On Friday, December 18, 2010, a man named Mohamed Bouazizi, protesting police corruption and ill-treatment, set himself on fire in the Tunisian city of Sidi Bouzid. This action sparked a series of protests in the country. From Tunisia, the protests spread to five other countries: Libya, Egypt, Yemen, Syria and Bahrain. The consequent anti-government protests, uprisings, and armed rebellions later extended across much of the Arab world in the early 2010s. The masses were protesting oppressive regimes and low standards of living.
Here in Nigeria, on Saturday, October 3, at Wetland Hotel, Ughelli, in Delta State, a police officer attached to the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) shot a young man, and he and his colleagues took away a Lexus SUV belonging to the victim. This event, captured on video, started trending wildly on Twitter. The resultant public outcry led to nation-wide protests tagged #EndSARS. Since October 8, the country has been overwhelmed with outcry and anger, while videos and pictures showing police brutality, harassment and extortion in Nigeria, are being circulated daily. The protests have been led predominantly by young Nigerians in different cities, alongside many activists and celebrities.
The #EndSARS protests have gained international traction and perhaps being the most famous hashtag on Twitter in the last week. From rapper and U.S. presidential candidate, Kayne West; Arsenal FC midfielder, Mesut Ozil; to British media personality, Piers Morgan, a lot of people across the globe have lent their voices to the protests against police brutality in Nigeria. Jack Dorsey, the CEO of Twitter, even entered the fray. He twitted the #EndSARS hashtag and urged protesters who seem to be having difficulties in securing a viable platform for raising funds for the protest to consider using bitcoin. The #EndSARS hashtag has been used over 50 million times on Twitter.
This current EndSARS protest is propelled by social media, which is playing a significant role in facilitating communication and interaction among participants of the protests. Protesters are using social media to organise demonstrations, disseminate information about their activities, and raise local and global awareness about ongoing events. With Twitter and Facebook, especially, protesters do not need the traditional media to spread their message. In this way, the movement has virtually taken a life of its own.
The #EndSARS campaign is still ongoing as Nigerian youths have been camped in the streets for days now. From Lagos to Port Harcourt to Abuja, major roads are blocked, economic and social activities are being severely disrupted, and unfortunately, precious lives have been lost. There have been #EndSARS protests in London and other major global cities, with young people leading the movement.
This upheaval is gradually metamorphosising into a youth protest about everything that is wrong with Nigeria. Most youths are lending their voices and venting their anger against insecurity, kidnapping and general lawlessness in all parts of the country. They are complaining bitterly against impunity, nepotism and corruption. They are complaining against grinding poverty and the low quality of living of the majority. They are complaining against the insensitivity of some government officials who act like colossal demigods, bestriding the local and national space filled with people they consider nincompoops. They are complaining against the high rate of unemployment and the worsening state of under-employment faced by over 70 per cent of Nigerians. In summation, the protest is symbolic and against all sorts of frustration with the Nigerian nation. Important rhetorical questions arise at this juncture: Does government need a protest before tackling these myriads of issues? Should all stakeholders not listen to the “voices of the voiceless” youths and start the necessary engagements and changes to avert any impending doom in the horizon?
The problem with the protests is that there are signs that no one can determine at this point how long they will last. For instance, although the government conceded to the demand of the protesters and disbanded SARS, the protesters still demanded an address by the president. The president addressed the nation on the issue, yet the protesters are demanding for more. They had a five-point demand, which the government has met, but they are still protesting. Many people are unsure what the current direction of the protesters is. What is clear is that Nigerian youths are very angry with the current situation in the country, which is a product of many years of visionless leadership and mismanagement.
A keen observer of events in Nigeria in the past few decades will notice that this kind of situation has been on the horizon for long. The SARS problem and other forms of police brutality had lingered for too long. The Nigerian police are reputed to be the most corrupt in the world. Each time there is a public outcry, the authorities take cosmetic measures.
There was a time the police authorities changed the name of the unit from SARS to FSARS in reaction to acts of lawlessness, high-handedness and impunity by people who are supposed to be custodians of the law. Many later saw the government action as window dressing, as police brutality continued. Police persisted in treating any young man seen wearing dreadlocks or carrying a laptop as a “Yahoo Boy”, a byword for an internet fraudsters; they insisted on going through people’s phones, and they killed and maimed many with odious impunity. This is not to say there are no good men in the police or all police personnel are bad. Nigerian police is a force for good, except for a few rotten eggs amongst them.
