Understanding the culture of civil protest
There can be no daily democracy without daily citizenship – Ralph Nader.
The #EndSARS protesters literally took the political class by surprise. Perhaps, the government had arrogantly dismissed the protesters as another set of irritants, not expecting the agitation to gain traction with demonstrations across the South. But this is a different kettle of fish. Nigerian masses are, for once, fed up with the policing and governance system. Unfortunately for the government, these protesters are not the organised labour unions and political activists that get instigated and bought off by deep pockets. They are not some sponsored protesters and miscreants that can be quickly whipped into line. These ones are different; their pains are uniform, and their goal is the same – a just and civil society. Therefore, it is a welcome development. And if there is any lesson to learn from this, it is the power of genuine protest i.e. civil disobedience or nonviolent demonstration to force a positive change.
Modernity accords us of the right to civil protest. Across the globe, non-violent protests occur in recognition of the civil rights of the citizenry to have a say in how they are governed. It is a testament to the fact that the society, its laws, and attendant institutions are creations of the human mind, designed for the betterment of man and not to make a slave of him. And once they no longer guarantee human security, well-being, and add-value to the existence, they are due for a change. Examples abound in recent civil protests in Hong Kong against the Chinese colonial grip. Black-lives-matter protests wafted across the United States against police brutality. Chileans have been protesting for months venting their anger over the country’s paltry pensions, fragile safety net, and police brutality against demonstrators, to mention a few.
Indeed, the intellectual foundation of protests dated back some Centuries ago, featuring thinkers like Henry David Thoreau, Mahatma Gandhi, and Martin Luther King. They all made the case for civil disobedience as a legitimate route to social change. American writer, Thoreau, following personal experience, wrote a paper titled: Civil Disobedience, where he rationalised the idea of ‘breaking the law’ in protest of social ills. In July 1846, Thoreau was arrested and detained for tax evasion. He deliberately declined remitting tax in protest against the prosecution of the Mexican-American war at taxpayers’ expense. His essay, Civil Disobedience, became a classic in American political thoughts and a popular intellectual reference in justifying the culture of civil protests to date.
Thoreau like earlier thinkers reasoned that justice is imperative in States, but not all States are just, which presents a problem to the citizenry. He framed the problem this way: “Unjust laws exist; shall we be content to obey them, or shall we endeavour to amend them, and obey them until we have succeeded, or shall we transgress them at once?” Thoreau aligned with the latter option. He argues that just because the state is carrying out a particular policy doesn’t mean that the individual is obligated to sit quietly and accept it if it is just. Everybody has a conscience and must follow it. More civilised settings that are often cited as global standards today have continued to tow that path of mass protests and just reforms.
We in Nigeria are latecomers in the business of civil and mass protests for social change and we can pardon our so-called leaders for being shocked at the current vigor. The problem is that Nigerians have been laidback for too long, and we can give a few reasons. First, the African culture of showing enormous respect to elders and authorities arbors dissent and protests. That was okay when elders were honourable; prince and princesses noble; and kings truly majestic. But society and values have changed for the worse. Most elders are no longer synonymous with wisdom and virtues. Second, our appeal to supernaturalism is another idol that beset our modern minds. We leave too many things in the hands of God, spending too much time in Churches and Mosques for those things a functional system should deliver without fanfare. Our topmost desires here are those things they take for granted in advanced countries. So, instead of asking questions on why things are not working and demanding accountability from public officeholders, the majority are looking up to God and their religious leaders. Third, when the public officeholders could be found out for incompetence, they would leverage our diversity to further divide us from having a common voice. They would polarise us along ethnic, religious, party, professional, and interest lines. With these primordial sentiments and distrust, it is always difficult for Nigerians to have a common voice on any issue.
But when it rains, it doesn’t fall on one man’s rooftop alone. The Nigerian masses, irrespective of location, religion, or other secondary affiliations, wear the haggard shoe and know that it pinches as hell on all fronts. They can tell that this is not the Nigeria of their dreams or the one anticipated pre-independence. It is a hope shattered. For those in doubt, the primary responsibility of any government is to promote the good life, welfare, and safety of the citizenry. On this elementary task, this government has performed abysmally and earned an F9. Insecurity cuts across the board; in the Niger Delta, Maiduguri, Ondo, Oyo, Kastina, Jos or Kaduna. The economic indices are horrific. They show a worsening unemployment rate, endemic poverty, high inflation, crumbled naira to dollar, and hapless policy of accumulating debts for consumption purposes. The masses pay heavy taxes and get nothing in return. Private businesses are shutting down without any respite. Our road infrastructure is parlous, with trucks and trailers alike tumbling on commercial vehicles loaded with average Nigerians. Education and healthcare systems are just as moribund. Corruption has been legitimised causing public officials to stink to high heavens and in our faces. The country is broke because its commonwealth of yesterday is in private pockets and in an endless circle of loot recovery and re-looting in the official racket called government. Worst of all is that President Buhari and the rest of the political class could not be bothered. What I hear them say to Nigerian plight is: ‘‘you either take the system as it is or go places.’’ In a democracy? No!
As Thoreau rightly asked: shall we be content obeying gross injustice? Nigerians are already tired. Our mumu don do finally. Or shall we endeavour to amend the injustice? That is the mindset of those calling for restructuring, but Buhari and co. are not ready or sincere to stir a positive change. Shall we transgress the injustice at once? Absolutely, and that is why Nigerians are on the streets protesting for a better Nigeria. Clearly, it is no longer a protest against police brutality and its mercenary of oppression. It is a protest against the injustices pervading our corporate existence. The masses have now realised that for things to change, they must hold their government and representatives by the balls, and severe the damned thing, if necessary. Indeed, for every failed road and accident that kills a Nigerian, there is a need for mass protests. Every hospital that could not save a soul, a school system that did not work, a business venture that dies due to horrible State policy, and a gas explosion that kills many, are all culpable negligence, sufficient to warrant civil disobedience and calling the government out. That is how to get it right and return the democratic powers to the people. Ire o!
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