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#EndSARS protesters: The youth who brought back our country

By Tony Okeregbe and Wole Oyebade
28 December 2020   |   3:40 am
When soldiers came under the cover of darkness and shot at peacefully protesting youth at the Lekki tollgate on that fateful October 20, they had reckoned with finality that history would be on their side

[FILES] A demonstrator holds a placard to protest against abuses by the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) at the Lekki toll Plaza in Lagos, on October 12, 2020. – Nigerians protested to pressure the government to follow through on disbanding a feared police unit after authorities made the rare concession in the face of widespread anger over abuses.<br />Around 2,000 people blocked one of the main highways in the country’s biggest city Lagos, demanding officials make good on an announcement on October 11, 2020, that the federal Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) was being scrapped. (Photo by PIUS UTOMI EKPEI / AFP)

You may tread me in the very dirt,
But still, like dust, I’ll rise.”
– Maya Angelou

When soldiers came under the cover of darkness and shot at peacefully protesting youth at the Lekki tollgate on that fateful October 20, they had reckoned with finality that history would be on their side. Government spin doctors weaved narratives upon narratives until the lies they spun told the truth about the event. Hired goons and hoodlums from high places also joined the fray to demonise the peaceful protests, but the triumph of the youths and the message they telegraphed had long found their intended audience. The courageous and tenacious act of these #EndSARS protesters could only be captured in the vivid imagery of Maya Angelou’s Poem ‘Still I will rise’.

Despite the suppressed anger and sadness enveloping the land, Thursday, October 8, 2020, dawned like any other day in Nigeria. It was the D-day to start off the mother of all protests. Discontent Nigerian youths, beaten by frustration from the COVID-19 lockdown and the long strike carried out by university lecturers, responded to the call for a peaceful protest against police brutality. Just as it happened in Tunisia on December 17, 2010, when a street vendor, Mohammed Bouazizi, in uncanny audacity, set himself ablaze and sparked the Tunisian Revolution, so too a simple protest from middle-class youths complaining about police molestation caused a ripple effect that became the new metaphor for change.

Before then, the popular musician and social media influencer Azeez Fashola, aka Naira Marley, had jolted the consciousness of youths when he advertised his planned protest against the nefarious activities of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) unit of the Nigerian Police. This special unit of the force had been accused of indiscriminate stop-and-search routines that often led to extortion and extra-judicial killing of innocent Nigerians, especially young people. As the resultant tension was being doused by the police public relations officer, Frank Mba, flashpoints began to appear from far and wide. From Ughelli, Delta State came to a viral video showing a purported SARS official brutalising an unarmed citizen. In faraway London, popular singer and songwriter, Ayodeji Balogun, professionally known as Wizkid, took on President Buhari’s Twitter handle to reply a tweet wherein Buhari wished the recuperating American President, Donald Trump, well. Wizkid told the President to “Do something!”

What was the response from the government? Although the Inspector General of Police, Mohammed Adamu, volunteered some response by condemning the actions of incriminated officers, ordering the monitoring teams to promptly arrest and prosecute erring officers, and even disbanding SARS outright, the youth saw the move as a cosmetic exercise. Wanton criminality was still being perpetrated by SARS officials despite the IGP’s orders.

For President Buhari, who at a 2018 event in the United Kingdom, derided the Nigerian youthful population as ‘lazy Nigerian youth’, the audacity of the youth might have meant a slap on the face of Mr. President. And like a feudal lord who relished his entitlement to a land free of miscreants, the president dismissed the young ones with a stern warning. Where prudent paternalism would have worked, where a passionate address would have soothed frayed nerves, the soldier beneath the civilian camouflage threatened. The legendary Nelson Mandela might have been right when he counseled: “There can be no keener revelation of a country’s soul than the way in which it treats its children. ”

By the time the #EndSARS protest became both message and messenger, the simple complaint against police brutality had taken on an infernal mantra for change. The quest for change battled with a government that made change its unique selling point. Despite the regime’s modest achievements, some of which came through inadvertent delegation, the youth saw that there seemed to be no roadmap for national development beyond prescriptions emanating from self-serving global agencies. In the more than five years of President Buhari’s administration, the youth have been witnesses to the strong condemnation and serious misgivings expressed over “the president’s incurable nepotistic tendencies, of his arrogant insularity and inscrutable silence as well as his alleged relishing of a circle of self-seeking cronies.” In their circumspection, the youth have been familiar with the consistent benevolent prodding from the media to save the president from the possession of the spirit of error; they have also followed the haughtiness and magisterial vehemence with which spokespersons of the administration have treated the admonitions of well-meaning informed Nigerians.

