The past year was a horrible year for Nigeria and the world, because of the COVID-19 pandemic that turned our lives and lifestyle topsy-turvy. Those who rose stoutly to the challenge that the pandemic posed remain heroes to whom we owe a debt of gratitude. But in selecting the Person of the Year, I find that The Protester commands a prime position in my book of analysis. So The Protester is my Person of the Year 2020. The #EndSARS protest by young Nigerians against police brutality and extortion that started peacefully in Nigeria on October 8 and ended in a whiff on brutality on October 20 was a defining moment for Nigeria. The protester’s place in Nigeria is cemented by the failure of the governing elite at all levels to do their duty efficiently and effectively to Nigerians.
The simple logic is that in Nigeria you can hardly get done what needs to be done without a protest. If protestlessness will not do it then a protest is an inevitable call to duty. By this logic, we must adopt protests, peaceful protests, as part of our schedule of duty, our scheme of service, our religious duty, our citizen’s duty because we all occupy the hallowed Office of the Citizen. We are unelected and unappointed to any office. Our mandate comes simply from our citizenship and from the crying need to keep on their toes those elected or appointed to make our lives better because, if we fail to do this duty, they may make our lives worse than we expected them to be. Four times in the last 20 years our governments had promised to reform the Nigeria Police Force into an efficient, fair and compassionate outfit. Four times they had failed. Four times their words had proved to be empty, empty words said on radio, television and newspapers. If we do get the police reformed in the near or far future, it will be because the youths struck on October 8, 2020.
If President Muhammadu Buhari, who told the youths “I have heard you loud and clear,” decides to move from rhetoric to reforms, it will be because the youths rattled the slumbering ruling elite with the success of their meritorious outing. Their modus operandi was perfect, cinematic. They proved that they had the surefootedness of an American Navy Seal. They provided their security, their medicals, their mobile toilet, their food, their water. They raised money transparently and accounted for the expenditure transparently, informing people day by day how much they collected, how much they spent and for what. In a country that has a deep disdain for accountability and transparency but which worships mediocrity and incompetence, their performance was an outstanding example of institutional excellence.
The comprehensiveness of the protesters’ composition is exemplified by the full range of the human species: the woman in hijab that punched the air in rebellion; the nursing mother with a baby in her left hand and a clenched fist in the other; the one-legged man with a stick to support his fragile frame who had nothing to give except the solidarity of a clenched fist; and the hordes of celebrities who donated money and time and tongue to the protest. In truth, the protesters displayed an admirable work ethic, a fabulous show of diligence at what needed to be done, empathy for those in need, group loyalty and fellow feeling, which boosted team morale and the overall success of their self-assigned duty. If the protesters were afraid of the response from a ruling elite that often barks at and sometimes bites even peaceful protesters, they did not show it. What they showed was courage, and courage is not the absence of fear but the ability to carry on with dignity in spite of it.
They must have thought that, since their protest was peaceful, they would not be attacked by the forces of darkness. Alternatively, they may have thought that it was better to die on their feet than to live on their knees. Their placards were their principal weapons of war. The words on the placards were truthful words, words that had the power to wound. The placards were the equivalent of the scaffolding for the building of a better society, a society that was deeply in need of rehabilitation and refurbishment. This country has had its fair share of protests. It is a country that protests have built. In 1962, the students of the University of Ibadan poured into Lagos and disrupted parliamentary proceedings at Tafawa Balewa Square because of the ill-considered plan by the Abubakar Tafawa Balewa government to sign the Anglo-Defence Pact with Britain. The pact was killed by the protesters. We also had the Ali-Must-Go protests of 1978, which was a protest against the poor attention paid by the Federal Government to education then. That problem still lingers till this day.
