It started as a demonstration against brutality and indiscriminate killings by the police special unit known as SARS (Special Anti-Robbery Squad). In less than a week, the demands of the protesters have ballooned. Angry voices of dissent grew and spread rapidly across all geographic regions of the country. Different groups produced their own list of demands. One group presented seven key demands. Another group held aloft a long list of 23 demands. Yet one other group drew up a modest list of five demands. Suddenly, Nigerian youths once described as “lousy” have demonstrated their capacity to force their views onto an agenda for nationwide discussion.
The protests intended to end impunity by SARS have unearthed ordinary people’s deep-seated anger against abuses by the state, in particular lawlessness by law enforcement officials who are expected to protect the people. The uncompromising nature of the protests suggests that public anger has reached a crescendo, a point at which people no longer care whether they are shot and killed by security forces.
The protests showed public anger was directed not only against the government but also against all problematic institutions of society such as the police, legislators and their unjustifiable salaries and allowances, a corrupt judiciary, a decrepit education system, an erratic electricity sector, and an electoral system long overdue for radical reforms.
Other issues highlighted by the protests included: a wobbly national security; lack of accountability in the oil and gas sector; poor remuneration of medical doctors, nurses, teachers, members of the armed forces, and all public servants; discriminatory treatment of citizens based on their ethnicity, their religion, and their region of origin; unequal access, by all citizens, to national resources; as well as ethnically skewed appointments into federal departments, ministries, and agencies that have exposed how certain people in certain regions have consistently been marginalised and impoverished.
The clear and unmistakeable message is that all corrupt and decaying institutions, as well as all injustices perpetrated against citizens, must be addressed before Nigeria can move forward in the spirit of national unity. People can no longer be treated like second-class citizens in their motherland.
While the demonstrators have successfully drawn government and public attention to existing and irritating inequalities and regional prejudices that define how Nigerians relate with one another and how government resources are allocated lopsidedly across the country, it is important to caution that it is not yet Uhuru.
The protesters must be prepared for a long period of waiting. They must plan for any attempt to break their spirit and their fragile unity. The widespread protests have all the key attributes of a revolution, particularly the 2011 revolutions in Arab North Africa. Consider this. The organisers of the ongoing revolution used social media and digital technology to mobilise and coordinate their activities and meetings, they used technology for rapid fund raising, for planning and training of their members, for prompt sharing of information among local protest organisers and the international community, for enlistment of supporters with shared views about the state of the nation and the need to intervene, for furnishing the international community with photographic evidence of abuses by state officials, and to reinforce to their members the values of peaceful demonstrations.
Other features that added impetus to the current demonstrations are the carnival atmosphere, distribution of free food and drinks, umbrellas and raincoats, as well as constant music played by some local artistes. Regardless of all these, it would be somewhat premature to conclude that a revolution is now underway in Nigeria. There are still numerous challenges that lie ahead.
While some protesters may be celebrating victory of sorts because of the scrapping of SARS, it is important to remind everyone who might be carried away by this gesture that a name change to SWAT does not mean anything. SARS has changed but SARS under another name remains very much alive. As the saying goes, the hood does not make a monk. While SARS may have been discarded, the officers who worked under the SARS badge still remain within the organisation that replaced SARS. Changing the name of an organisation that is at the centre of sustained public agitations is simply a cosmetic treatment.
SARS may have shed its name but the new name SWAT is still populated by men who operated the former SARS. Would the new robe change the character and modus operandi of members of SWAT? Is that a reform? Would a name change also transform the behaviour of members of SWAT and how they relate with the society in which they operate?
One of the challenges facing the people protesting police violence is the visibility of people calling for the re-establishment of SARS. This suggests that the protesters are still encumbered by lack of a uniform voice. Some sycophants (preferably known as “Opposite People”, apologies to Fela) who are notorious for their obsequiousness have angrily called for restoration of the disbanded SARS, arguing that the unit was a formidable force in the fight against armed robbery and other crimes in their region. They even urged Buhari to deploy soldiers to the streets so they could use unprecedented force to end the protests. It is good that Buhari did not listen to that advice. One of the fastest ways any government could lose its friends in the international community is to set its own military against its own people.
By adopting that weird position, by arguing that the protesters were misguided, these absurd defenders of the Presidency allowed their idiocy to override their common sense. Patriotism is not about being servile to national leaders. It is more about advocating views that enhance the socioeconomic conditions of citizens, including their fundamental rights to be heard, their right to participate in deliberative democracy, and their right to seek information, and express their views in any forum without any hindrance.
This minority group should look into history to see that the use of military force has never been successful in suppressing pro-democracy demonstrations anywhere in the world. This is substantiated by historical events across cultures, such as the Iranian Revolution of 1979 and the 2011 popular uprisings in North Africa.
It is pleasing to note that Buhari did not accede to unsolicited and toxic advice offered by these yesterday’s men. Their capacity to analyse critical national issues without ethnic, religious, and regional coloration is highly defective and, therefore, blemished.
One of the biggest problems in Nigeria is the inability of the educated class to live above ethnic and religious chauvinism. When someone is apprehended for corruption, the tribesmen and women would push for the release of the person on the ground that the person is “our thief”. In other words, it is all right to allow corruption or stealing by a member of our ethnic group.
For a people so much oppressed and victimised by their own political system, the demonstrators believe they have nothing to lose by defying gun-wielding security agents. It takes just one act of provocation to trigger popular protests against security forces and state officials. National leaders must never treat ordinary citizens with contempt.
In a democracy, every citizen has a voice that must be heard, no matter how irritating that voice might sound. There are important lessons the government must learn from the continuing protests. The end is not yet in sight. Nor does anyone know how the whole scenario would end.