A protest is a tool used to demand change, and it usually serves as a conduit for the marginalised group to express their frustrations. It is, indeed, a universal language employed by the powerless in the society to earn some rights.
In the Year 2020 alone, several countries have had to deal with some protests of their own. With allegations of police brutality towards African-Americans, the chant of #BlackLivesMatter continues to reverberate across the United States of America (USA). Philipinos recently protested the 2020 Anti-Terrorism Act feared to be a strategy to suppress free speech in the Philipines, just as Hong Kong protesters have been on the street since 2019 to rally against a new law proposed to try Hong Kong residents in mainland China.
Brazilians and Chileans have also had their protests to demand a thing or two from their governments and, about two months ago, Lebanese seized on an explosion in Beirut that killed nearly 200 citizens to demand better governance. The most recent hot spot is Nigeria, where youths have been out on the street for more than two weeks, protesting against police brutality and lousy government with the now-famous #EndSARS.
Although all these demonstrations stem from different agitations, the common denominator is that a group of frustrated citizens, burdened by injustice, swarmed for systemic reform.
While there is nothing peculiar about Nigerians on the street demanding for something as simple as right to life, the government’s response has been something uniquely uncommon. Water cannons, rubber bullets, tear gas, are among proper tools used by the police around the world to disperse protesters since the intent is usually not to kill, but rather to ensure the non-escalation of the situation.
No doubt, some of these protests had gotten out of hand, but there is enough video evidence of policemen merely using themselves as a human shield. At the same time, they watch protesters chant their demands, even when the anger aims towards them.
However, that was not the case in Nigeria this past week, as videos showed protesters shot by the security personnel paid to protect them. It has been days since the unfortunate incident, and it is still unclear who ordered military attacks on the protesting civilians. It is even more precarious that the Federal Government claimed that there were no lives lost at the Lekki Toll Gate killings on 20 October, 2020.
The lack of coordination between Governor Babajide Sanwolu and the presidency was very apparent as allegations and insinuations on who ordered what flies around the country. In the absence of official statements from the national leaders, people filled the space with all kinds of rumours, half-truths and sometimes untruth.
Irrespective of whoever ordered the military to attack unarmed protesters, it is an affirmation of grievances that led to the protest in the first place, and the situation got ugly pretty quickly with hoodlums exploiting the situation to foister terror on many cities in South-West Nigeria. Lagos, Africa’s economic headquarters, erupted with violence.
Amid the chaos, there was an inexplicable silence from the country’s number one citizen. President Muhammadu Buhari was not only silent, his decision not to take calls from Governor Sanwo-Olu on the burning economic chamber of the country at a very dire moment makes some people question his commitment to no other region than the North. It is also a slap on his supporters in the South-West who helped him to power after three failed attempt at the presidency.
It is essential to remind the president that he is the president of all Nigerians. It is shameful that he and his cabinet allowed Lagos and South-West to burn. Political pundits, as well as opposition parties, need to grow some spine and pin this anarchy and chaos appropriately on President Buhari because the buck stops with him.
Nigeria has had her fair share of protests, with #OccupyNigeria and #BringBackOurGirls being some of the most recent in our memories. In 2012, #OccupyNigeria was organised to protest the removal of fuel subsidy by the government of former President Goodluck Jonathan. It started as a social media campaign which finds its way to the streets of Lagos, Abuja, Minna, London and New York. Jonathan government caved under pressure and rescinded the removal. This event is part of what cruised current administration to electoral victory. We also had the #BringBackOurGirls to protest the kidnapping of Chibok girls by Boko Haram. None of these protests was without small chips here and there.
When #EndSARS started, a lot of older Nigerians assumed this wasn’t going to be any different and that protesters were going to agitate for a while. It was assumed that the government will respond with its usual empty promises and, couple of months later, the cycle begins again. Members of the Gen Z proved that their addiction to technology is an attribute to both be feared and respected, and they are called the digital natives for nothing. Equipped with their technological gadgets, a few of them mobilised no less than 28 million tweets and retweets for the #EndSARS campaign and within a week, raised an impressive amount of money electronically and mobilised enough young people to get off of their behind and match for their freedom.
