#EndSARS: Youths reshaping protest as tool for Socio-political change
In the last five years or thereabouts, prominent Nigerians have continued to lament how their ilk and generation engineered the country’s downward spiral, as well as undermined her economic and political interests.
On January 8, 2015, President Goodluck Jonathan, while flagging off his campaign for re-election declared that his generation had failed the country.
He, therefore, charged the youths to spearhead the country’s future through hard work and dedication, stressing that they were the ones to take the country to the moon.
On February 27, 2017, former President Olusegun Obasanjo, also admitted that his generation has failed in its efforts to take her to Eldorado.
He, however, quickly added that what they missed out in growing the nation economically, they delivered in a united and stable country under a democratic dispensation.
Obasanjo, who spoke in Kaduna during a one-day trade fair seminar of the Kaduna Chamber of Commerce, Industry, Mines and Agriculture (KADCCIMA), listed a number of factors inhibiting the nation’s growth and development.
He recalled: “The generation before us gave us and our country independence. Whatever you like, say about them. The Awolowos, Nnamdi Azikiwes, the Sardaunas, Aminu Kanos, Tafawa Balewas, and others gave us independence, they were not perfect, and if you like, you can go from now till tomorrow condemning what they did, but they gave us independence,” Obasanjo said.
“These people and my generation laid the foundation for the democracy we enjoy today. Our democracy is not perfect, our democracy is a journey and not a destination, and we must continue to improve on it. My sons and daughters, what will your generation do? Condemnation is easy, but what will you do?” The former president asked.
Known for his blunt talks, Nobel laureate, Prof. Wole Soyinka, while speaking on Hard Talk, a BBC programme, in April last year, also explained that his generation has failed the country as their dreams about the country had not materialised.
When Zeinab Badawi, the programme’s anchor asked the literary giant: “Has your generation of older Nigerians failed the people?” He responded: “Yes, I believe so. I compare today with the dreams and aspirations we had when we all rushed home after studies abroad. We considered ourselves the renaissance people that were going to lift the continent to world standards, competitors anywhere. It hasn’t happened.”
For far too long, the country’s political leaders have been taking a perceived docile nation for a ceaseless ride, which is cyclical in nature. But alas, it appears the present generation of youths are not in any way ready to entertain leaders who behave as if they (youths) do not matter, or as if they (leaders) operate in another planet.
That is why the #EndSARS protest symbolises a milestone in the annals of demonstrations in the country. #EndSARS, a social movement birthed on Twitter is spearheading the banning of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS), a unit of the Nigerian Police Force (NPF), which operatives have allegedly been involved in extortion of youths, armed robbery, humiliation, maiming and killing of Nigerians.
Indeed, for the first time as an independent nation, the youths, through the #EndSARS campaign have suddenly come to terms with the fact that they can move against a government, get their demands on a platter, and even bring the government to its knees all via peaceful protests on the streets.
What is more interesting in the entire scenario, remains the fact that the protests, which totally jolted the government had no clear-cut organiser(s) other than aggrieved youths bonded by pains elicited by the sheer inhumanity displayed by a rogue unit of the NPF, and who were further traumatised by the Federal Government’s perennial insensitivity to victims’ wailings.
The courage to pour into the streets, bare their minds on social and traditional media, not only spur fence-sitters to join the fray but spoke volumes of their determination to have their way the way it has never happened before in the country.
However, the ongoing protest appears like a bold response to the challenge that Obasanjo threw over two years ago when he said: “My sons and daughters, what will your generation do? Condemnation is easy but what will you do?”
In the last few days, Nigerian youths have shown what they can do, and what they will continue to do.
For instance, at the #EndSARS protest, which took place in Calabar, the Cross River State capital, a young lady held aloft a placard with the inscription, “You messed with the wrong generation.” Elsewhere in Lagos State, another placard read: “The power of the people is stronger than the people in power.” Indeed, these messages to the Federal Government convey diverse meanings all pointing to the fact that it is no longer business as usual.
