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SARS: The limits of rent a crowd

By Tonnie Iredia

Several decades back when I served as a political reporter for NTA News, I had an exciting job covering political rallies which attracted large crowds all the time. At the end of each rally, I used to wonder how each of the nation’s political parties managed to mobilize such great supporters and admirers until I found that it was the same people in all the rallies. A young man who was always there and dressed each time in the colours of each party admitted to our crew that he didn’t belong to any of the parties and that he was a member of a group usually rented by different politicians to boost their supporters club. In later years, the principle of rent a crowd was extended into virtually every aspect of our national life – SAP rallies and those of the Association for Better Nigeria ABN, Abacha’s 2-million-Man-March; NLC strikes over incessant increases in the prices of petroleum products during Obasanjo and Jonathan’s eras etc.

The interesting thing about the protesters was that they were at home with any crowd that pays the rent. They can be found in the anti-government group on one occasion only to be seen two days later, among the most vocal of the protesters in support of the government on the same topic. They are neither necessarily miscreants nor are they unemployed; sometimes they are even union leaders. But a discerning difference between the groups is that while those who are anti-government are subjected to tear gas and other dangers, the pro-establishment crowd is usually escorted by the law enforcement agencies to handover their petition to an official as high as a Commissioner of Police for onward transmission to higher authorities. Depending on the subject and scope of operation of the demonstrators, they could be received directly by a governor.

When the rent a crowd scheme is for rallies and issues which do not adversely affect human life, we can laugh it out and see those involved as smart. But when people join demonstrators who support policies that can kill their Kith and Kin, they are stretching the scheme beyond its limits. Two examples are germane here. They are the recent rallies for the retention of the dreaded police unit known as the Special Anti Robbery Squad SARS and those who demonstrate in favour of governors that cannot pay workers’ salaries. In the case of SARS, it is obvious that those who allowed themselves to be rented in favour of the dreaded corps were either insane or had never encountered the group or had an unfortunate relation who has a tale to tell. Across the globe, the brutality of the unit often goes viral on the web to the embarrassment of the nation. Some of those they so brutally handle may have engaged in suspected criminality but SARS is not empowered to punish; they can at best arrest suspected criminals and take them through the due process of law; anything else is extra-judicial and reprehensible.

The police authorities themselves admit this much and are reportedly taking steps to reverse the trend according to Jimoh Moshood arguably the best police spokesman in recent times. Jimoh is a delight to watch on national television now and then defending his organization without quibbling. He is always there to make the logical point that IGP Idris is aware of bad eggs in the police and is taking steps to remove them just as he is said to be committed to training and retraining others to imbibe modern policing. We want to believe the defence because amidst calls for the scrapping of SARS, we stumbled into a media report that a room trial has been introduced to penalise SARS operatives found culpable of criminal offences. Already, no less than 32 operatives of the Squad according to Cable News have been arrested and are being held at police detention facilities for the purpose. If so, Nigerians who want SARS disbanded should not be seen as anti-establishment, rather they should be appreciated and informed that based on their calls, appropriate action was being taken, and that the behaviour of the bad eggs should not be used to throw away the good works of the majority of disciplined personnel. On that premise, many frayed nerves would be calmed while the police take steps to prevent a recurrence of the ugly incidents. It is hoped that the promise by the Senate to investigate the activities of SARS would help the police.

The second issue of this piece concerns the plight of Nigerian workers whose salaries are unpaid for several months in many states. Let’s use a 2016 incident in two Southwest states, Oyo and Ekiti as our case study. In Oyo state, civil servants went on strike in connection with the failure of the state government to pay their salaries for several months. The response of the governor, Senator Abiola Ajimobi was to get some of his admirers numbering about 50,000 artisans, traders, tailors, hairdressers, technicians, shoe makers, butchers, commercial drivers, students and a host of others to organise a rally in his favour on the subject. In Ekiti, Governor Ayo Fayose had his own tactics on the subject. First, he issued a threat of ‘no work no pay’ adding that opposition politicians were behind the strike. These, were discountenanced by the workers as ‘cheap blackmail. The governor later added a comic dimension to the strike declaring that he too was on sympathy strike because as a ‘caring’ governor he shared the workers’ pains.  While appreciating the governor for sharing their pains and anguish, the workers promised to appreciate him the more if he could pay at least two months salaries of the numerous arrears.  From nowhere, some National Union of Road Transport Workers got recruited to carry-out solidarity demonstrations in support of government!

If the governor’s sympathizers were not stretching the rent a crowd scheme to a point of inhumanity, they should have asked their mentor why a state like Anambra does not owe salaries and why he did not emulate Anambra instead of asking workers to die in patience. The real question today is why would any right-thinking human being join rallies in support of the dreaded SARS or applaud a governor who cannot pay his workers?

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