By Rotimi Fasan
The #ENDSARS protest that started as an agitation against police brutality, specifically the Federal Special Anti-Robbery Squad, FSARS, has morphed into a movement against all forms of official excesses in Nigeria- a venting of pent-up feelings against governmental ineptitude.
This is the only meaningful way to see the protest rather than narrowly view it as just a series of complaints against FSARS in particular and the entire police force in general.
It is important that this point is made in order that the politically exposed individuals and groups, including state governors and sundry categories of politicians and government appointees, who initially saw the agitation as something they could dismiss with a wave of the hand, or yet as another faddish grievance against the Nigerian state they could latch onto and then discard- it is important that Nigerians see this phenomenon for what it is. It is an expression of public anger against government failure.
That some Nigerians are not giving themselves the opportunity to understand what is at play before responding can be seen from the fire brigade manner the Inspector General of Police, Mohammed Adamu, rushed into reviving a moribund unit, namely, the Special Weapons and Tactics Team, SWAT, as replacement for FSARS within hours of the disbandment of the latter. Without the least effort at showing it understood the complaint of the youth that spearheaded the dissolution of FSARS or apprising Nigerians of what thought went into reviving SWAT, Mr. Adamu went ahead to announce the re-emergence of the unit.
Where were the personnel (to be) deployed into SWAT before now? What separates them from those in FSARS? How is anyone to be convinced that it was not the same people from FSARS that are being deployed into SWAT? Are they new recruits with different orientation from the rogue cliques from a contaminated constabulary? These are questions the IG did not appear to have mulled sufficiently well before his hasty announcement of a so-called new unit. The Police did not appear to have done its due diligence and it is no surprise that angry Nigerians that had taken over major cities in the country for two full weeks were neither convinced of the genuineness of government action nor of its readiness to address the fundamental issues that prompted the campaign against the police in the first place. That initial complaint, it is no surprise, has now widened into a generalised expression of dissatisfaction with the performance of the Muhammadu Buhari government.
Rushing to set up SWAT is clearly an unreflective gesture aimed at just quelling the agitation on the streets. Not much thought went into it. It speaks to the manner government rushes into signing agreements it has no intention to honour with striking unions like the Academic Staff Union of Universities, among others.
After such hasty responses government moves on to something else and with no thought for what it agreed to. A few months after we would be back to where we were as we are now with ASUU demanding that Abuja honour an agreement it entered into as far back as 2009 and to which it committed itself again in 2019.
This is the time for Abuja and Nigerians as a whole to see the events of the last two weeks as a call to duty, a reawakening for us to step back and reappraise ourselves as a people under a government that committed to ensuring the wellbeing of its people in terms of food, job and human security. How well have Nigerians at the various levels of governance done this?
It is not just about Abuja alone even though Abuja has a major role to play in it and should take the lead. How well is our society structured to ensure that law-abiding Nigerians get the best that society can offer and that a few people don’t corner what belongs to us all for just themselves and their cronies? What future can the youth of this country look forward to? Is it a future burdened by debts that would make them slaves in their own place of birth or permanent migrants in different parts of the world?
How this present protest would end or what would happen thereafter is a matter that should concern all of us. Whether it ends peacefully or with a number of persons being scapegoated (which would be a wrong move), we should not have to return here in the same way again. Moreover, the Nigerian beast has tasted blood and would not be contented with the vegetarian ration of old. The youth of this country, indeed Nigerians as a whole, would no longer be ignored. They are taking their fate in their hand and assuming responsibility for themselves.
I have said it many times here that Nigerians everywhere should see themselves as leaders in their own right. No longer should we cede leadership to just a few individuals that were elected on the platform of one political party or another. That some Nigerians would describe the protest(ers) as faceless or without direction or leaderless simply because they have not anointed a few persons as their leaders/spokespersons misses the essence of the agitations or what prompted them.
What those making this point miss are the groups of individuals who can be easily cornered with bribes and who feather their nests at the expense of those they claim to speak for. Protest or strike leaders in Nigeria are often opportunistic wheeler-dealers who seize moments of agitation to advance their own private agenda, pecuniary, political or both.
The present generation of Nigerians on the street is their own leaders. But it would be both grossly naïve and foolish of anyone to imagine that the apparent lack of an acknowledged leader or leaders is an indication that the protest lack method or direction.
The opposite is the truth, which no doubt informed the attitude of those searching everywhere for possible sponsors. It is a strategic move on the part of the protesters that they have not aligned with any politician or known political group. Which is not the same thing as saying that there are no people offering financial and intellectual support.
Abuja should put on its thinking cap, quit the red herring and respond maturely to the demands of the protesters. To see the agitation in terms of a five-point demand as Mr. Lai Mohammed, the Information Minister, does is a reflection of government’s narrow understanding of the issues at stake and an indication they are not ready to do things differently. So far, the protests have been largely peaceful and where there has been violence it could be easily traced to extraneous interests unconnected to the protesters or even the excesses of some acting on behalf of government.