Just like a thunderbolt from the blues, the #EndSARS protests descended on the nation and spontaneously engulfed cities inmost States of the federation and the FCT. Decades of Police brutality especially that of its dreaded unit, Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) triggered what became unarguablyNigeria’s most coordinated protests which almost metamorphosed into an insurrection that left in its wake, wanton destruction and carnage across the country.
The protests led predominantly by youths within the 20 – 30 year-old age bracket – the internet-age generation, brought theirblustering energies and social media savvy to bear in the mobilization and organization of the protests. Before we could say Jack, toll lines had emerged for medicals, security, feeding and other needs of protesters across the country. Funding that is usually the bane of such sustained agitations was the least of the problem this time as millions of Naira poured in through crowd sourcing and international donors enabled by innovative means such as bitcoins, amongst others. Indeed at the last count before the protests went awry, about N90m had been realised in Naira and other currencies. Such was the ingenuity of the arrow-heads of the protest that almost brought the country to its knees for over two weeks.
At the inception of the protests, the agitation got bi-partisan support as almost everyone threw their weight behind it – reform of the Nigeria Police was an idea whose time has come. A Police force, replete with a history of intimidation and human rights abuses, targeted especially at innocent young people whose only crime for being profiled is looking good, driving good cars or spotting an exquisite smart phone. Contrary to insinuations in certain quarters that the atrocities of the defunct SARS wererestricted to a few officers, statistics have shown, especially in Southern Nigeria that most of the officers were culpable in the illicit act. From extortions to illegal detention to maiming to extra-judicial murder, the horrific tale is the same, and cuts across all social strata.
Therefore, the avalanche of support for the protests though unprecedented, was not unexpected. From the President’s daughter to the Vice- President’s daughter to majority of youths and leaders across the political divide, the slogan was the same – End SARS! And after over a week of immense pressure, both online and offline, the Police capitulated and bowed to pressure– the Inspector-General of Police announced the disbandment of the now defunct Police squad, that fateful Sunday afternoon.
The protesters would have none of it. They insisted and rightly too, that SARS had either been disbanded or reformed before, at least thrice on paper but nothing concrete came out of it. They expanded the demands to a 5-point agenda which include setting up of judicial panel of inquiry, restitution for victims, medical and mental evaluation of officers of the disbanded SARS before being absorbed into other police formations, better remuneration for Police officers amongst others. Again, within a few days, government showed good faith by promptly acceding to the 5/5 demands. But what did we get, the demands kept increasing. It soon included #EndBadGovernance , while some asked or mulled that a democratically elected President resign – there and then, what started as a genuine agitation caved in to youthful exuberance that was bereft of tact, or wisdom in maximising the gains of the struggle
When the #EndSARS movement was asked to nominate representatives to be part of the Police reform process, they railed and insisted they had no leaders and even when people like Davido and others made attempts to dialogue with the Police and the Federal Government, they were rebuffed as the rampaging youths vowed to stay on the streets indefinitely. At that point they grew more aggressive, blocking major roads, obstructing movement across the country and literarily holding everyone by the jugular. Those of us that spoke out against the irresponsible deprivation of the rights of other road users were called unprintable names and taken to the cleaners. At that point, anarchy was already setting in as hoodlums started taking advantage of the situation to loot and cause carnage.
This was the tipping point as chaos loomed large across the country. Prison breaks were already being orchestrated, breakdown of law and order was prevalent. Most youths blamed President Buhari for not addressing the nation directly before the situation degenerated. While it would have been stellar he did to calm frayed nerves in the early days of the protests, one cannot change the style a leader is accustomed to. What he didn’t do in words, he did in action by leading the administration to swiftly meet demands of “Ending SARS”.
The rest is now history as the declaration of a 24–hour curfew in Lagos and other States became inevitable. Unfortunately, Lagos has been in the news as events trailing the curfew inadvertently led to the “Lekki shooting” that multiple accounts have claimed led to the death of some citizens and injuries to some. While the alleged casualties or whether “live rounds” were shot at protesters is still a subject of investigation by the Lagos State Judicial panel of inquiry, what is not in doubt is that the indiscretion and tomfoolery of proponents of the protests led to the unfortunate anti-climax.
Every war, anywhere in the World always end up at the negotiating table. The resolve of the #EndSARS mob not to back down after its demands were met and get involved inmonitoring the reform process was most uncalled for, to say the least. It showed a youth population bristling with energy but quite lacking in the wisdom compartment.
One would have expected that having gotten government to its side, they would have moved swiftly to keep her on her toes by insisting on setting the pace and evaluating the reforms all the way, until we have a modern and well-equipped Police service that will be our pride. Instead, they got carried away by a false sense of power, that they not only began seeing themselves asthe purveyors of a universal cure to all that ails the nation, but having the capacity to ignite a “Nigerian Spring” that will sweep away all political office holders.
They forgot that Nigeria just had her general elections last year and those governing from the President to the constituencies have a legitimate mandate. Where were these youths when only 35% of registered voters voted in 2019?? How many of them even have the Permanent Voters Card (PVCs) to start with?? Where were the Lagos mob that were most vocal – the entertainers and their likes, when less than 20% of registered voters, voted in the State?? So what they couldn’t achieve through the ballot, they conceived achieving through the backdoor. How plausible!
Imagine if the same energies deployed to prosecute the #EndSARs protests were channelled to “Getting the vote out”and mobilizing during electioneering, a different outcome would have been possible, with its attendant effect on governance.
It is however not too late to make amends. It is exciting that attempts are being made to project “youth–based” parties. As laudable as it seems, it remains to be seen if much can be achieved through that route. Already, numerous parties are being fronted instead of just one that will be able to make much impact, with unity of purpose. The panacea should be that Youths populate the two major political parties “en masse” and try to leverage on their numbers to gradually take charge. While the idea of forming new parties is fanciful, dislodging existing political parties with formidable structures across the length and breadth of the country will be a tall order.
Taking power is not restricted to becoming President or Governor alone, a progressive and vibrant legislature can go a long way to bequeath good governance and I think that young people should gaze in that direction towards 2023. If we can take considerable number of seats across the country and some Gubernatorials, that will be a veritable starting point for the marathon.
To heal the scars of the aftermath of #EndSARS, we need to bring a closure to the Lekki shooting incident. The judicial panel must do a thorough and pain-staking job to bring to justice to those that might be culpable and give restitution to victims. This should also apply to Judicial panels across other States. A reformed, efficient and modern Police service – that is no longer a force, in words and in deed, will go a long way in laying the ghost of the most virulent civil unrest in our recent history to rest.
Segun Tomori is the Executive Director (Communications), RedPole Media and an Abuja-based Public Affairs analyst.