#EndSARS: Hope betrayed, a year after
Today marks the first anniversary of the demonstration of rare courage and people power that shook Nigeria like never before. And whatever those sporadic shootings at unarmed protesters in Lekki meant on that October 20, 2020 night of horror, or did not mean in official denials the morning-after, it was the finest hour of the Nigerian youths seeking a fair, just and better society.
President Muhammadu Buhari spoke to the nation, having heard the youths “loud and clear.” But a year later, not much has changed in the polity – an official mockery of the protest that morphs into credibility doubts on the administration.
For so long in the six-decade history of the country, Nigerian masses have been content with whatever the system offers. In stoic resignation, they soaked them up, including the malfeasance of atrocious leadership. And all along, they have been taken for granted. Last year, they did things differently, collectively spoke up against injustices, sought disbandment of the police rogue formation known as the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS), demanded a better society and stayed on the streets in grim determination.
Indeed, the well coordinated #EndSARS protesters in Lagos began with five demands from the Federal Government. They wanted the release of all prisoners of conscience, justice and compensation for all victims of SARS, independent investigation of police brutality, training and good salary for policemen. With the government initially ignoring the civil protesters as mere irritants, the demonstration grew like wildfire that spread across 100 cities in Nigeria, including the north and overseas. By then, the agitation had snowballed into disenchantment against insecurity, poverty, unemployment and irresponsible leadership across the board.
Following the #EndSARS protests and the misfortune of its hijack by political thugs and hoodlums – itself a direct consequence of misguided actions of state actors to forcibly scuttle the protest – President Buhari pledged to address the #EndSARS demands to bring closure to agitations. By extension, 26 States including Adamawa, Anambra, Bauchi, Bayelsa, Delta, Edo, Ekiti, Gombe, Kastina, Kogi, Lagos, Ogun, and Osun, inaugurated Judicial Panels of Inquiry with startling revelations of police brutality. Efforts of the panel in Lagos especially, and awards of hundreds of millions of naira in compensation to victims, have, in a sense, proven the tedious session as rewarding, after all.
But the rampaging insincerity to the entire cause of EndSARS protest still sticks out as a sore thumb. Curiously, President Buhari’s promise has been a mirage. Besides the proscription of SARS, agencies of the State have been acting infamously to discredit the peaceful protests, rubbish the basis for panels of inquiry, scuttle reconciliation of public confidence in the State and security forces and leave the country with a grim epilogue a year after.
It all began with the commotion ensuing from the shooting incident at Lekki Toll Plaza and official denials that ridiculed democratic governance. It was self-evident that security personnel, including men of the Nigerian Army planned and executed shooting of protesters that were only armed with the national flag and singing the national anthem. The bloodstained streets and the injured were beamed live for the world to see. The first denial fingered “unknown soldiers.” “You gave us orders to move in,” the Army fired back. “We fired blanks, not live bullets!” Today, the dead, the maimed and guilty have not been accounted for. Rather, more than 310 protesters that were arrested by the police at Lekki ground on that day and a-day after are reportedly still languishing in Kirikiri Correctional facility without trial! That is not the stuff of a just society, nor the one Buhari promised.
As if that was not enough, the Inspector General of Police (IGP) brazenly incited armed police officers to defend themselves against the Nigerian public! At odds with the constitutional provision for civil protests in a democracy, the police hierarchy has unilaterally proscribed all forms of protests including the one-year commemoration in parts of the country.
In a separate development, the Minister of Information and Culture, Lai Mohammed and his Interior counterpart, Rauf Aregbesola, began subtle campaigns to gag freedom of speech by invoking the controversial Anti-Social Media Bill under the pretence of regulating fake news and hate speech. Lately, the campaign has assumed a legislative dimension through which the lawmakers are now trying to push through parliament a bill for the amendment of the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC) and Nigerian Press Council (NPC) Acts. Similarly, the Nigerian Immigration Service (NIS) without establishing any threat to national security seized the travel passports of some protesters and infringed on their rights to free movement. The NIS later apologised after it had embarrassed the Federal Government as presiding over a Gestapo-like state. Today, Twitter, the rallying force of the teeming youths, has been banned for about five months over spurious reasons. Not left out is the newfound role now adopted by the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) to clamp down on accounts traceable to the protesters, under the guise of financial impropriety and alleged abuse.
For all it is worth, the government has shown bad faith and intransigence to genuine concerns on nation building. It would rather arm-twist gadflies and suppress contrary opinions than entertain demands for accountability. Lest we forget, the government’s credibility rating had been dwindling. With the #EndSARS episode, it tumbled. Yet, it is not in the interest of a progressive party to measure to no standard and keep eroding public confidence. A government needs the people and vice versa. Government cannot say something, do the contrary and hope to reclaim a moral high ground or public fidelity.
Already, the country is more tense than it was a year ago, which makes the situation an uphill task for handlers. The tension is most palpable with more Nigerians out of job, inflation and dollar exchange rate competing for the rooftop and widespread insecurity across the region. Lately, the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) put the unemployment rate at 33.3 per cent, compared to 23.1 per cent in 2019. Before this year ends, the conservative estimate is expected to reach 35.2 per cent. On the streets, those figures could only mean endemic poverty, starvation and social tension. Apparently at its wit’s end, the government is also warming up to remove subsidies on electricity and petrol, with a spiral effect on intense hardship and another mass pushback than the government can handle.
However, the solution is not institutional indifference or the imperial hubris of arm-twisting youths by banning protesters, which are shortsighted. Ideally, the government should improvise and squarely face the plight of the youths as those of the country at large. It is already late in the day but better be late than be sorry. While reforming the police, the government must egg-on in tackling insecurity, poverty, and unemployment by restructuring the country, evolving competitive regionalism and enabling environment for investments to thrive. The Federal Government should get its acts together, operate as a coordinated entity and not as a house divided against itself. As this newspaper warned lately, should another street protest break forth, the public officeholders and the power elite alike may not be twice as lucky and only the Buhari administration should be blamed.
In the main, it is important to reiterate that the #EndSARS protesters are neither the hoodlums nor looters that hijacked the noble cause. #EndSARS protesters are those who wanted a better Nigeria and have found the way to speak up with grit and grace. They deserve to be heard, treated with dignity and respect that a just society and credible leadership should serve today and every day.