By Hakeem Baba-Ahmed
IF there are Nigerians still holding on to the hope and faith that the nation will reap positive and enduring benefits from the anger and violence and blood and pains of the last few weeks, their numbers would be severely depleted by now.
Watching children, young people and adults break into stores and warehouses and gleefully take away everything they can to homes, many people would have prayed that these do not constitute the only lasting legacy of the protests which began with a demand for a nation governed by laws and civilizing ideals such as trust, compassion and accountability by both leaders and citizens.
Of all the major fatalities of these protests, trust must be the biggest. The protests started because citizens got tired of operations of a police unit it could not trust anymore. It is ending with a loud statement that citizens do not trust leaders and the state to look after their security and welfare.
Citizens do not trust leaders to give them relief when it is available and needed. Citizens believe their leaders are thieves, so stealing what they hide, or taking other peoples’ property is legitimate because it puts them on the same levels with people who swore with the Quran and the Bible to be truthful, honest and loyal to the needs of citizens.
In many parts of the country, families have fed from looted food items in the last few days. Thousands of looters have made money selling looted goods, or are awaiting buyers of everything imaginable which has been looted. Children and young people who should be learning about the evils of theft and violence have helped parents and adults take away what does not belong to them.
Long before government warehouses holding COVID-19 palliatives were looted across the land, God-fearing people put God aside and joined in stealing from shops, homes and stores belonging to others. It is called theft, and it is punishable by God and the state. Have they lost trust in God?
Looted food will run out. Proceeds from looted items will run out. God’s promise to punish theft and leaders who steal from citizens will be punished will endure. Parents and adults who may have contributed to children believing that looting other people’s property, even government property, is not wrong will account to God for their actions or by what they become.
People who may have opened the door to the idea that shortfalls in what you want or need can be made up by stealing or looting have crossed dangerous lines where arguments about right and wrong will be difficult to settle.
Major breaches have been made to the right of citizens to trust that leaders can be persuaded or pressured to make major changes in structures and processes of governance. The campaign for accountability and responsive leadership has suffered major setback with the undignified manner it ended with the citizen it sought to speak for scrambling for illegal loot that will give him relief for a few days or weeks after which he reverts to living under leaders who never put premium on respecting him in the first place.
Citizens joined hoodlums to hand over to the leadership the moral high ground to bury the ideals behind the campaign for good governance. They levelled the ground between citizens who had been denied rights and much-needed relief, and the leaders who denied such rights. Now the state threatens to unleash its full force at looters.
It will prosecute a few that had the additional misfortune to be arrested with other people’s goods, or even with relief materials all looters thought they were properly entitled to. The state will throw the books at them, and others will watch as they are tried and convicted as thieves.
Where are the young Nigerians who trooped out in thousands to demand an end to the impunity and excesses of a police unit? Who will be there to keep an eye on SWAT, and make sure that it does not become SARS with a new name?
Who will call out the next protests and what causes will it protest for? The nation is now laboured by a leadership that is seething with anger that it was disturbed enough to look at noisy citizens, who, in addition, had the temerity to report it to a few countries in the world whose opinions matter to it.
We will have to live with a democratic system that puts little merit on the rights and the value on citizen activism and public opinion. This, at a period the labour unions appear to have abandoned the idea that they can lead resistance against unjust and crippling policies.
If the nation cannot rally public opinion around basic issues like improving the quality of policing using social media influencers, civil society activists, millions of young, alienated and angry youth, millions of fringe elements that fill many of the nation’s dangerous social black spots, what hope is there that the democratic process will grow and develop in part because citizens legitimately organise to demand that those they elected should address specific and general grievances?
The botched protests have seriously damaged relationships that are predicated on even the most minimum threshold of trust. Leaders and their instruments of enforcement will now disperse groups of any number convenient to them on grounds that they could constitute a threat. Trust between many politicians has been badly, some will say irrevocably, damaged with suspicions that some have hidden behind protesters and violent hoodlums to gain a few inches.
Trust between ethnic groups in major towns and cities have been damaged with suspicions and rumours that even looting hoodlums operated with sensitivity to ethnic considerations. Vigorous fence-mending attempts involving leadership of Igbo and Yoruba ethnic elders will take a while to show results, not least because they operate in a crowded space in which other players are working against them. Northerners living in Southern communities are sending messages home that they are under attack without a finger being raised.
It will be most unfair to attribute a subversive motive to the idealistic youth who sang and danced and waved the Nigerian flag and retweeted hashtags and even registered some initial successes. But they are guilty of gross naivety, a fault that opened the door to many interests that have now buried its place in history. Now the outlines of a promise that the nation could cobble together a consensus out of its quarreling parts, and adopt clear lines of action to affect major changes in the structure and operations of the country have been looted.
This administration is very unlikely to make concessions to ideals that bear the slightest resemblance to those of the protests, such as good governance, particularly since it is likely to believe it had defeated it and therefore owes it nothing. Citizens should brace for hostile governors whose stores of palliatives have been emptied by people who called them heartless thieves.
The advantages of our social contract have dramatically shifted in favour of the political leadership. It will be comforting to think that a breed of leadership will emerge that will recall what these protests were about in their early days, and devise governance strategies that will cumulatively achieve their goals. The nation cannot manage its many challenges and survive routine responses to uprisings such as we are witnessing because the citizen and the hoodlum wants leaders to notice them.