The victorious Super Falcons who returned from the African Cup of Nations in Cameroon in 2016 hugging the continental trophy had to hide the trophy and march in the streets to be paid their entitlements even in that moment of glorious achievement. In the political arena, some wacky presidential politics occurred in 2009. President Umaru Yar’Adua was on a sick bed outside the country but no one would allow the Vice-President, Dr. Goodluck Jonathan, to act. So, the country was sitting and looking ugly, looking leaderless like a rudderless ship. It took the courage of Professor Wole Soyinka and some young people under the canopy of Enough is Enough to force the National Assembly to cough up a formula called the Doctrine of Necessity to save the country from a constitutional crisis. Anyone would have thought that it would be as easy as drinking water for a Vice-President to step into the next office in an acting capacity when the substantive holder of that office is unavailable. But this is a different country. It took a protest to achieve the feat. This is a country that doesn’t obey its own rules. At every point, it either bends or breaks those rules to suit the convenience of some selfish, narrow and ignoble interests. The 2020 protest received a groundswell of support and the stamp of nobility from all corners within and outside the country, because we live at a time that the odious forces of ethnicity, religion, nepotism and cronyism have become the binding gospel of governance. This gospel, which has stymied the country’s growth and reduced its ability for problem-solving, made the protests against police brutality and other existential problems attractive for those who thought the youths were making the right noises.
What they said were only repetitions of what we already knew, what we already clamoured for, what we didn’t get a listening ear to. Our demands fell only on deaf ears. If they had acted all along, we would not have arrived at the denouement of October 20 that threatened to dim our lights and drown our hopes. We have generally been living a life that is false to the faith of good governance. What the protests told us is that we must make this country better, much better, than a den of thieves. The youths think that those who rule us are very poor at catering for our interests but very good at catering for their own. Some of our countrymen and women sleep on the streets or in the gutters or in uncompleted buildings or in ghettos called face-me-I-face-you. In such places, water and electricity are a luxury. They use pit latrines or simply defecate anywhere. Their life is what has brought the words “open defecation” into our lexicon even in 21st century Nigeria. There are many things wrong with our governance culture.
Let me titillate you with some of them by a few posers. If crude oil is important to us, why are we flaring gas away? If it is important why have we not passed the Petroleum Industry Bill for years now? If diversification is important, why is our gold deposit left for illegal miners to exploit? If industrialisation is important, why is Ajaokuta Steel Mill dead? If petroleum products are important for domestic and industrial use, why are our four refineries comatose? If football is important to us, why are the two national stadia in Abuja and Lagos overgrown with weeds? If publishing and education are relevant to our existence, why are all the three paper mills at Iwopin, Jebba and Oku Iboku all dead? Now, this is no doomsday prediction. The future of our children is very bleak. In the infant mortality index, Nigeria is placed at number 137 out of 140 countries surveyed. At least 14 million of our children are out of school.
With the high level of insecurity in the country and the dip in the financial fortunes of parents, the figure will go up, which will add to the 66% of our rural children who can neither read nor write. The number of unemployed youths is conservatively put at about 18 million. With COVID-19 and Nigeria’s drift into recession, the unemployment figure will go up. Let us say that, with the end of the protest that was hijacked and transformed into a carnival of violence, our immediate peril is past but our immediate future is pregnant with uncertainty from the debilitating problems of insecurity, high debts, recession and the COVID-19 pandemic. Since we still have anti-democracy forces in our midst who have no interest in accountable governance but are happy to deodorise incompetence, lack of transparency, mediocrity and authoritarianism, we the citizens must continue to gird our loins and defend our hard-won democracy.
In Nigeria, the strands of prevailing words of wisdom are “if you can’t beat them join them” or “wait for your time” or “it is God’s wish” or to save your skin you are asked to subscribe to the arcane philosophy of siddon-lookism, a philosophy that contributes nothing to problem-solving. As Nigerians continue to smell the rancid odour of frustration arising from governance failure in solving the excruciating, existential problems faced by the citizenry, the place of the protester is assured in our lives. With a governing elite that is impervious to the views of the people in governance matters, it is imperative that we support, at all times, peaceful protests with the enthusiasm of new converts. That is a duty that belongs to the Office of the Citizen, an office occupied by you and me.