It is clear that the protesters mostly consist of youths who are seeking meaningful engagement with the authorities. We have undergraduates who are at home because the Academic Staff of Nigerian Universities (ASUU) has been on strike for so long. The ASUU versus Federal Government imbroglio has become a recurring decimal in the life of our nation. Incessant ASUU strikes have become part and parcel of our educational system. It is possible that with the #EndSARS protest, the chicken will finally come home to roost for the government and the society. Engagement with the youths is no longer an option or luxury; it is apt and timely.
Apart from undergraduates, millions of unemployed youths see the #EndSARS protest as an opportunity to vent their anger on the government and society they have accused of failing them. Are the government and the society about to pay the price for lack of meaningful engagement with our youths? Is the government getting battered because of the difficult economic conditions, which has lingered over the years?
I was alarmed when I saw some people donating food and drinks to the protesters. In a country that is said to be the poverty capital of the world, who can convince thousands of hungry Nigerian youths to go home when the streets provide them with food to eat and for some criminal elements amongst them, the opportunity to loot? There is suspicion in some quarters that some anti-government elements are cashing in on the situation to fuel the protest even more. They are providing food and logistics to the protesters and funding for other activities. This action will indeed extend the protests and portends a sinister outcome.
The government should be careful in handling the protests and protesters. The current COVID-19 economic malaise had led the government to make some decisions that would hurt the masses in the short run but would ultimately be beneficial to all and sundry in the long run. The removal of petroleum subsidy has led to higher fuel prices and the increment in electricity tariff means that Nigerians who can see the elusive electricity are paying more for it. As the economic situation becomes more challenging and harder for the citizens, so would be the propensity to join in any protest that targets the government, and allows them to vent their anger.
Therefore, the government needs to continue in meaningful engagement with the protesters and ensure that our trigger-happy law enforcement agencies apply the highest degree of professionalism and restraint in dealing with the visibly angry youths. Beyond mere pronouncements, the government should take concrete actions to show that it is not business as usual. Members of the now-disbanded SARS who engaged in the wanton killing of innocent youths should face the full wrath of the law, while genuine reforms of the Nigerian police should start in earnest and not be driven by the police. Nobody should expect the police to be on the driver’s seat of police reforms. Every stakeholder who has something to offer, including the young people who are leading the protest, should be involved in the reforms.
Be it as it may, the government should not allow itself to be held hostage by subversive elements who failed through the ballot box but who want to take advantage of the current situation to perform acts of sedition capable of undermining the peace and security of Nigerians. If these people are indeed opposition politicians, like many people suspect, the law should take its course.
After the last of the protesters has gone home, there is the need for stakeholders to take a holistic look at governance in general. There currently exists a considerable lacuna between the government and the governed. At every election cycle, leaders make strenuous efforts to seek the support and votes of electorates. But after elected to office, most of the leaders transform into autocrats and pseudo-despots. They enact policies and programmes that are anti-people and govern in a way that looks like those who elected them do not matter.
In most instances, the citizenry watch in awe and utter resignation as the leaders trample on all manner of norms and decency. But as the current protests have revealed, citizens can rise to demand that their voices are heard. Maybe after some days or weeks, the #EndSARS protesters will disperse. But it should be clear to our leaders that the Nigerian youths have realised a viable avenue of bringing about social change – protest. Taking them for granted will ultimately lead to consequences, so far-reaching that it can completely transform the fabric of our society.
Indeed, Nigeria has everything it takes to be a great nation. However, all Nigerians must change their ways in all facets of our national existence. Every section of the country must not only be seen to have a sense of belonging but must have it. There must be justice, equity, and equal opportunities for all. Nigerians must rise above primordial sentiments of ethnicity, religiosity and clannish bigotry. We should eschew mediocrity, nepotism and impunity, whilst embracing and promoting meritocracy, accountability, transparency and efficiency in managing our resources.
The #EndSARS protest has sent a clear signal that the youths of Nigeria have found their voice and the message is that we need comprehensive reforms in all sectors of our country, be it security, education, healthcare, governance, economy or youth engagement. To assume that it is all about police brutality is a simplistic interpretation of complex phenomena.
Dakuku Peterside is the Former Director-General of the NIMASA