Change is the byword of the moment. But the change we talk about here is not about regime change as was the mantra in 2015 when some misguided crusaders wanted change for the sake of it. Change in the present circumstance is imperative. It is hinged on the way things are in the country. The people want their government to change the way the country is being run. They want their government to change the structure of the country so that every component unit will be protected by the Constitution. They are worried that a supposed federal republic such as theirs is operating a unitary constitution that makes it possible for one section to dominate the other. They want an abrogation of this lopsided order and enthrone in its place an arrangement that will accommodate one and all. That is the change they seek.
Before now, there have been strident calls by regional bodies and interest groups for the restructuring of the country. Well-meaning individuals have also been weighing in on the matter. Strangely, the government of the day has remained adamant. It is insisting on the present order, which has brought so much instability to the country. Then you begin to wonder whose interest the government is serving. Since government derives its legitimacy from the people, it goes without saying that it exists in the service of the people. When the reverse is the case, there is bound to be discontent. An atmosphere of discontent necessarily leads to agitation. That is why we are where we are today.
No doubt, #EndSARS protest was the face of the agitation. The Nigeria Police Force may have been chosen as the starting point of the agitation for the simple reason that the institution is one of the sorest points of the system we run. If impunity and mindless oppression have a place in the affairs of the land, the police force epitomizes this malaise in its most banal. And so when #EndSARS agitators launched their campaign for police reforms as well as an end to police brutality, it started as a mere protest; the feeble type that we are used to in Nigeria. There, certainly, were signs that the exercise was more than ordinary. But those who are fixated on the present order could not see it for what it was. They dismissed it as a noise; in fact, as that occasional irritation, which disgruntled elements usually inflict on the country whenever they want to be heard or seen. Little did they know that the #EndSARS protest was a phenomenon. It had a life of its own. That was why they mismanaged the situation. Rather than think through the reason for the agitation and seek ways to address it, the oppressors thought that the way to go was to apply brute force. They decided to kill the fly with a sledge hammer.
Now, what started as a peaceful protest by the youth has been hijacked by angry Nigerians on the sidelines. These are people who have been choked by the injustice in the land. They are the suffering masses who have looked helplessly as impunity and nepotism reign and rule. They have shouted their voices hoarse in their closets. But nobody reckoned with them. Now, their anger has found expression, and we are all caught in the miasma.
The situation we have on our hands is a clear message to the government of President Muhammadu Buhari to connect more with the people. It may be making some effort in its own way. But there is a huge yawning gap waiting to be filled. I feel that the President should seize the occasion of the present disorder to demonstrate that he has the responsibility to minister to the yearnings and aspirations of the people. That was why I stated in this column last Monday that the President should address the nation on the state of affairs in the country. Twenty-four hours later, the Senate reechoed my call. Other well-meaning Nigerians also followed this line of argument. Then some 17 days after the #EndSARS saga began, the President finally broke his silence.
Regrettably, when the President spoke, he betrayed disinterest in the matter. His mood did not connect with ours. He did not see any need for the protest. He just felt that the peace of the country was being disturbed for nothing. He had nothing but disdain for, as he put it, “the so-called protesters”. And so, nothing reassuring came from him. Looking back, those of us who spear-headed the call for the President to address the nation are wondering what our effort has amounted to. The way it turned out, it would have better if he did not speak at all.
Going by what the President said or did not say, it is clear that he saw what happened as a mere agitation for police reforms. But the upheaval we just witnessed said much more than that. The agitators want a new Nigeria where things will work. The country, at present, is consumed by its own imperfections. The people have consistently drawn attention to the ills plaguing the land. They have suggested ways and means of getting out of the ugly setup. But they have largely been ignored. They find this very revolting. What they just let up is their bottled feeling of rejection and enslavement in their own land.
Having undertaken this painful step, which has, most unfortunately, brought about loss of lives and destruction of property, it is our prayer that we do not come to this dangerous bend again. Our prayer will readily be answered, if the President takes steps to effect some institutional changes in the land. It will be in the overall interest of the country. It will reassure Nigerians, both young and old, Christian or Moslem, north or south, that their tomorrow is guaranteed. Nigeria needs that safety valve to get out of its present comatose state.
Simply put, the #EndSARS agitation is merely the preface to the quest. The agitation has a load of content, which government will take time to deal with. What the protesters have unfolded is just the prelude to and definition of the new Nigeria that they seek. When the people for whom government exists seek change, it is imperative for that government to respect what they want and act accordingly. This is because no government can conveniently rule over a people without their consent.
Some of us have always argued, and will continue to argue, that those who are opposed to a restructured Nigeria are the country’s worst enemies. They are the people who do not want the people of Nigeria to coexist in peace. They are agents of destabilization and disintegration. On the contrary, those who want Nigeria restructured are the real patriots. They are the people who want the country to remain united. Unity thrives in an atmosphere of fairness, equity and justice. These are the ingredients that energize the people and give them the impetus to stand firm with their fatherland. A deprived people will only have resentment for their country.
Therefore, the President has a patriotic duty to take a dispassionate look at the issues before him. To do this, he must put on the toga of a statesman who cares about the verdict of history. Our President cannot afford the folly of Nero who fiddled while Rome burnt.