Those on the streets and a clear majority of the population side with Gramsci that the state must rule not just with force but with consent. The political society is the realm of force and civil society is the realm of consent… It will be irrational to believe that consent can be crushed with the brutal use of force. It cannot. I plead with the federal government to resist the urge to drive this protest underground.
This is Nigeria’s season of discontent. To borrow from Charles Dickens, we might yet be on a wing and a prayer on the basis of the unfolding scenario before us. There are numerous examples of societies that made the hitherto unthinkable leap forward at similar critical interjections. The Italian philosopher, Antonio Gramsci, paid with his life as a participant-observer at a decisive juncture in Europe, when the very concept of society was undergoing redefition. He died at the age of forty-six in 1937, in the gulag of fascist Italy. Nevertheless, his focus on the issue of hegemony and the interwoven structures of the state, continues to resonate at intersections, like the one wrought by #EndSars.
Gramsci’s definition of what is happening on the streets of Osogbo, Lagos, Abuja and many points in between continues to haunt and taunt us. In his prison notes, he went to great lengths to emphasise that, “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.” Certainly, there are morbid symptoms on display as the old order pushes back to discredit the effervescent, tech savvy, youthful tacticians on the streets. Having repudiated the concept of politics as a vocation to uplift the majority, bewilderment on the part of the establishment is turning into panic.
The panic in the tone of the federal minister of Information is very revealing. The minister, now an establishment figure, cannot comprehend the rocking of the boat by thos,e he alluded to as anarchists, a misinformed interpretation of the term. There is a clear conflict of interpretation between Lai Mohammed’s narrow conception of the state, as opposed to the deeper worldview of those on the streets. Lai Muhammed, hushed up and wrapped in the luxuries of the rentier post-colonial state, interprets, not just the state but democracy itself, in the narrow sense of the government, in a self-serving way.
The inconvenient truth for Lai Mohammed and company, is that he was part of those who rode to power in 2015 on the unambiguous premise that the state, as presently constituted in Nigeria, has exhausted the limits of its possibilities. Contrary to the framework of 2015, the establishment is now repudiating the very platform of the activism of social society on which it rode to power.
Dismissing the protests as anarchy is misplaced and counterproductive. #EndSARS gained a unique dynamic because a large number of Nigerians have been victims of police intimidation, abuse, extortion and murder. We also cannot deny the large number of criminals and internet fraudsters who joined the bandwagon of #EndSARS, with the mistaken belief that they can now ply their trade with impunity. If the police were true to their oath, will we have to rely on the American FBI to keep apprehending the notorious cyber scammers among us? Without being dismissive, the chief information officer and other appropriate organs of government can address the SARS issue and the wider problem of police reform, and propose transparent actions and processes to assuage this righteous anger. For too long, the police had become accomplices in the Yahoo Yahoo criminal enterprise and many shady, illegal stuff. They have been accused of demanding splits from the proceeds of crime; extorting Yahoo Boys and killing them when they refuse to pay. It is true, every protest, every movement is prone to infiltration but that does not diminish the strength of the demands of #EndSARS.
Those on the streets and a clear majority of the population side with Gramsci that the state must rule not just with force but with consent. The political society is the realm of force and civil society is the realm of consent. The pro-democracy position resonated in the civil rights movement in the United States, while the anti-apartheid movement has been resonating for over a year and a half on the streets of Hong Kong and in the Black Lives Matter movement. It will be irrational to believe that consent can be crushed with the brutal use of force. It cannot. I plead with the federal government to resist the urge to drive this protest underground. Mendacious justifications will create more problems. A man without a future has nothing to lose. #EndSars has explored the soft belly of the Nigerian state. The inconvenient truth for Lai Mohammed and company, is that he was part of those who rode to power in 2015 on the unambiguous premise that the state, as presently constituted in Nigeria, has exhausted the limits of its possibilities. Contrary to the framework of 2015, the establishment is now repudiating the very platform of the activism of social society on which it rode to power.
For the establishment on both sides of the contrived divide, Ṣọ̀’rọ̀ S’ókè is a menacing threat, not just a bewilderment. The old divide-and-rule tools based on the use of ethnicity and religion is not having the long established desired effect, in obscuring issues and acting as a battering ram. The new phenomenon has to be accommodated and the use of force will not just be ill-advised, it will backfire and the prospect of a day in front of an international war crimes tribunal can no longer be as farfetched as it seems. The position of the establishment that the list of demands is increasing is revealing. Demands increaseod because the youths are now in full understanding of their power. Statements like this often come across as a ploy to avoid reforms, needed to excise the deep malignancy of a very unjust and iniquitous system of social and economic relationships.
Now that the chickens have come home to roost, its too late to come crying home to mommy. Fix the mess, fix Nigeria. To the youths, you have defined your era, you have spoken and we have heard you, loud and clear. Wisdom demands that you withdraw and give time for reforms. The governors promised you change. I am confident some changes will be made. Change is incremental.
Unfortunately, the National Assembly leaders, Ahmed Lawan and Femi Gbajabiamila, in front of the press crew at Aso Rock, clearly did not have the intellectual honesty, as well as the moral circumspection, to accept that their is something fundamentally destructive about their understanding of social contract. On the contrary, in 1962, faced with a collapse of commodity prices, the entire political establishment, in an exemplary national democratic agreement, agreed to a 10 per cent pay cut, among other sacrifices. Lawan, Gbajabiamila et al are not prepared to follow suit, which says everything about the difference between 1962 and 2020.
Without concrete actions that the youths can feel and see, I’m afraid the genie is out of the bottle. They now know how to vent their frustrations and anger. In the past, the 81 per cent informal economy made it impossible to sustain protests for more than three days. The youths found a way around that by feeling themselves and raising funds. Cajoling them won’t cut it. They have shown greater tactical savvy than a jaded and confused political elite. What we need now is to work out elevated actions in all facets of our national life. We need a new politics, starting with massive voters registration, voter education aimed at the formation of a popular front to midwife in 2023 a government of popular unity that will unite all the progressive, national, patriotic and democratic entities under the purpose of national rebirth and a clearly spelt out, rigorously costed agenda for social and economic change, as well structural reorganisation.
Nigeria has been hamstrung by its inability to have gone into flag independence led by a natural party of government like Congress in India, the African National Congress (ANC) in South Africa and similar formations in Malaysia, Tanzania, Singapore, etc. The youthful tacticians on the streets might just be our best bet to get such a party, if they can navigate their way around the morbid symptoms. The established order is locked in an existential threat engineered by the establishment itself. For reasons of greed, primitive acquisition of wealth and selfishness, they created a “dangerous class”, without the wherewithal to subsist, let alone survive in a modern economy. It was convenient at a time to create a low skills, low wages economy, which will never be sustainable, let alone internationally competitive. Now that the chickens have come home to roost, its too late to come crying home to mommy. Fix the mess, fix Nigeria. To the youths, you have defined your era, you have spoken and we have heard you, loud and clear. Wisdom demands that you withdraw and give time for reforms. The governors promised you change. I am confident some changes will be made. Change is incremental.
Bámidélé Adémólá-Olátéjú a farmer, youth advocate and political analyst writes this weekly column, “Bamidele Upfront” for PREMIUM TIMES. Follow me on Twitter @olufunmilayo