The tremendous response and success of a seemingly impotent rallying cry shocked our leaders they had to start threatening Twitter with a lawsuit. The swiftness with which these young men and women responded to protesters in trouble, either by paying hospital bills, repair of vandalized vehicles, disbursement of data to people for retweets or availability of about 400 lawyers ready to work probono on behalf of protesters is impressive. They practically forced the government to agree to the disbandment of SARS quicker than they have ever responded to any other agitators in the past. The government was unprepared.
Most youths under age 35 either never experienced the kind of oppression that whipped the older generation to docility or only have scanty education on how brutish a government could be to the people. They are indeed very fearless in making their justifiable demands.
There are mountains of allegations of extrajudicial killing, rape, extortion, torture, kidnap as well as intimidation levelled towards police in general and officers of SARS in particular. The sheer volume of horrific encounters with officers of SARS shared by Nigerians will make you question if the country or the Nigerian Police has any leadership.
People jitter at the mere sight of men in uniform, acting like terrorists. Their approach is often with utmost disrespect for lives as many citizens recount their experience with them as near death. SARS officers are accused of demanding money from low-income families of uninvestigated victims who sometimes have to make instalment payments of ransom on behalf of someone who might have even be killed and paraded as an armed robber.
Mere possession of essential tools such as a phone, a car, laptop or just merely clean appearance can turn you to prey when you encounter a desperate police officer hoping to augment their low salaries however possible.
The mantra of the Nigerian Police is that you are guilty until proven innocent and you must thank your star if you are alive long enough to prove your innocence. They bark out confusing orders and gleefully boast about how they kill with impunity. According to statistics, 70 per cent of inmates across Nigerian Prisons (or are they correctional centres now?) are serving jail terms when they are yet to get sentencing.
Like other problems facing the country, police brutality did not start five years ago, and neither is the present administration solely responsible. Still, it is guilty of several unfulfilled campaign promises which have aggravated the situation. The cluelessness with which this administration governs is palpable.
In 2015, President Buhari campaigned on how the country is in a deplorable state and needed urgent salvation which only himself and his party had antidotes. The president promised a revamped healthcare system that will nullify the medical voyage outside of the country. Still, since he assumed office, the president has taken, at least, one medical pilgrimage to Europe yearly.
The APC government promised that it had plans to combat terrorism, kidnapping, armed robbery, militants as well as ethnoreligious clashes nationwide. Five years on the job, insecurity is still trending.
In defence of President Buhari, his administration has had to deal with the plummeting price of crude oil in the global market. This situation has financially incapacitated the nation. One would think they had plans to source for extra funds outside oil with their lofty promises. The qualities of a good leader according to the late John Gardner, a renowned American writer on leadership, includes envisioning, managing, motivating, achieving workable unity, as well as renewing and building leadership terms, among other roles. As such the presidency must find a way to start caring for the people.
To atone the failure of this government to protect the lives of innocent young Nigerians, this government needs an urgent re-evaluation of its agenda since currents efforts seem non-functional. The Inspector-General of Police must explain to Nigerians why men under his watch have continued to be brutish towards Nigerians with impunity. Every officer found guilty must be appropriately apprehended. Remunerations and incentives for men of the force should match the standard of living.
Members of the legislative arm of the government must also be held accountable for the decadence within the Nigerian Police. Both the chairman and deputy of the Senate Committee on Police Affairs, Bello Usman Kumo and Ayeni Babatunde, respectively, should be put on the spotlight to give an account of their co-stewardship of the Police Force.
There must be compensation for every citizen the SARS men have killed, maimed or brutalised. Training, evaluation of prerequisites needed to join the Nigerian Police also need an upgrade, so that the intelligence and emotional stability of weapon-carrying member of our society can match the scope of work. Every Nigerian must begin to show interest in how our elected officials are conducting business on our behalfs.
To the fearless generation among us who challenged the rest of us to speak up, we are proud of your bravery and implore you not to feel defeated in any way because he who fights and retreats lives to fight another day.
.Animasaun-Yagboyaju, a freelance journalist, host @ CrystalView Nigeria Podcast and former reporter @ Radio Nigeria, writes from New York, USA.