In other words, Nigerian youths may have decided to emulate their counterparts from other parts of the world that through peaceful protests, brought to standstill, erring governments, or hold to account, errant and insensitive leaders that failed to gauge the pulse of the governed.
Despite efforts by the previous and present government to make popular protests appear as something akin to committing felony, Nigerian youths have now succeeded in perfecting protest as an agitational tool for socio-political and economic change.
As a matter of fact, the renewed zeal by youths to hold government accountable and cause them to effect changes to anti-people policies and programmes, represents a watershed in the country’s history.
Examples From Other Climes
ACROSS the world, leaders have had their fingers burnt for ignoring, or failing to promptly proffer solution to issues affecting the critical mass of their citizens.
In fact, since the arrival of the Arab Spring in 2011, many sit–tight and sundry insensitive leaders have been consumed for standing in the way of genuine reforms spearheaded by their rampaging youths, with some of the latest victims being leaders of Sudan, Algeria, Iraq, and Lebanon.
Like their counterparts in Nigeria, protesters in these four countries were not interested in cosmetic changes offered by their leaders hence their determination to push aside shadows of fear, and oust affected leaders.
For instance, in December 2018, it did not take long for Sudanese to call for President Omar al-Bashir’s head after a comatose economy forced them to take to the streets.
On April 11, after a 30-year rule, the regime capitulated the following months of popular protests. This happened after the oppressive regime killed more than 300 protesters, with several missing.
On December 14, 2019, al-Bashir was committed to prison for two years for illicit possession of foreign currency and corruption.
Not long after the ruling National Liberation Front (FLN) party announced that 82-year-old Abdelaziz Bouteflika would seek a fifth term as president, Algerians’ anger peaked, and the country erupted in protest.
With the sustained popular demonstration, Bouteflika, who had ruled the North African nation since 1999 lost the military’s support and came under pressure. Before long, the street protests brought his 20-year reign to an end on April 2, this year.
The Algerian military jailed a handful of the regime’s officials for graft charges, even as many opposition figures and activists were arrested during the protests.
Poor living conditions and corruption-induced protests shook Iran in the beginning of this month. The ugly development promptly forced Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi to step down.
With tempers still soaring after at least 496 people were reportedly killed and 17, 000 injured in the protests, protesters insisted on the sacking and accountability of all key political actors accused of corruption, especially those that have been in power since Saddam Hussein’s regime fell in 2003.
The 2019–20 Lebanese protests, also known locally as the October Revolution, are a series of civil protests that took place in Lebanon. The national protests in Lebanon were triggered by planned taxes on tobacco, gasoline, and Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) calls on applications such as WhatsApp. On October 17, 2019, approximately 150 civil activists began to protest against the new proposed taxes in and around downtown Beirut, blocking important streets.
Within a short while, the protests created a political crisis in Lebanon, with Prime Minister Saad Hariri forced to tender his resignation, but not without echoing protesters’ demands for a government of independent specialists.
However, other politicians, targeted by the protests remained in power. But on January 21, 2020, former Minister of Education Hassan Diab was named as prime minister to lead the new 20-member cabinet, after three months of mass protests. On August 10, 2020, Diab and the entire cabinet resigned following public anger over the 2020 explosion in Beirut.
Like Nigeria, Lebanon is plagued by high unemployment, slow growth, as well as bogged down by one of the highest debt ratios in the world, with a debt burden reaching $86.2b in the first quarter of 2019.
Enter #EndSARS Protests
SINCE coming on board, President Muhammadu Buhari has carried on casually with his trademark indifference to a national outcry, but the #EndSARS protests ended up being a totally different kettle of fish, as the protesting youths got the government exactly where they wanted it.
Last Thursday, a retired Commissioner of Police, Fulani Kwajafa, who is credited with the formation of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) expressed regrets for establishing the unit, which had become notorious for human rights violation.
Kwajafa, in an interview with the Hausa Service of the BBC said the unit had completely derailed from its founding objectives.
