#ENDSARS: Lessons from youth revolt

For Nigerian youths, the urge to set up a political party may be nothing more than a passing fancy. When it comes to the nitty-gritty, they will discover that the exotic interplay of digital media and convivial street protests pale into nothingness beside both the violence and hooliganism that inadvertently followed their street action and the bewildering intricacies of party formation and representation. Gradually, the youths may be learning the very first lesson from the EndSARS protest, to wit, that every revolt needs recognisable leaders who must take responsibility, give commands and determine the scope and timing of the revolt, and set parameters beyond which no one would be permitted to go. By failing on all these fronts, despite having a laudable cause, the youths may have unwittingly jeopardised the objectives of their protest, and strengthened the hands of the government and the law enforcement agencies whose sheer brutality, incompetence, dereliction of duty, and inept supervision of the security agencies triggered the revolt in the first instance.

The government may have opened dialogue with the youths, but this conciliatory move has not forbidden the security agencies from witch-hunting the leaders of the protest, strangulating their finances, and taking sterner measures to ensure that further and subsequent protests either never get off the ground or miscarry very badly. The protest’s putative leaders are going to find out just how perilous it is to swim against the tide, a culture past protest leaders like Gani Fawehinmi, Tai Solarin and others embraced and braved to the death. One of the reasons the EndSARS protesters stayed on the streets far longer than necessary was their distrust of a government whose often glib commitment to agreements tend to end in fiasco. The youths were right. The government can hardly be trusted. But having lost the initiative to vandals in late October, it is now even harder for the youths to reconvene protesters, let alone imbue them with the substance and vigour needed to give their protest traction. They will begin to find out how difficult it is in the age of new media to lead a revolt incognito, and just how lonely it is when a cruel and incorrigible government has someone in its crosshairs. They must now also begin to explore other ways of influencing politics and elections going forward.

By going after the protest’s leaders so pertinaciously, as the government is doing without scruples, Nigerian youths may see future protests, particularly the civilised kind, as futile and counterproductive. But since protest and dissent are integral to democracy and indeed any human organisation, they may in future take even more violent and sinister turn, given the abhorrent culture of intolerance and impunity being imposed by the government. The youths may be partly responsible for this dangerous and insidious turn of events, they were nevertheless not responsible for creating the conditions that necessitated the protests nor did they mastermind the violence that followed their revolt. The youths may not have shown maturity in organising and ending the protest, but the government has been even more culpable in failing to tackle the whole matter in the nuanced and proactive manner required of them. Indeed the strong-arm with which the government is now tackling the post-protest issues raised by the youths is tantamount to sending the wrong message of official indifference and intolerance. The protests raised pertinent socio-political and even existential issues; but the government has seemed to focus more on what officials see as the impertinence of the youths.

By all considerations, the federal government handled the protest, like it manages the country, desultorily and incompetently. There is no indication in the flurry of the post-protest actions of the government that it has asked itself why the country’s security system collapsed so spectacularly both during the peaceful and bloody parts of the protest. And because it has not shown any capacity for the introspection that leads to admission of fault and the ineluctable corrections that produce better governance, no steps have been taken that gives the country confidence that future protests can be anticipated and handled far better than was seen in October. If this government is capable at all of learning any lesson from the EndSARS protest, it is that Nigeria’s security system is hopelessly inadequate, antiquated and unprofessional. Not only is it lacking in modern equipment, its fundamental and undergirding paradigms are deeply provocative and next to useless. The failure of the country’s security system manifested at two dangerous, systemic and interrelated level.

The first is the composition of the security system. In recent decades, particularly starting with the Gen Ibrahim Babangida military dictatorship, the country’s security system became skewed in favour of one ethnic group, particularly after the botched coup d’état masterminded by some Middle Belt officers. The Olusegun Obasanjo government may have arrested the terrible skewness, but soon it took on added and apocalyptic vim after the inauguration of the Muhammadu Buhari presidency. Since 2015, Nigeria’s security system became reposed in the hands of one ethnic group, became inaccessible to other ethnic groups, and was cataclysmically unable to represent or anticipate the opinions and perspectives of the other sections of the country. Thus distorted and dysfunctional, it neither understood the revolt brewing nor accurately gauged its import when it broke out. Panic was inevitable.

