By Simon Kolawole
The youth uprising against police brutality in Nigeria has taken many by surprise. Conventional wisdom is that the youth are more likely to dance at a concert than sing a protest song. Events of the last couple of weeks have altered this narrative as youthful Nigerians have taken to the streets in a vigorous campaign to shoot down police brutality, with the notoriety of the special anti-robbery squad (SARS) serving as the trigger — no pun intended. With the help of the hash tag, #EndSARS, the agitations have gained international attention. And the government has seen that this is not business as usual. Are we finally at the tipping point in the battle for the soul of Nigeria?
While the protests have, in the main, been about police brutality, interpreting them purely as such would be a massive mistake. We would be making a mistake if we focus on the fact that other interests, especially political, have seized the opportunity to fuel the fire. We would be erring by looking only at the disruptions being created all over by protesters who have refused to yield an inch despite their demands being met by the government. We would be missing the point if we focus too much on the fact that even the yahoo boys are eager to see the end of SARS, which itself grooms and harbours a legion of police officers that are yahoo boys and robbers by nature.
For sure, every struggle has its own opportunists. All kinds of characters will jump on the bandwagon to pursue their own agenda. That’s the way life goes. We have to look beyond that. My reading of the real situation is that there is something deeper going on out there. Deeper than SARS. Deeper than SWAT. Deeper than police brutality. What we have in our hands is the unloading of pent-up anger, frustration and resentment by Nigerians — with the youth leading the line. The SARS situation is what Yoruba would describe as “ara ran bombu l’owo” — that is… now I don’t know how to interpret that. Let me just say: “A thunder strike has helped detonate a bomb.”
In 1988, when I was a student of Kwara State Polytechnic where I studied for my A’Levels, we hardly had water at our residential halls. We queued up with our buckets every morning and every evening for water supply by tankers. Then one evening, guys played football. The tankers did not show up. How would they go to bed sweaty and smelly? A few of them started beating their buckets, singing “aluta” songs over water scarcity and poor welfare. Before we knew it, it had progressed to a protest march across the campus. And then a full-blown riot. Overnight, some of us trekked 10 kilometres to Ilorin town, afraid that soldiers would soon invade the campus and start shooting.
You would find it hard thinking a simple football game would lead to a bloody riot in a matter of minutes. In fact, if you were the cynical type, you would argue that the students were unserious, that they were in school to study and not to play football, and that it was the unserious students that caused the riot in order to be sent home. But you would be missing the point. Students were already frustrated. Nobody was paying attention. The anger was building up. The authorities did not see it. The resentment had reached a peak. They ignored it. It took a meaningless football match to fan the flame into an inferno. That is what happens when you fail to read the writing on the wall.
Let’s now return to #EndSARS. For decades, Nigerians have been complaining about police brutality. For decades, the Nigerian state has turned a blind eye, despite panels upon panels set up and recommendations upon recommendations made. As Professor Jibrin Ibrahim, respected political scientist and newspaper columnist, pointed out, all presidents since 1999 have set up one panel or the other on police reform. The reports are gathering dust on Aso Rock shelves. Meanwhile, the police have been gleefully stockpiling dead bodies, cocksure that there would be no consequences. SARS went on robbing and killing with impunity. Is the day of reckoning finally here?
But SARS apart, youth frustration has been building up. We asked them to go to school. They did. Write WASSCE. They did. Write UMTE. They did. Go to university. They did. Do national youth service. They did. Yet years later, they are still begging to apply for vacancies that do not exist, vacancies reserved for the children of the high and mighty. There are those that keep writing entrance exams but are unable to proceed because of lack of space or funds. There are those that never went to school, and those that dropped out in primary or secondary school. Millions are underemployed, unemployed or unemployable. What a huge army of frustrated youth.
But in the same country, if you manage to get elected into a state house of assembly, you will get a brand new SUV, currently sold at N50 million per machine. In some states, there are 40 lawmakers. That is N2 billion. Judges will wake up one day to realise the governor has just bought “tear-rubber” SUVs for them. Governors ride long convoys with the most modern bullet-proof technology. In the same society, hospitals are rejecting patients because “there is no bed space”. People are struggling to pay rising bus fares but their leaders can afford to charter jets to attend weddings and rallies. The youth see all these things. This is a society built on injustice and inequality. And we want peace?
Poverty, unemployment and inequality are the biggest triggers for uprising in any society. Some young persons taking to yahoo, drug dealing and armed robbery are products of a system that does not reckon with the implications of unemployment and poverty. An idle hand, it is said, is tempting the devil. No human being will sit at home and die of hunger. Self-preservation is a basic human instinct. If it is to steal, beg or borrow, the human being will strive to survive. Let me be clear: I am NOT justifying crime. However, a wise society will make a connection between unemployment, poverty and crime, and act decisively to address the problems at the root.
For decades, we have been asking the government to make the economic environment less hostile to businesses, especially small and medium scale enterprises, so that they will be able to create jobs for the millions of skilled and unskilled Nigerians. For decades, we have been putting up with the dissonance — government, on one hand, claiming they are trying to improve the ease of doing business; and government agencies, on the other hand, continuously terrorising SMEs with extortionate levies and taxes in a mad revenue drive, using task forces loaded with thugs and police officers to make the business environment unbearable for the engine room of the economy.
For inexplicable reasons, the government —whether federal, state or local — cannot understand the link between policy and prosperity. They think by making life difficult for businesses and their owners, the economy will grow and create the jobs needed to address the unemployment, poverty and inequality ravaging the nation. Does that make sense? For instance, if you run a business in Abuja, right under the nose of the federal government, the ministries, departments and agencies will violently come after you in such a way that you would think you are a Boko Haram member. Serious countries are encouraging SMEs. We are killing them. And we want to tackle unemployment.
In FCT, at least three units of the Abuja Municipal Council Area (AMAC) do “health inspection” on an eatery every year. You pay a levy for each visit. NAFDAC, NSTIF and SON will also do the same “health inspection” for a fee. There is an annual licence for “operating in FCT”. There is a levy for “using a car to distribute food”. You will be forced to pay Federal Housing Authority (FHA) and AMAC again for “fumigation”. There is also the AMAC “sanitary inspection” fee. AMAC’s department of environment charges for yearly inspection. There is yet another AMAC fee for “food and water-related handling”. That is how we want to encourage economic growth and create jobs in Nigeria!
In all, the #EndSARS protesters need to have an articulated game plan. They must have an end game in mind. At what stage do they sheathe the sword and seize this golden opportunity to begin to hold leaders at all levels accountable as a movement? No government official, whether elected or appointed, should sleep at ease again. What are the lawmakers doing with the constituency projects? Why are the roads so bad? Why are the hospitals and schools in such horrible state? Why are government officials chartering jets to attend political rallies? How are the budgets spent? These questions should shape the next stage of agitation, which should be peaceful and orderly.
If #EndSARS is going to be Nigeria’s tipping point — the point at which pockets of protests and agitations will trigger a major, sustained clamour for good governance — there is a need for strategic articulation, with an end game in mind. This is a lifetime opportunity for the youth to channel their anger, frustration and resentment into positive energy to bring about a fundamental change in Nigeria. The biggest gain should not be just to enforce an end to police brutality and impunity. Those are just symptoms of the chronic mismanagement of Nigeria. After #EndSARS, we need to end the biggest obstacle to our progress: appalling leadership at all tiers of government.