“My name is Fulani Kwajafa. I entered the Nigeria Police Force in 1984. Then robbery was prevalent, this was why Buhari was Head of State. He (Buhari) got a lot of complaints that people were stealing from each other, robbing people. So, he told me, and Mr. Inyang, the then IGP that we must do something about it or be fired.
“Mr. Inyang called me and told me to come up with a plan to save the country from thieves, so I said okay. I told him to give me his trust, resources, and officers to start work,” Kwajafa said.
“After four months of creating SARS, there was peace, those who were not caught ran away, and those who were caught were sent to prison. But what is happening now frustrates me … I have been hearing disheartening news about SARS to the extent that I told myself that it seems there are armed robbers among SARS officials.
“This is not why we created SARS; the reason is completely different, this is not the purpose. In fact, when I am mentioned as the creator of SARS, I feel ashamed. It’s a thing of regret for me.
“If I had known it would be like this, I wouldn’t have created it because people who know when I established the unit always say to me, is it not Kwajafa’s baby? But this is not what I birthed, it has been changed.”
As one of the 14 units in the Force Criminal Investigation and Intelligence Department, saddled with the task of dealing with violent crimes, including armed robbery, kidnapping, banditry, cattle rustling, motor vehicle theft among others, operatives of the squad routinely over-reached themselves. And at different times between 2016 and last year, SARS was restructured, reorganised, reformed, disbanded, and finally dissolved on October 11, 2020, following widespread protests from Nigerians worldwide.
On October 11, 2020, the Inspector General of Police M.A. Adamu announced a replacement squad called the Special Weapons And Tactics (SWAT), in accordance with Section 18 (10) of the Police Act 2020, to “replace” the notorious police unit.
According to Adamu, all personnel of the defunct SARS was to report to the Nigeria Police Headquarters for debriefing and examination. Within hours of the announcement of the replacement squad, some Nigerians took to Twitter with the hashtag #EndSWAT.
But on Monday, October 12, 2020, the Governor of Lagos State, Babajide Sanwo-Olu, and the Minister of Police Affairs, Maigari Dingyadi, urged protestors to believe that SARS had been truly disbanded.
The same day, the governor of Rivers State, Nyesom Wike announced that the #EndSARS protests were disallowed in the state. He later capitulated and addressed the protesters, who marched to his office.
On the same day, the Governor of Oyo State, Seyi Makinde barred police from engaging with the protestors in order to avert further casualties after deaths were recorded on October 13, 2020. Governor of Delta State, Ifeanyi Okowa said that the #EndSARS protest is a result of failed leadership.
Commenting on the protests, the Principal Consultant at Sam Adeyemi GLC Inc., Pastor Sam Adeyemi said: “Rarely does a generation have the opportunity to lead change as the one-handed the youths of Nigeria right now through #SARSMUSTEND. It cuts across the fault lines that divide Nigeria. My dear young citizens, you must use this rare opportunity to secure deep changes that will lead to Nigeria’s development. The systems you confront are strategic and tactical. There may be steps ahead. You need to think long term and pace yourself.”
Adeyemi, a doctor of strategic leadership admonished the protesters thus: “Speak forcefully, but peacefully. Don’t be provoked to violence. Don’t act somebody else’s script. Lightning has enough power to light a city, but it destroys because it has no structure. Shift gear into participation in the political process when the time comes soon.”
Adeyemi, who is the senior pastor of Daystar Christian Centre, Lagos, continued: “The police officer causing you trauma is also dehumanised by the system. He is paid peanuts and forced to extort money to make his uniform, maintain operational vehicles, and retire some to bosses. Fight for him and his children.
“The generation before yours had such an opportunity 26/27 years ago when the result of a free and fair election was annulled. The protests that ensued partly birthed the democracy we enjoy today. Remind elected leaders you’re only continuing the fight. Some of you will be governors, senators, presidents, CEOs, etc., in 10 to 20 years. Hold the vision of a developed Nigeria in your heart. Commit to value human life, be honest, promote justice, serve with excellence, and cultivate leadership skills. God will help you #EndSARS,” he ended.