The youth knew all this, and so they expanded their disenchantment and requests to capture the inanities of an administration on autopilot. From requests to abolish SARS, provide justice to victims of police brutality, and reform the police, the demands widened to critical areas of the state: equitable delivery of economic desserts for citizens, respect for the rule of law by custodians of the law, respect for human rights and a deepening of democracy, revival of the educational and health systems and stronger efforts toward job creation. As one analyst rendered it, “the message of the #EndSARS protest is that young Nigerians want to take back their country” from self-serving political free-wheelers.

For many, especially business owners and families or friends of those who lost their lives in the unfortunate hijack by hoodlums, what was writ large is the narrative of juvenile rascality and near-anarchy. For them, the #End SARS protest might have been a social menace powered by delinquency. In sober reflection on the unfortunate carnage and destruction of lives and property, we commiserate with the patriotic police officers and security operatives who were murdered by miscreants. We share the pain and sorrows of mothers, families and friends whose loved ones were martyred by state agents. We share the grief of business owners whose labour and sweat crumbled in a flash. We also empathise with the government over the loss of irreplaceable infrastructure. Yet, it needs reiterating that the accidental factors of violence would not take the steam out of the substance of the peaceful protests – by the #EndSARS Movement.

Being denizens of the digital age, the youth deployed their education and creativity to demonstrate that the country can work given the right mindset and will. A common purpose mobilised the different congregation of youth to action. Aisha Yesufu, the stormy petrel in hijab, held her fort in Abuja. There is also Afro-pop recording artiste and performer, Adekunle Temitope, popularly known as ‘Small Doctor’, who mobilized Agege youth to jolt attention at Lagos State House. Rap artist and lawyer, Folarin Falana, aka Falz, was the poster boy of the Lagos Assembly, even as the group, Feminist Coalition, provided some ideological backing to a section of the youth. None can forget the artistry of Obianuju Catherine Udeh, a.k.a D.J Switch who provided live coverage on Instagram that has become one of the powerful pieces of evidence of what happened at the Lekki toll plaza.

In the few days they occupied the streets, they demonstrated accountability, incredible work ethic, respect for the rule of law, empathy for fellows, and looked out for one another. It was reported that in the seeming rowdiness and absence of any visible leadership, not a single theft was recorded. Theirs was an uncommon patriotism and loyalty to their fatherland.

Like good students of Sun Tzu, the ancient Chinese strategist, the youths seemed to have mastered the art of civilised engagement. “To subdue the adversary without fighting,” says Sun Tzu, “let your plans be dark and impenetrable as night.” For truly as dark and impenetrable as night were their plans as the government tried endlessly to identify the leaders of the protest and puncture their strategies to no avail.

In a sophisticated manner that made a mockery of state bureaucratic machinery, the #EndSARS protest came like a rude awakening from the hypnopaedia (sleep learning) depicted in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. It seemed that for long Nigerians had been guinea-pigs of some classical conditioning—psychologically manipulated and environmentally programmed to live the way we are. Amidst consistent complaints, total resignation to the importunities of abysmal failure and crass inaction to endless plundering and misgovernance, Nigeria got an apt but debasing description. It was said with an air of sardonic delight that, if you push Nigerians to the wall, rather than react by turning back to challenge the offender, Nigerians will break the wall in their inexplicable retreat from oppression. Such was the complacency and helpless resignation that many who had the means relocated to safe havens in Canada, Australia, Europe, and the United States, while others are contemplating same. For those condemned to penury or without any means of relocation, it was a further condemnation to slavery by impetuous taskmasters, or a patient and eternal wait for divine intervention.

But providentially, the #EndSARS protest came like an injection of some intelligence to redefine our identity and citizenship. Whether or not it will be short-lived, this awakening was an eye-opener to some latent power that lies within. It has signalled a counterposing power to the lies of the Nigerian dystopia. In this way, the youth came as problem solvers to activate for all the Office of the Citizen. They have demonstrated that it is really not as difficult as we thought to galvanise reactions. They have set yet another pace, another tone for a Movement to save Nigeria, the tower of strength for the black race.

Across the world, echoes of such nobility reverberated. Nigerians and Africans in far-flung places rallied in support, committing resources to the noble cause of the greatest and indeed the most populous black nation on earth. For so long, the world had thought that such mass movement was only possible in Europe and Hong Kong. Our youths proved that they have come of age, enlightened, and justified their homegrown education. Indeed, one of the aims of education is to liberate both the mind and soul from encumbrances of ignorance and sectional sentiments. In the #EndSARS protesters, the goal of education came full-cycle. They have shown that they have neither been educated in vain nor wasted taxpayers funding on education.

