving forward, I appeal to you to remain peaceful and law-abiding as you go about this legitimate protest. Having made your voices heard, I ask that you please give us some time to work things out with key stakeholders across the nation.
“As we continue to protect the right of our young people to express their legitimate concerns through peaceful protests, this afternoon, I went to the #EndSARS protest in Asaba to listen to the complaints and suggestions on the way forward.
“Peaceful protests are a necessary part of the democratic process. As young people across Delta State continue to express their legitimate grievances in this manner, I ask that they remain calm and law-abiding at all times.”
This is how Okowa averted fatalities during the anti-SARS protest in Delta State, a state famed for its assertive, active and self-assured youths. He deployed calming words void of incendiary tonalities.
“I also request that the Police allow them (the protesters) to express themselves and refrain from using brute force in responding to these protests. Going forward, we shall continue to engage with all relevant stakeholders to reform the Nigeria Police Force in a manner that makes it more professional, disciplined, and accountable to the people.
Nigeria has witnessed the power of social media and the unquenchable energy of our youth — especially those who took to the streets to express their grievances peacefully. Make no mistake, we see you! We hear you! We are working to make things better!” Okowa assured the crowd.
But beyond the sophistry of words, the #EndSARS protest represents an expression of pent-up anger. Rage bottled up in the bosom of Nigerians. And it has nothing to do with the government of Muhammadu Buhari. It’s a collective rage against police brutality. SARS was only a fitting metaphor for the bestiality visited on Nigerians through the decades. It’s historical. Fela Anikulapo Kuti, the late maverick musician and philosopher, raved against police brutality, military hostility and sundry extra-judicial killings in his active days.
But never has any group of persons or individual galvanised themselves into a monumental movement as we have witnessed among Nigerian youths these past days. The youths simply made a loud statement: that they are able and willing to take back their country. They raised the banner that Nigeria is redeemable. They had no weapon; had no deep pocket. They only came out with their voices. They overran streets with their energy. Zesty. Feisty. Engaging. The Nigerian youths showed pluck and spark. They bared their fangs. They made an open show of the ‘Lazy Youths’ tag. Demystifying the guns of their oppressors. Unleashing a mettle we never knew was there. And this sends a clear message: Nigeria belongs to the youths. And they are asking that we give their country back to them.
I concur with Governor Okowa: The leaders have failed the youths. And now is the time to make amends. The first step is to recognise they have the right to peaceful protest. Don’t ever try to muzzle their voices. The swift rebranding of (F)SARS to SWAT (Special Weapons and Tactics) unit is suspicious. The problem is not in nomenclature. It’s in the philosophy and psychology of the officers. IGP Adamu should be smarter than this. He has at his disposal the list of the bad eggs that turned SARS to a criminal gang. He must name and shame them publicly, then ensure their prosecution. The biggest incentive for police gangsterism has been the absence of punishment. Police have a creepy culture of protecting criminal cops in their midst. This must stop. #EndSARS protest is a direct indictment of IGP Adamu. He didn’t require a push to take action. He was comfortable with the menace of SARS until he got a jab from the youths. Not a good testimonial for him.
This is a revolution. For once, the global community collectively identified with a Nigerian cause. The youths are the masters and custodians of social media. And they deployed it maximally. Henceforth, let no Nigerian leader, retired or serving, think he or she is safely quarantined in the comfort of their homes and offices. There’s no comfort anywhere. We’re all vulnerable. We’re all in the streets: Exposed. Wounded. Pained! And make no mistake about it: The revolution has just begun. The owners of Nigeria are taking back their country. Your bayonets and blunderbuss cannot stop them: IGP Adamu, please note!