Barely two weeks ago, 78-year-old General Overseer of the Redeemed Christian Church of God (RCCG) Enoch Adeboye warned: “We must restructure. It’s either we restructure or we break, you don’t have to be a prophet to know that one. That is certain – restructure or we break up.”
But while the import of his admonition continued to sink and raise dust at the same time, he again joined the fray by throwing his weight behind the #EndSARS protesters.
In also lending his support to the protesting youths, Adeboye, in a tweet on Wednesday night wrote: “Our daughters will not be able to prophesy and young men will not see visions if we don’t keep them alive. I support the youths in this peaceful protest as they speak up to #EndPoliceBrutality!#EndSARS #ENDSWAT.”
#EndSARS … Nigeria’s Arab Spring?
HUMAN rights lawyer, Mbasekei Martin Obono, is one of those who believe that the country stands to gain a lot from the protests, which demands went beyond police reform, and an end to police brutality.
“We stand to benefit good governance from this protest. It is not just about ending SARS or police brutality. It is about an awakened citizen, which the government wouldn’t take for granted,” he stated.
Obono added: “These protests have all the elements of Arab Spring in it. The level of resistance I have seen on protest grounds is similar to what was happened during the Arab Spring. Nigerians can be very extreme, and I fear that this may lead to an uprising if the government does not control its security forces and address the issues of bad governance expeditiously.”
However, on his part, the Executive Director Civil Society Legislative Advocacy Centre (CISLAC), Auwal Musa Rafsanjani noted that: “We must not forget that Nigerian situation and current agitation is, to some extent, different from the Arab Spring. Arab Spring was initiated mostly to oust sit-tight leaders, who undemocratically ruled for several decades. Nigeria has a democratically elected government with citizens enjoying the right to vote.
“Also, the protests across the country are targeted basically at addressing years of unchecked police brutality and reported degrading treatment against the citizens, while calling for appropriate reform of the institution for significant impact and efficiency. Recall that similar protests were recently held in the United States of America themed “Black Lives Matter,” and it did not metamorphose into an Arab Spring. But I must not fail to mention that constructive public opinion or outcry helps in setting the pace of reform.
“Bad governance cannot be tolerated or endured forever, just as citizens cannot be silent forever. With increasing citizens’ awareness of their rights, they will keep demanding accountability and good governance. One of the fundamental features of good governance is responsiveness. A responsive government need not be compelled towards accountability because that is a constitutional mandate. It is when this is delayed, or not exercised that we may witness public outcry,” he explained.
Democratic Governments Must Respond To Citizens’ Agitations
CONSIDERING the country’s ethnic diversity and political culture, many now see the nation-wide protests as a strategy that can be always resorted to when leaders slip into the insensitive mode. But for Rafsanjani, there is more to citizens ventilating their views in a democracy, especially when governments appear to play deaf.
Said he: “We must first and foremost understand that citizens’ right to personal liberty, freedom of expression and peaceful assembly is safeguarded, protected and must be respected, as enshrined under sections 35, 39 and 40 of 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria; African Charter on Human and People’s Rights; African Youth Charter; and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the United Nations General Assembly.
“On this note, whatsoever citizens share in terms of ethnic diversity and political structure, the sanity and sanctity of the rule of law must strictly adhere to. That is, peaceful protest remains a civil tool that can be leveraged by citizens to show discontent, articulate concerns and agitations on issues relating to governance. We must also remember that this is not new in our political history, as several protests have been held in the past to draw the attention of the governments to critical issues both at national and state levels.”
Since Nigerians have over the years been conditioned to tolerate and endure bad governance, does Rafsanjani think that the protest by aggrieved youths is capable of forcing subsequent governments to resolve issues bothering citizens promptly?