One nation indivisible
Notwithstanding the devious politicking that has trailed the postscript of the #EndSARS phenomenon, there are invaluable lessons to be learned by present and future generations of Nigerians. First, the #EndSARS protesting youth have shown what it is to be truly Nigerian. If Nigeria is to remain as one, indivisible country, that hope has been transmitted by the October 2020 Youth Movement. For a country bedeviled, complexified, and fractured by ethnic, religious, political, and socio-economic storms, these young men and women, undaunted by the blinding spectacles of division, were bolsters of our fragile unity. Despite the fact that their gathering was a social melting pot, the youth brook no room for divisive politicking. They recognised that a divided country, like a broken pot, is not useful to anyone. Though allegedly leaderless, they were all leaders and followers of a common cause – to bring back our country that once launched the first television station, the first stadium, among other firsts in Africa through organic federalism our soldiers of fortune destroyed since 1966.

Like a microcosm of a truly organised nation, everybody played their role in service to others, concomitant to calling and ability. These young and clairvoyant activists are respected professionals in their own right who understood service to humanity. Without consideration for gains or gratification, healthcare providers among them set up mini-clinics to offer emergency services and treat the sick – during the protest. Technicians were at their best providing the sound system to serenade the atmosphere. Phone charging points were erected to compensate for the power outage in homes. Undeterred by the failure of the Nigerian system to protect peaceful protesters, they provided their own security. They organised their own meals and everyone ate from a common pot like a true African community. No one complained of discriminatory rationing, or commonwealth hoarding, or the pathological stealing that has become the second nature of our ruling elite. Nothing went to waste too. Behold, at the close of every demonstration, they swept and tidied up the street in honour of nature and the environment.

Hope rekindled in Sorosoke
Furthermore, the protests portended a ray of hope that a few could muster agreeable voices in recognition of danger. The Sorosoke catchphrase of the #EndSARS movement, heard “loud and clear” by our President Muhammadu Buhari and ruling elite, underscores such hope. Sorosoke symbolises the resilience in the will-power to consistently speak up loud enough against suppression and subversive elements, against social ills and culpable maladies in state administration. It underscores a sense of the ideal, an awareness of the misfortune of going adrift and the possibility of turning towards the right path. In Sorosoke, our youths have broken the silence against the ills of the Nigerian society – the injustices, maladministration, and the greater doom lurking at the corner, if we do not take urgent steps to salvage the state from the brink.

The statistics are indeed grim across all facets of our existence. The youth feel the pinch, so they know the grey realities. Take for instance the Economic Recovery and Growth Plan as recently shared by the Minister of Health, Dr. Osagie Ehaneri. It notes that Nigeria ranks 137 out of 140 in infant mortality rate. Between 10 and 14 million children are out of school. Sixty-six per cent of children in rural areas cannot read or write, and 17.6 million youth are unemployed! These are not indices, which any country should be proud of. It puts our country at par with war-torn Syria and Afghanistan. If the present is this dismal, then the future cannot but be bleak.

Sadly, our socio-political space is enmeshed in corporatism – a dispensation that compresses organs of the state and civil society into dictatorship against the general public interest. The civil service has been compromised and pressure groups of old have been bought over, suppressed, and blindfolded against obnoxious policies and sheer incompetence of the ruling elite. For so many years, it has been hard to imagine where salvation would emerge for a Nigeria that can work again. But out of the blues, the #EndSARS protesters, the Nigerian youth, rose up in defence of, and fought for the soul of Nigeria. Among them are stark reminders of our founding fathers, who at a young age braved British colonial intimidation, but did not give up until they delivered independence 60 years ago.

As earlier mentioned, many of the protesting youth are professionals in their own rights. At a time when many of their mates are queuing at embassies to escape from the hope betrayed at home, they could have been unbothered by the ills of the Nigerian State. They have clearly realised that there is no place like home and, if Nigeria is to get better, it is all up to Nigerians. That is a hope to relish.

