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Let’s give peace a chance

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Nigerian Police fire teargas at people during clashes between youths in Apo, Abuja, Nigeria, on October 20, 2020, following the ongoing demonstrations against the unjustly brutality of the Nigerian Police Force Unit, the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS). (Photo by Kola Sulaimon / AFP)

For a leader who once cheerfully confessed that he was never in a hurry to do anything – or did he mean certain things? – one must honestly commend President Muhammadu Buhari for deftly rising up to the occasion and endorsed the disbandment of the accused Special Anti-Robbery Squad, SARS. EndSARS has been the flagship of the demands of the youths who have been protesting for the past two weeks. 

Apart from scraping SARS, the angry youths have included more items on the shopping list of their discontent. And uncharacteristically – some said it was driven more by panic and some confusion – the authorities yielded more grounds to the youths. Naturally, with the initial success, they have become more emboldened.  Their success quickly led to a growing self-confidence, bolstered by unprecedented nation-wide support and the use of technology. 

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I said last week that the youths have found their voice and there was no telling when and where they would bare their fangs again especially in a country that was not in short supply of vexing issues. It seems that I spoke too soon. I had predicated my assumption on the fact that having been granted their initial demands, they would go back from the streets as peacefully as they came. 

But that has not happened. That they have lasted this long on the streets, in the sun, and in the rain, speaks volume about their staying power, their support base, and the emotion that they had succeeded in whipping up across the country against the variety of problems confronting the country;  problems that range from youth unemployment, insecurity occasioned by the continued insurgency in the North East, armed banditry and kidnapping nation-wide to armed robbery the very reason for  SARS which woefully failed in its mandate because of endemic corruption among others.

It seems there is always confusion and incoherence, even deceit and bad faith, to say nothing about dishonesty, among the elite especially when it comes to locating the real sources of problems and finding enduring solutions. Granted that in a democracy there are as many options as there are problems but easy recourse to sentiments, politics, religion, and ethnicity often makes it difficult to get the unity of purpose that is absolutely essential towards finding a solution. This has been a lot of the current crisis. There is a near-absolute unanimity of views across the country that SARS had become an embarrassment, not only to the Nigeria Police Force but to the Presidency and the country as a whole. The tales of their soulless exploits which boil down to illegal arrests and detention, torture, extortion, and extra-judicial killings make sordid reading and are jarring to the ear. 

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President Buhari who hitherto appeared shielded away from the truth of the situation did not find it difficult to order the disbandment of the unit and the commencement of police reform. But some discordant voices, among them some Northern governors, suddenly did not see anything wrong with SARS and its operations. My reading of their position is that they think that it was bad politics for them to condemn what Nigerians in other parts of the country have risen against. But they cannot be more Northern than many others including Fulani Kwajafa, the police officer who set up the unit in 1984 with the blessing of the then Head of State, Major-General Muhammadu Buhari, who today, has the painful duty to preside over the dismantling of the outfit that has now outlived its usefulness. 

In a BBC Yoruba Service interview which went viral last week, Elder statesman Kwajafa who joined the police force in 1954  and retired from the Force in 1989, said he was ashamed of the defunct SARS. This was not the SARS that he set up. If he had to compare SARS of his time with the one that has just been laid to rest, he would shed tears. SARS, he said, was not licensed to kill or to dehumanize suspects.

But the new apostles of SARS paid glowing tribute to the gallantry of the outfit, especially in curbing the menace of armed bandits.  Suddenly, and this is thanks to the political exigency of the times, the late but un lamentable  SARS had been of a roaring success with superlative performance. But ironically, they couldn’t as much as capture one kidnapper or armed bandit even for the purpose of a photo op. Majority of the kidnap victims that regained their freedom in the North paid the ransom but the police would never agree that any ransom was paid.

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The ordinary man on the street whose community has been ravaged by armed bandits would tell you that usually there were no security men in view when this dastardly act was committed. But suddenly, the police who, at the best of time is scantily armed, thus lacking in firepower and mobility, have become fantastically efficient that they give a lie to the uproar in the land against the excesses of SARS.

It is not bad politics to accept reality and face it instead of living in denial. Rather it is worse politics if some of these people are in a position to advise the authorities but choose in the name of loyalty to lie to them. The unintended consequence of bad advice and hiding information is to do the nation a great disservice.

What the current imbroglio requires is an engagement with the youths who constitute 65 per cent of the country’s population, majority of whom perhaps voted for President Buhari to power in 2015 and in 2019. The president owes them some accountability. On Monday he spoke through Sunday Dare, minister of youths and sports, and told them to guard against their noble cause being hijacked by hoodlums. He acknowledged that it was their right to make peaceful protest and make demands of their leaders. Having done so, he appealed that they should now give the government time to address the issues raised. 

It will not be out of place for the president to follow this up and speak directly to them to assure them that he has heard them loud and clear. These youths are reasonable and responsible enough to appreciate that not all their demands can be met overnight; some of them require constitutional amendments.

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But in an atmosphere that is polluted by mistrust, bad faith, and dishonesty, the youths, gaining in strength and audacity,  would rather want assurances from the President himself, not his spokespersons or the military who may be tempted to move to the streets to disperse the protesters to show their loyalty and commitment. Certainly, the military has enough on their hands in Sambisa forest. The appreciative citizens would always show more appreciation if they confine themselves to fighting the insurgents and the armed bandits that have held the nation captive. 

Last week I cautioned that with the demise of SARS we had to avoid the mistake of throwing away the baby with the bathwater. To avoid a vacuum which undesirable elements in the society can explore to their hearts’ content, the Police quickly replaced SARS with SWAT, a strategic weapons and tactics unit. It is a concept borrowed from America. SWAT in the United States of America is a law enforcement unit using specialised and strategic weapons.  

Cynics may ask as Shakespeare is wont to ask: what is in a name? SARS by any other name may be as trigger-happy as any brutish and corrupt force can be. But then we have been assured that with this new SWAT, it is not going to be business as usual. 

Let’s wait and see. The taste of the pudding, we hear, is in the eating. It is appropriate therefore for a cease-fire. Let us all – the youths and the rest of us, all aggrieved citizens – take a chance and sheathe the swords to give our leaders the benefit of the doubt. Of course, there is always another time.

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