He responded: “Within the context of democracy, human rights and the rule of law, citizens would always possess the right, and not privilege to hold peaceful protests and demand accountability from government. At the same time, every responsible government owes citizens the duty to constructively listen and democratically respond to citizens’ agitations. As far as citizens are getting informed of their rights and responsibilities to demand accountability, bad governance cannot be tolerated forever.”
He added: “Addressing citizens’ demands and agitations would definitely showcase the level of respect Nigerian government accords human rights before the international community. This constitutes one of the measures that Nigeria can leverage to revise its unfavourable human right indices. It also portrays the government as a responsive and responsible one. The government must as well be cautioned against arbitrary arrest and disproportionate deployment of armed forces to frighten the citizens from demanding accountability on electoral mandates in form of peaceful protest, personal liberty, and freedom of expression as guaranteed under relevant national and international laws. Such undemocratic measures are unacceptable, undemocratic, and unwelcome in our nation’s democracy.”
Classless Protests For Survival Of Our People
ONE thing that excites Obono in the gale of protests is the fact that it defied ethnic considerations and also “transcended different political leanings that some people would ordinarily not cross. I saw family members and children of the ruling party raise their fists in support of the protests. I also saw opposition party members protesting. Put differently, the protest was a “classless” protest and not a protest of the poor, nor a protest of the rich because, in Nigeria, everyone is affected by police brutality and bad governance. Some people suffer brutality at the hands of Police and it becomes too late when they are finally given an opportunity to identify themselves. Certainly that is not the kind of policy we should have. Police that an operative slaps you first before asking you to reveal your identity. Therefore, this protest cannot be defined by our diversity or political leanings. It is a protest for the survival of our people, irrespective of who they are.
“That said, I strongly believe that this protest is redefining governance and citizenship in Nigeria. For a very long time, governments and particularly, this administration has taken citizens for granted. It made policies that impoverish the people and citizens did not respond. The government increased electricity tariff and removed subsidy in one month without any pushback from citizens. The government has tried to destroy civic space (freedoms of movement, assembly, speech, expression, etc) through legislations and executive actions without major resistance from citizens. Now, citizens are gradually finding their voices, even as the protest is leading to a citizens’ movement that is bigger than everyone. Young people have decided that enough is enough. They are tapping into the power of their collective voice to make a statement, that statement has been loud and clear to the point that it has generated international attention. This movement, if sustained and properly coordinated, will serve as the fourth arm of government. It will become a powerful tool to hold governments accountable.
“Many governments and indeed this one, have never defined citizenship. These protests present an opportunity to answer the question of who a Nigerian is? What is the value of Nigerian life? The protest is pushing the government to think and answer that question. Young Nigerians have taken their future into their hands. They want to redefine themselves since the government cannot muster empathy and responsibility to exercise the duty of care. They want to add value to their lives and use the opportunity to remind the government of its responsibilities to the people, which is the protection of lives and property. That is why these nationwide protests gained more grounds and public support the moment security agents killed and assaulted protesters.”
He added: “This is why the protests have been sustained and government is pretending to be confused and jittery as though it does not know what to do, including quickly changing SARS to SWAT as if that is what Nigerians demanded. What Nigerians on the streets are saying in simple terms is, guarantee our right to life and respect for our dignity. This is not rocket science; it is a constitutional provision. In the constitution that the government swore to uphold, respect for human dignity includes not taking citizens for granted, by making policies that will impoverish and leave them in indignity to the point where they have to beg and borrow to feed, or have their children beaten and sent back from school because they can’t afford to pay their school fees, or a situation where pensioners are owed salaries for several months. Surely, these nationwide protests are laying a foundation for the government to think and act fast because citizens can no longer be docile. Subsequent governments will not take them for a ride.”
On whether it would be too early to conclude that the nation has come of age forcing its leaders to be sensitive to citizens plight, Obono said:“Nigeria is coming of age. How this protest ends, and what we are able to make of it will determine if we truly have come of age in forcing our leaders to be sensitive. For now, it is important to commend young people who are risking their lives against all odds to be on the streets. They deserve commendation and encouragement.”