It started unexpectedly on October 7, 2020, as a peaceful protest directed against police brutality, extortion, torture, and widespread extrajudicial killings. The protests rolled on seamlessly on the first two days. The organisers marched on defiantly. They have had enough. They were determined to carry the protest to the highest level of government and to sustain it as long as it was necessary.
Everything was going on as planned. The police, the subject of public anger, disappeared from the streets. The government and politicians underestimated the scale of public anger.
A combination of open public protests and social media activism became an important channel through which youths expressed their resentment against national leaders, the government, and all institutions responsible for law and order. Through non-stop demonstrations, Nigerian youths exhibited their united voice against various ills that have continued to trouble the country. The protests showed people could no longer tolerate the culture of silence and submissiveness to political leaders even as the country disintegrated through bad leadership.
There comes a time in a nation’s history when citizens would rise to say: “Enough is enough”. That was one message conveyed by youths to the government. The protesters also placed the Nigeria Police, the government, and other officials on notice. It is no longer going to be business as usual for the government and the police. Any government official who thought the protests would fade quickly would have to reflect critically on the events of the past week that nearly brought the country down to its knees.
Everything was going on calmly until hoodlums arrived and took control of the protests. From that point onward, anarchy set in and the protests lost direction and focus. While the peaceful protesters had clear objectives and direction, the thugs were aimless, violent, and unthinking. They robbed businesses and homes. They bashed people indiscriminately. They blocked roads. They beat and shot at the police. They forced their way into some police stations and set them on fire. They stormed commercial banks, destroyed security doors, turned the vaults upside down and stole money, while some other greedy ones yanked ATM machines out of bank buildings or carried them away.
The hoodlums moved into prisons and set free prisoners who were convicted and serving various terms. They ransacked, looted, and destroyed large and small-scale businesses, particularly businesses owned by prominent politicians and other upper-class members of society. Not only did the gangsters commit unimaginable atrocities, they undermined the spirit and public support of the demonstrations. Clearly, these criminal activities were not a part of the peaceful protests.
One of the most stunning revelations of the state of anarchy was the shocking discovery of warehouses in which state governments stockpiled foodstuff labelled COVID-19 palliatives that ought to have been distributed to people buffeted by hunger during this period of the health pandemic. In various state capitals, angry protesters alerted to the locations of the warehouses moved quickly to raid the foodstuff.
Government officials who stockpiled foodstuff that should have been given out to citizens during the peak of COVID-19 must be held accountable for the melee that broke out as people struggled to cart away food items they perceived as their entitlement. A combination of anger and poverty was evident on the faces of people who plundered the warehouses. It is inconceivable that state governments could hoard food items meant for people. It is inconceivable, inappropriate and indeed coldblooded for officials to keep so much foodstuff away from hungry people. What a country!
There is no way any state government would justify keeping large stock of food items locked in a warehouse while citizens continued to starve. It never ceases to amaze me how hard-hearted and cruel state government officials could be. What purpose was served by hoarding large quantities of foodstuff?
The discovery of warehouses containing large quantities of food exposed the hypocrisies of state governments. These state officials were elected or appointed to serve the interests of their people, including looking after their welfare, wellbeing and security.
Regardless of the atrocities unearthed by protesters, the organisers achieved some key objectives. They succeeded to get the attention of government and political leaders who previously disregarded their views. The protesters successfully forced into the public sphere issues that are central to the survival of ordinary people in Nigeria, apart from police brutality and impunity by all manner of people. Above all, the protesters demonstrated alternative and peaceful ways through which citizens could wrest their destiny from the grip of clueless national leaders.
Indeed, the protests showed that power belongs to ordinary citizens, not necessarily security forces wielding guns and other weapons of mass destruction with which they threaten civil society.
A new beginning has set in. Politicians and government leaders have no reason, henceforth, to treat citizens with contempt. Every citizen is equal before the law. It is this fundamental right of Nigerian people that has been abused repeatedly by various governments since independence.
Another message that came out of the protests is the equality of all regions and ethnic groups. National resources must be distributed on a set of criteria that recognise equality and citizenship. No region should be privileged over others. No region should be seen as more deserving of national resources than other regions.
If we must admit one error that was made by the protest organisers, it must be that the protests lacked central leadership. A protest without an identifiable face or leader is like an orchestra without a conductor. The job of the conductor is to guide the performance of the orchestra with “movements of the hands and arms”. It is the conductor who unites the orchestra, establishes the rhythm, and moulds the music of the performing group.
Since independence, Nigeria has moved aimlessly like a ship taking water on high seas. During that period, less endowed African countries have emerged stronger economically. They carved out strong political institutions and processes that ensured stable government. It is a shame that some African countries that used to receive economic, financial, and military aid from Nigeria have overtaken Nigeria in all indices of development.
While Bongos Ikwue the musician sang about his endless search for true love, Nigeria has also been searching timelessly for true national leaders. For six decades, Nigeria the “Giant of Africa” has regressed or degenerated rather than improved because governments didn’t know what to do with the vast human, natural, material and financial resources with which the country is blessed.
For 60 years, Nigeria looked for a redeemer who would save the country from the quicksand in which it has been stuck. Unfortunately, the more everyone gazed into the horizon, the less they saw beyond their noses. The future of Nigeria and indeed the present state of Nigeria remain on a slippery slope. The country could slip into anarchy any moment.
The underlying message from the peaceful protests that were disrupted by criminals is clear. The idea that national leaders are all-knowing, the idea that they have the divine right to govern anyhow they choose, the assumption that citizens could not challenge the authority of political leaders, and the frivolous idea that what national leaders say should be understood as law could no longer be sustained on any platform, thanks to the #EndSARS protests.