By Ray Umukoro
On October 20, 2021, the anniversary date for the #EndSARS protest of 2020, Governor Ifeanyi Okowa of Delta opted to walk a different path. While many governors were reeling out speeches to pacify the people, Okowa took the path of pragmatism.
The governor practically seized the moment. He did not engage in memorial speech. Not in anniversary lamentation of the nationwide destruction that signposted the events around the protest. To heal a wound, an open sore; you don’t apply platitudes of sweetly-flavoured words. It will not heal. What heals a wound is the application of requisite medication. Depending on the depth of that wound, dressing it and administering the right drugs (oral or injectable), are required.
The #EndSARS protest, and all it stands for, is an open wound. The event, though well-intentioned but poorly managed, has left a gash in our national psyche. That gash is a reminder of the frustrations of Nigerian youths; an emblem of the regrettable disconnect between the youths and the political elite; a morbid remembrance of the orgy of police brutality that define policing in these shores.
#EndSARS, therefore, has become emblematic of a sordid past, a symbol of injustice and insufferable treatment visited on the youths by those whose duty it is to protect them. Such primeval paradox ought to elicit a wellspring of empathy from the leaders. Empathy that should, on anniversary day, trigger genuine acts of pacifism, not pretence coated in sweet words. Wounds don’t heal by words; they heal by action.
This is the context in which Governor Okowa’s action stood out that Memorial Day among the platoon of leaders across the nation. He inaugurated a Committee for the Protection of Human Rights in the state. The governor heads the committee, something he rarely does. But this drives home his intendment. He will not stand and watch the rights of citizens bovinely trampled upon by any person or group of persons. Okowa has a predilection of always siding with the oppressed.
To further underscore his avowal to the protection of citizens’ rights, he incorporated the appropriate stakeholders including the legal community, human rights activists, politicians and persons versed in human rights enthronement into the committee. The roll call: Attorney-General and Commissioner for Justice, Mr Isaiah Bozimo; Comrade Ifeanyi Egwunyenga, Commissioner for Youths Development; Solicitor-General/ Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Justice, Mr Omamuzo Erebe and the Commissioner of Police in the state. Also in the mix are representative of the Youths, Mr Harrison Gwamnishu, a feisty human rights activist who himself had been a victim of rights abridgement; representative of civil society organisations, Comrade Israel Joe; representative of Nigeria Bar Association, Dr Jonathan Ekpenisi; representative of National Human Rights Commission, Mr Alpheus Ngwu and Permanent Secretary, Directorate of Political and Security Matters, Mr Theophilus Aguonye, who serves as Secretary. The committee is simply to ensure the protection of the rights of citizens in the state. It has no political colouration; neither ethno-religious configuration.
Constituting the committee was part of the recommendations of the Judicial Panel of Enquiry that investigated complaints of police brutality and extra-judicial killings in the state. It is proof of how Okowa interprets the #EndSARS protest in its full essence. While some Nigerian political elite see it as a ‘we versus them’ phenomenon, Okowa sees it as the collective failure of leadership to hear the heart’s cry of the followers, especially the youth. So, when some leaders grandstand, asserting their right and authority to superintend over the youths, Okowa sticks out a hand of empathy. He offers a placative balm to heal the bruises of the grieving youths.
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Recall that just after the #EndSARS episode last year, Okowa, rather than trot out statements laden with threats and intolerance, stepped out to meet with the people. He engaged the people through Town Hall meetings. He met with representatives of #EndSARS protesters, civil society organisations, students, social groups, community youth leaders and other stakeholders in the state. It bears restating that Okowa is the first governor to begin direct engagement with the youth after the #EndSARS protest via Town Hall meetings. It’s therefore no surprise that on the anniversary date, he offered to lead from the front by constituting and heading a committee.
On the heels of the nationwide protests, Delta just like many states set up a judicial panel. The panel has since made recommendations and Okowa says his government would by end of this month begin the payment of compensation to families of victims of the protest. The governor had since rebuilt the destroyed infrastructure which fell victims of the rage. The High Court in Asaba , for instance, is now a piece of architectural majesty from the ruins it was rendered by urchins who hijacked the noble protest.
Nationwide, the ruin was much. The destruction was monumental. Now, states are paying, not for the irreplaceable lives lost, but as a token to grieving families. Edo government is paying N190 million. Other states are paying compensation and re-building broken or burnt down infrastructure. Lagos, which became the epicenter of the protest, suffered the most. In Lagos alone, six policemen were killed, aside civilians who also paid the supreme price; 32 police stations and 12 Local Council Development Authorities (LCDAs) and 16 court buildings were burnt. In addition, about 200 newly bought BRT buses and many newly-constructed BRT bus terminals went up in flames, recounts Friends of Lagos, a non-governmental organization.
The cost to families, individuals, corporates and the nation at large was colossal. By latest computation, insurance firms are projected to pay out N9 billion out of a possible N20 billion claim. Such is the monumental cost the protest and its attendant consequences inflicted on the economy.
Reminiscing, Okowa recalls there was a lot of destruction of property as the protest by various civil society groups and youths got hijacked by some unscrupulous citizens.
He said: “We believe that the youths who actually set out at the beginning for the protest meant well for this nation because they were actually there to draw the attention of the leadership of this nation both at the national and at the sub-national levels to the ills in the society. They said they were demonstrating against oppressive tendencies of security agencies, which were impinging on their freedom.”
By setting up a citizens’ rights protection committee on the memorable October 20 date, Okowa has made the point that human lives matter. He wants to side with the people on matters of rights and privileges. And this is what leadership is all about. Government must exist for the people, not the people for government. Leadership gives hope, it does not breed fear. Okowa is reviving the people’s hope in institutions. Delta has a proven history of volatility and youth restiveness most times triggered by the short shrift they get from successive Nigerian governments.
It’s therefore to the credit of Okowa’s people-centric leadership that damage during the #EndSARS protest in the state was substantially mitigated.
As leader of this committee, the governor should ensure that institutions and individuals in the state, no matter how powerful they may be, respect the rights of the citizens; even as citizens conform to basic laws and rules that govern society.
· Umukoro, a policy analyst, writes from Warri