By Muyiwa Adetiba
2020 was a special year for the world at large. It will always have its special place in the annals of history. It was the year a humbled, perplexed and befuddled world literally shut down when the rumour of a looming pandemic became a reality.
And with this reality came other realities; that for all their arrogance, the world’s leading countries have no answers to the many problems they are unwittingly creating; that they do not have the wherewithal, despite grandstanding, to play god; that the seed of the world’s destruction could be sown by the hands of some of these megalomaniac leaders who seek to control the world. It was the year an overwhelmed world was forced to its knees in surrender to a force beyond its control and religious adherents voluntarily fell on their knees in supplication to the One who controls all forces.
For Nigeria, 2020 was a year it would wish it could forget but which might be difficult if not impossible to forget. It started with the lockdown and for two months, almost everything from commerce to religion to romance stood still. Even the air we breathed became almost suffocating in its stillness. Just as we were coming up for air and thanking God that the worst of the Covid-19 predictions did not materialise in the country, the #ENDSARS protest reared its devastating head. Its after effect on the economy and in casualties turned out to be worse than the preceding Covid-19 pandemic – but it also came with its own realities.The rest of the year was capped by insurgency and terrorism described benignly in self- denial by the nation as attacks from bandits and herdsmen. The solution to insurgency and terrorism will start when we stop playing the ostrich and face the realities of what has hit us and how we came to be where we are.
It has been a year now that tanks rolled, guns boomed and bodies allegedly fell around the Lekki Toll Gate in Lagos. Before that fateful October 20 incident however, public buildings had been burnt, historical monuments destroyed and commercial houses looted. Institutions that embodied law and order like the Prisons and Police Stations were violated and desecrated with their officials disrobed, disgraced and in some cases, killed. Even before all of that, the nation watched as the agenda of the protest changed; as ranks of articulate youths were infiltrated by hoodlums; as peaceful protests became violent and friendly protesters became unfriendly harassers. It was a protest that shook the nation to its core. A protest of the improbable that became possible. A protest that showed once again, that the line between order and chaos can indeed be very thin. A protest that offered lessons on both sides.
The first lesson for me is the power of the digital world and how a protest of that scale was organised and prosecuted without the authorities knowing or being able to stop it. Or that it can happen again. We always knew the youths were disgruntled because we had disenfranchised them while ogling the resources of the land. But the level of their angst – even from youths in the diaspora who want to reclaim their country – was an eye opener. Another insight is that a protest is not the only thing the organisers can use their digital savvy to put together.
They can use it to put a candidate of their choice in Aso Rock if they apply the same knowledge, cohesion, mobilisation skills and righteous anger – they have the numbers anyway, to borrow a now popular phrase. I hope they have learnt that protests can be stained no matter how pure the original plan was; they can be diffused no matter how focused the original purpose was; they can be hijacked no matter how tight the original strategists thought their hold was.
I also hope they have learnt not to stay on the street for too long and to accept their victories in small doses. An all or nothing fight gets protracted, dissipates energy, diffuses focus, harden lines on both sides and allows for infiltration. But the most important lesson in my mind is that these young people proved that a protest of this nature with people pulling together from different parts of the world is doable. Not just to end police brutality but to also address other specifics in the country.
The brains that put #endSARS in motion must be careful not to let it get to their heads. Last year’s protest could easily have led to another Arab Spring with its consequences – there are people who don’t mind if the country went to the dogs. Getting good leadership that will attend to the myriad of problems of the youths in the country and halt the emigration of our young and talented ones should be the priority now.
As for government, the speed with which it acceded to the demands of the protesters to end police brutality as symbolised by SARS showed it was taken by surprise. It soon became clear that SARS was not the only issue the protesters wanted redressed. But beyond the initial surprise and reaction, government had become characteristically lethargic to other issues. The elements of surprise had worn off and the issues that led to the protests have been buried under the carpet. The committees and commissions set up to address some of these issues have been quietly taken off the radar.
It is now business as usual for our politicians. 2023 is the new focus and concerns of the Nigerian youths have become side issues – the propensity of our politicians to self-destruct boggles the mind. I advise the leadership to revisit the issues that led to #endSARS while it is still possible to do so in a reasoned manner.
Even the blind can see that the youths are marginalised and the opportunities to self-actualise are dwindling everyday for them. Even the foolhardy knows that some structures have to be tinkered with for Nigeria to survive. The situation in the country has become much more volatile than it was this time last year. The youths all over the country have become more restive and more desperate.
Violence and crime are coming more easily to them now. With what is on the ground right now, another protest like #endSARS could make the country ungovernable. An Arab Spring should be everybody’s nightmare. Government can nip it in the bud by going back to – or even beyond – the reports that are gathering dust. The clock is ticking.