With unity of purpose, all things are possible
The injunction of Franz Fanon, the French Martinique social theorist and philosopher – ‘Each generation must discover its mission, fulfill it, or betray it’ could not have been better heeded than among our youth. In the #EndSARS mass protest, they have found a unanimous mission – a country that can work for all – and are poised to accomplish that. Again, they have realised and demonstrated that the real political power abounds with the people; not in Aso Villa, Abuja, nor in elected representatives, political parties or security agencies. Bad governance and poor leadership only tarry for as long as we the people permit it. With the #EndSARS episode, Nigerians have seen that even oppressors in the police and armed forces could be rattled by advancing youth armed with a common purpose. The youth gathering anywhere is already a threat because of the unpredictability of people-power in action.

Similarly, the country can now see that there is nothing wrong with the “lazy Nigerian youth” after all, but with the crop of the opportunistic political class who frenetically mismanage their affairs. And if given the platform, they can replicate stellar performances that their mates are known for across the world. Take a cursory look around the world, and you would be marveled by the wealth of the Nigerian potential that abounds. As of today, there is a Nigerian in the discovery of Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine, in the person of Dr. Onyema Ogbuagu, an Associate Professor at Yale School of Medicine and an alumnus of the University of Calabar 2003 set.

What of Professor Oluyinka Olutoye, Surgeon-in-Chief of Nationwide Children’s Hospital, Ohio, in the United States whose medical feat (carrying out a delicate surgery on a 23-week old fetus that was removed from the mother’s womb, operated upon and returned to the womb to heal and continue to grow until the baby girl was born healthy at 36 weeks) the other day hit the world headlines, is a proud product of the University of Ife, Medical School (now Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife).

Actually, there are over 4000 Dr. Ogbuagus in the United Kingdom alone, and about 10,000 worldwide. In sport, the unified world heavyweight champion is Anthony Oluwafemi Joshua, a Nigerian-born British. He is 31 years old. Israel Adesanya, 31, is making waves in the UFC category. Dr. Akinwumi Adesina is at the helm of affairs at the African Development Bank (AfDB). The older Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala is the World Trade Organisation (WTO) president-elect. We have them all sorts in global politics, education, businesses, aviation, science and technology, security, and defence. That is who we are and what we can do if the environment is right. Therefore, if we diligently assemble our best-eleven and act in conformity with a common purpose, Nigeria will be unstoppable.

One good turn…
Undoubtedly, the Nigerian youth have done well to merit The Guardian ‘2020 Person of the Year’. But going forward they can do better. Without forgetting the 20-10-2020 sad anti-climax, the momentum of the #EndSARS protest should not at this stage be lost. The youths have to sustain their noble non-violent agitation for a better country in search of justice and noble policies.

Rather than view the rude disengagement as a setback, the youths should see this interlude as an opportunity to galvanise more Nigerians to be politically active and committed to the electoral process more than ever before. The enthusiasm and camaraderie that our youth demonstrated at the #EndSARS protest grounds should be channeled into choosing their political representatives. This is the time for more Nigerians above 18 to, at least, get registered into a party of choice, get their Permanent Voters Cards (PVCs), a contest for offices, and vote at the next election. There is no room for ‘siddon-look’ posturing anymore! At the end, in the absence of a better system of government, we align with democracy and its ideals.

A flavour of a near future
Obviously, Nigerians are no longer at ease, yet they are no blithe optimists. The #EndSARS protest has shown that Nigerian youth are finally on the move. That could portend crisis for the country, anyway. The youth clearly want a better country and have seen that they could command attention through civil disobedience. Although the protests were hijacked and suppressed, this has not foreclosed its genuine cause. In fact, the conversation has continued in social media, which is more powerful than remote gathering in public spaces. We are talking about 10 million sophisticated Nigerian youth speaking with one voice on social media platforms and gaining global audiences even in circles least expected at home. They will surely push back and such will be more dangerous for a recalcitrant Nigerian State. In the light of more future engagements, the youths would need a deeply thought out ideological orientation to intellectually guide their struggle. They should also be focused on issues that centre on the Nigerian state. Above all, they should not fall prey to overtures from politicians, scoundrels, state thieves who have bent on hijacking this organised Movement for selfish political gains.

The road to today’s Nigeria has been long and rough, but the youths have not lost their way. In them is our hope for their endurance, fortitude, and self-belief to make Nigeria great again. In them are resources of greatness and a greater Nigeria.

As we salute the courage and tenacity of these young Nigerians, among whom are much-showing solidarity in the armed forces and police force, our admonition is this: Stand brave, stand tall, for though it seems like yet again you have been unjustly crushed by an unkind dart, but in the words of Maya Angelou we say
“Still like dust you will rise.”

Tony Okeregbe, (PhD) and Wole Oyebade (PhD) are members of The Guardian Editorial Board.