The #EndSARS protest recently embarked upon by Nigerian youths in major cities across the country, in my understanding, was not entirely a vote of no confidence in the Nigerian Police Force. Although anchored on grievances against an arm of the police, the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS), whose conduct was seen as unprofessional, the protest pushed for the reform of the entire police force, with emphasis on conduct of policemen, mode of operation of the force and welfare of officers and men. It was, therefore, an irony that the protest ended badly, with the police suffering great casualties.
It is unfortunate that a protest, which started as a peaceful movement of youths trying to make their voices heard over some vexed issues in the land, ended in violence. Youths, who wanted to ventilate their anger about matters agitating their minds, started a peaceful protest, marching in the streets and blocking roads, peacefully. Undesirable elements, whose motive was, obviously, different from the non-violent youths, hijacked the protest, turned it bloody and unleashed mayhem on a nation and its people. Civilians, policemen and soldiers lost their lives in a cruel manner. Public and private property were looted and destroyed. The country was on the brink.
It must be noted that protests are legitimate anywhere in the world. It is an accepted way to bring to the fore things that need urgent attention. People protest in First World countries, just as in Third World nations. In Nigeria, protests are not new. There have been several protests, over the years, as Nigerians tried to express reservations about governance. In recent times, Nigeria witnessed the anti-SAP (Structural Adjustment Programme) protest during the military government of General Ibrahim Babangida. Nigerians saw the June 12 protest of 1993, in the aftermath of the cancellation of the 1993 presidential election, during the Babangida, the Ernest Shonekan and General Sani Abacha governments. Nigeria witnessed the anti-fuel subsidy removal protest during the Goodluck Jonathan government. Some of these protests were violent and disruptive, but the various governments found ways to settle the matter.
The peaceful #EndSARS protest turned bloody because of avoidable mistakes. The first mistake was that President Muhammadu Buhari spoke too late over the protest. His aides issued press statements quite all right, earlier, but the President needed to make a national broadcast to assuage the grievances of the protesting youths. Had the President addressed the nation earlier than he did, the country would not have ended with a bloody nose. Everything President Buhari said on October 22, 2020, could have been said the previous week and by so doing averted the destruction that climaxed the protest. To show the desirability of a presidential address, after President Buhari spoke, tension came down and the violence ceased soon after. There is certainly a difference between press statements by presidential aides and a broadcast by Mr. President.
The second mistake was the use of live ammunition to disperse protesters at Lekki toll gate, Lagos. It was a grave error. Agreed that the government wanted to enforce an order for people to be off the street, in accordance with the curfew declared by the Lagos State government, there are many ways this could have been done without resorting to use of live ammunition. Security agents could use rubber or blank bullets. They could use teargas. They could spray water to disperse the crowd. These are civil ways to quell riots and protests. Rather than use these, our soldiers employed extreme force, using live ammunition and thereby causing serious injuries and loss of lives. This worsened an already bad situation.
The third mistake was the announcement of the setting up of the police tactical unit: the Special Weapons and Tactics team (SWAT). The move was hasty, coming immediately after the disbandment of the SARS. No matter the good intentions of the Inspector-General of Police, the announcement of the setting up of SWAT was like the renaming of SARS. That is why many Nigerians saw SARS and SWAT as two sides of the same coin and could not be persuaded that the personnel of the former would not transform to operatives of the latter. The setting up of SWAT should have come after the protests. However, the police high command should know that, in countries where SWAT is in place, the team is only used for special civil security operations, and not seen every day in the street, as regular policemen. It is an elite squad, with specially trained operatives who use “specialised or military equipment.”
For the avoidance of doubt, the #EndSARS protest came at a great cost to the country, with the destruction of police stations, public, private buildings, vehicles and looting of government buildings, private warehouses, shopping malls and supermarkets. However, with it, government now knows the consequences of making anger to boil over in the country. Government should see the protest as a wakeup call to address socio-economic and political issues that are impinging on development. The protest may have centred on the brutality, corruption and unprofessional conduct of SARS operatives, but it was an avenue to highlight injustice, inequity and failure of government.
It was commendable that the Federal Government expressly agreed to implement the five demands of the #EndSARS protesters, which included: Proscription of SARS; release of all arrested protesters; justice for all deceased victims of police brutality and appropriate compensation for their families; setting up of independent body to investigate and prosecute all reported cases of police misconduct; and increase of police salary. In this regard, government promptly disbanded SARS. The Federal Government also said it was awaiting the completion of work on new police salary and welfare structure. State governments have set up judicial commissions of inquiry on SARS operations. However, the Federal Government should know that it cannot solve the problem of the police without looking towards state police.
Towards police reforms, however, the rebuilding of police stations destroyed by the mob should be the fulcrum of government’s action. Government should show its seriousness in reforming the police by now building standard police stations in place of the destroyed ones. What we call police stations are unbefitting of Nigeria. They are a disgrace. Such stations are demeaning to policemen who use them. The government should, therefore, come up with design of standard police stations, as seen in other countries, furnished with modern equipment. This will give policemen some level of dignity and would be the beginning of the process of re-engineering, reorientation and restoration of the pride of the personnel, which has been battered by the mob action against the force. Just rehabilitating the destroyed police stations should be out of the question. The affected stations should be demolished and newly designed structures, which should be uniform nationwide, built. This will mark the beginning of police reforms.
In the aftermath of the #EndSARS protest, those who insist that now is the appropriate time to address the structure of Nigeria sure have a point. Government should broaden the horizon, by addressing the things that not only divide the country but also set it back. Government cannot run away from convoking a fresh national conference to address these fundamental issues or conscientiously implement the recommendations of the 2014 National Conference, which looked at and provided solutions to some of the flaws in Nigeria’s structure.
The #EndSARS protest should open the eyes of the youths to the reality that they could make things happen. It has laid the foundation for the youths to take their pride of place and shape the destiny of the country positively. If the youths mobilise themselves, as they did during the protest, at election time and work for people with great vision and mission to be elected, they would have their way. Politicians who do not mean well for the country use the youths to rig elections and manipulate the electoral process. Youths should, henceforth, stop working for these recurring Nigerians in politics and stand for fresh leaders who have the wherewithal for governance in the modern world. As the 2023 election beckons, it is left for the youths to know that the power is in them. If they use their energy collectively for a common good, greater success would be achieved in Nigeria.