With over 250 ethnic groups, some of them hosting cultures that are combustive and mutually exclusive, Nigeria needed a security system that was fairly representative, competent, deep and empathetic. It is doubtful whether the Buhari presidency understands how openly the government and the security agencies voice dictatorial and unrepresentative views of the country’s security challenges and panaceas. Until the government takes care of the skewness of the security system, there is little hope that it can appreciate the weaknesses and failings of the system in place. A few years back, the country was faced with the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) challenge. The government responded with uncommon brutality. A more representative security system would both have devised a better way of handling the challenge and concomitantly weaken it had the Southeast seen an Igbo man or two in the highest echelons of the nation’s security system.

The security system also collapsed because it was poorly equipped to deal with the kind of challenge that manifested in widespread looting and vandalism. Suddenly the government seemed to appreciate the terrible alienation that suffused the country, and the woeful inadequacy of the military and the police to deal with hundreds of thousands of lawbreakers running riot all over the country as an army and at the same time. It is meaningless moralising on whether the looting reflected the country’s moral squalor or the lethargy and dysfunction in government. It was clear that the country teetered on the brink, and neither the government nor anyone else was competent to determine how far on the edge the country had sauntered. Nothing suggests that next time, an invisible restraining hand would materialise. The country was fortunate in October not to descend into chaos. Given its incompetent post-protest measures, the government has obviously done little reflection on the complex socio-economic and political issues that led to October’s conflagration.

What is even worse is that the law enforcement agencies who directly triggered the protest have also learnt nothing. They lost about 22 officers and over 250 police stations burnt. But they seem to dissociate their initial criminal policing, particularly as perpetrated by their anti-robbery squad (SARS), from the inexcusable reprisal by frustrated and angry Nigerians. The two are deeply interwoven, and it requires the police and the security agencies to take the first significant and ameliorating step to reconcile with aggrieved citizens. Not the other way round. Instead, the police are busy mouthing their distaste for protests, a constitutional right that cannot be alienated. They are also threatening hail and fire, when they should be immersed in confidence building. Indeed, nothing indicates that the law enforcement agencies have learnt anything.

There are indications that the government has started to hunt for those who deployed social media for sinister purposes. It is the right thing to do. No one should be allowed to hide under the guise of protests or the near anonymity of social media to perpetrate information violence or instigate hatred and violence. Fortunately, the perpetrators left their trails and signatures on the social media, trails the agents of government should follow to expose those who created conditions for the violence that convulsed the country in October. More importantly, those who looted and vandalised public and private properties should also be exposed and brought to book. Nothing excuses them, and their trails are also all over the social media. However, typical of this government, it appears set to embrace excessive measures, including regulating the social media and making provisions for disproportionate fines and punishment. It is enough that purveyors of fake news and hate speech be exposed and prosecuted. They should rightly be held accountable. But anything else is an overkill. And for a government whose incompetence and lackadaisical approach to governance has expanded the population of the poor and the frustrated, it is more urgent for them to assemble the right calibre of experts to look more dispassionately at the country’s problem, including the youth crisis and educational paralysis. One thing the government does not have is time, as the October protests, looting and vandalism show.

Importantly too, in case the presidency is capable of mustering the will, it must now see how to include the ruling party, on which platform it won in 2015 and 2019, in running the country. The presidency has treated the party as a pariah, completely distancing the government from the party’s stabilising and galvanising capabilities. In turn, when the October protest broke, the party, already weakened and dismembered, and its voice made hoary and inaudible by years of neglect, played only a perfunctory role. After all, some of its members also participated in the rampant looting and vandalism that painted October as a red, sanguinary month.

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