When injustice becomes law, resistance becomes duty. That was one of our favourite quotes in the heady 70s when we locked down the nation in pursuit of a better society. Risky as it was to confront a military government, we faced the guns with unbridled gusto as if death was a gold medal.
I cannot in good conscience blame our youths for protesting against police brutality today. Youth must protest, otherwise there will be no progress. Protest is the generational responsibility of youth. That is how they demonstrate their patriotism, believing, as Edward Abbey did, that, “A patriot must always be ready to defend his country against his government.”
The #EndSARS campaign trended as number one issue globally for 48 hours. Compared to those days when we traversed the country to mobilise and strategise before confronting the authorities, this current campaign is internet reliant. Millions of youths can be easily mobilised in minutes and everyone is able to be on the same message. Their campaign resonates with most Nigerians. Everyone has a police brutality story to tell.
The greatest thing about #EndSARS is the fact that it has no leaders. Now who is government going to arrest or negotiate with? In our days, Dodan Barracks simply ordered the NSO or NIA to hunt down the protest leader as they did to our national president, Segun Okeowo. Today’s kids, being natives of Cyberia have it all figured out like their counterparts in Hong Kong did when their 18-month-old protest won them victory in their 5-point demands. Because of the implication of a high body count, the government had no option but to meet the demands of the protesters.
#EndSARS protesters have not identified themselves with any geographical space, so the usual stigma of being sponsored by enemies of government cannot work this time. They are raising funds online, disbursing funds for medical needs, food, refreshments etc and rendering accounts through social media to the extent that outsiders like us are kept fully abreast with what is going on.
Celebrities worldwide are joining the #EndSARS train. Naomi Campbell, Viola Davis, and Drake have joined their Nigerian counterparts such as Tiwa Savage, Runtown, and DJ Spinall to denounce police brutality in Nigeria.
In the past, government could use ethnicity to break the protest. An analogue reaction to a digital protest cannot but be futile. Northern governors say they want SARS in their region. If anyone thought that would split the ranks of the protesters, they were in for a shock. Many of the protesters asked the northern governors why their region is the most insecure in Nigeria (kidnappings, banditry, cattle rustling etc) if SARS was that effective. They wondered why the combination of SARS and the armed forces have not been able to rout Boko Haram.
Politicians who wanted to slip a foot through the door of the protests probably to reap a bountiful harvest in the near future were in for a surprise. I think Alhaji Atiku Abubakar must still be wondering what hit him.
Atiku: I woke up to the peaceful #EndSARSProtests going on in Lagos and other cities in the country. First, I would like to commend the tenacity of our brave youths who have stayed out on the streets all day and night to make their voices heard. I stand with you all.
Protester @Damil0la: Don’t stress yourself too much, we’re not voting for you in 2023. All of you are the same thing.
Omoyele Sowore, leader of the RevolutionNow campaign, also tried to join the protesters but they rebuffed him and told him to go online and support them instead of joining the protest as if there was an alliance between his political party and the protesters. They made the young man look old. Whoever thinks he can use the tactics that worked in the past to smash this current protest is living in the past. Partisans need to grow up quickly.
The protests are not against Buhari but against an unjust system. Police brutality predates Buhari. It is one of the liabilities the president inherited. Today, the buck stops at his table because he is the chief executive of the Nigerian enterprise. So far, he has done well by trying to meet the demands of the protesters. Inspector General of Police Mohammed Abubakar Adamu, too, has done well. Unlike the Army, he has not tried to inflame passions. His tone and mien have been conciliatory.
Instead of looking for protest leaders to negotiate with, government should meet the protesters where all of them are gathered — on the social media. Make your proposals plain. Invite suggestions. Then invite the youths to send representatives to a meeting where everything (including the newly proposed outfit, SWAT) will be on the table. Remember, it was the self-immolation of 26-year-old Tarek el-Tayeb Mohamed Bouazizi in protest against police corruption and ill treatment that sparked the Arab spring in Tunisia.
Some of us have made suggestions in the past on how to reform the police but was anyone listening? In my column of February 13, 2012, in Daily Trust, I suggested ways through which the then IG, MD Abubakar, could transform the police force… but I could have been whistling in the wind and winking in the dark. Excerpts:
“As I journeyed from Ijebu-Igbo to Owo over the weekend, I counted nine police checkpoints where the men in black were collecting the usual N20 ‘roger’ from commercial vehicle drivers. I wished I had a camera. The bribe collection was so brazen that it made one wonder whether these greedy rogues in uniform can ever direct their energies to the task of securing their environment…
“The analogue police force is undermanned (some will say mis-manned), underfunded and ill-equipped. If I was the president, I would immediately embark on a reformation — no, transformation — of the police force. I would seek the necessary constitutional amendment to allow states and local governments have their own police services. In the US, if you escape from the county police, the state police may get you — or the federal police, or FBI, TSA, Border police, etc …With all its open display of liberty, America is one of the most policed states in the world.
“If I had a say in the matter, the bulk of the present personnel of the police force should be transferred to their states of origin to form the core of the police service for the states while the federal government embarks on a massive recruitment drive for fresh hands to man the new federal police with a minimum entry requirement of a university degree or Higher National Diploma. Nigeria is seriously under-policed. Budget constraints? I would get the required money from anywhere, including the foreign reserve.”
The protesters are not satisfied with a mere dissolution of SARS and replacing it with SWAT. They insist that government halts use of force against protesters and release arrested citizens unconditionally. They demand justice for victims of police brutality, including payment of compensation, and an increase in salaries of police who must now undergo psychological evaluation.
#EndSARS may well be a metaphor for youth unemployment, corruption, dysfunctional and nepotistic system and all the other ills about which our youths constantly rail on social media.
For the first time, Twitter created an emoji depicting a fisted hand for the hashtag #EndSARS. This is now a global campaign. Government should handle it with the caution of a man trying to swat a fly perched on his unmentionables.
Wole Olaoye can be reached through email@example.com.