#EndSARS: After the ‘powerless masses’ spoke

What has the country’s political leadership learnt from the EndSARS protests that rocked the nation and drew global attention to Nigerians’ sufferings and mis-governance of their country? KUNLE ODEREMI reports on the take-away from the EndSARS protest and the attendant fallouts, amid public suspense on government’s planned reforms.

 

THE United Nations had designated 1985 the International Youth Year (IYY), with the cardinal objective of safeguarding the future of the young. The initiative was also meant to tackle the seeming bleak future of the youth in particularly Third World countries, including Nigeria with the theme: Participation, Development and Peace. In fact, in embarking on the pragmatic action, the UN Assembly emphatically stated that it appreciated the “important contribution young people can make in shaping the future of humanity.”

 

That was 35 years ago.

The population of Nigeria, then, was about 83, 563,000, with the youths constituting a significant percentage of the figure. In fact, some experts said that 70 per cent of the population is said to be under 30 years, with 41 per cent under 15 years. And various studies asserted that only about 36 per cent of the nation’s population reside in urban areas.  It was envisaged that nations would build on the achievements of that time, sustain the tempo to avoid the current frightening pitfalls and challenges. So, Nigeria was required to frontally confront the lurking mass poverty, absence of food security, safe water, proper housing, healthcare, basic education and access to employment with the youths at the receiving end. This task, according to the UN, was imperative because the emerging narrative of the youths were couched in “scarcity, unemployment, poor employment and survival.”

But 35 years after, those four issues have become an albatross in the country. The human population has skyrocket to more than 200 million, with the youths constituting more than 42.54 per cent.

 

UN on the youth

The UN had declared the youths as young people that were within the age range 15 – 24 years and painfully observed that in many third world countries, most people between that age bracket had children to cater for, and were considered by themselves and their communities to be adults. This was a sharp contrast to the fact that a number of the first generation of Nigerian leaders had merely migrated from childhood to adulthood when they took over the mantle of political leadership in the era of colonialism.  Chief Anthony Enahoro and many more were young when they led the struggle for independence and assumed leadership at different levels. Subsequent leaders that came to power through the barrels of the gun were also young officers. The trend sufficed in the Second Republic; some ministers in the federal cabinet were in their 30s. And the old breed politicians groomed by the General IbarahimBabangida regime from 1985, decreed to replace the old war horses in the political space, have held forte for more than three decades.

 

#EndSARS protests’ precursors

October 8, 2020, the day the EndSARS protests against police brutality started, has come to occupy a significant chapter in political struggle and agitation in the country. It follows a seemingly similar pattern that predated the pre-independence era. Its precursors are the November-December 1929 Aba Women Riot that was against a vexatious direct taxation policy of the British colonial masters. It was executed by women from the provinces of Calabar and Owerri in the eastern part of the country. More than 50 women lost their lives with one man killed in the uprising about the iniquities being perpetrated by locals acting as warrant chiefs.  According to reports, the revolt involved more than 10, 000 women that comprised various ethnic nationalities, including the Igbo, Ibibio,  Ogoni, among others.   Another historical struggle was the 1945 Railway workers’ strike over wage increase, following the asphyxiating high cost of living after the Second World War. With more than 10, 000 railway workers as the arrowhead of the action, the strike progressed for 45 days, sending jitters down the spines of the colonial masters. Whereas foremost nationalists such as Chief Obafemi Awolowo, Dr Nanamdi  Azikiwe and Herbert Macaulay backed the action, a few elements among the political class attempted to sabotage the strike over the demand of workers for a two shillings and six pence minimum wage, as well as a 50 per cent rise in the cost of living allowance and that it should be backdated to April 1, 1944. Started by railway workers, other categories of workers soon joined the fray, including those in other critical sectors, the civil service and the private sector.

 

Lack of planning

In enacting the Statistics Act of 2007 that established the National Statistics System (NSS) and created the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) as coordinator, the authorities said it became necessary because of the date challenges in policy making and implementation. It identified those problems to include weak statistical coordination; weak legal framework; lack of infrastructure; inadequate capacity; lack of incentives, non-congenial working environment; lack of awareness of the importance of statistics in planning and policy design; low use of statistical data and poor funding.  The overall objective was to make sure that policy makers knew the number of people being planned for, coupled with knowing the characteristics of the population in order to effectively take account of the peculiar needs of each group. It was apparent that government business in the past had been majorly based on faulty prisms, guess work and whims and caprices of public officials, thus accounting for the failure of governance and debilitating ting effects on the citizens, especially the most vulnerable in the society, including the youths.  The consequences are part of what the nation is reaping now  having failed to plan. The increasing destruction of the country’s economy through misgovernance by the ruling class has created more impoverished Nigerians who are barely managing to survive, thus fuelling anger and malcontents among the population’s majority.

 

Bottled anger

In the heat of the protests, the campaigners became vociferous on beyond their initial demands. They added other nagging issues about perceived absence of inclusive government; they decried the high cost of governance, uni-camera legislature; the huge salary and allowances of lawmakers, form and system of government and general economic reforms.  And the issues, especially missed opportunities of the country over the years were cited by the youths for the bottled anger and transferred aggression that gained ground in many states. For example, protesters that converged on the Akwa Ibom Government House chanted anti-government songs and demanded reforms in all sectors of the economy. One of them, who identified himself as Comrade Emmanuel John Samuel, had premised their action on the need “for government to know that the youths are tired of bad governance in Nigeria.  We are here to tell the whole world that the youths are fed up with the way Nigeria state is managed. We need restructuring. We will remain here till our voice are heard by the whole world. We need our Senate to sit up and give us a better government. We can’t afford to remain like this. Our brothers have graduated from school for many years now yet no jobs for them. Therefore we need total transformation in Nigeria. Youths are the leaders of tomorrow, but if the Government continue to fold it arms and watch the young ones suffering now, Nigeria will continue to be in danger because youths are not given employment. By this, we would turn out to be nuisance and give the country a bad name.”

Other concerned citizens had argued that beyond the act of criminality, the looting spree embarked on by some elements was part of the indications of the failure of leadership and governance. One eminent politician, who craved anonymity, argued that the situation bred more poverty-stricken people; deprived them of their fundamental rights an, ignorant populace, and disempowered the people. It also meant loss of confidence in the state, and that the authorities at different levels of government have been underrating the power of the people. The point is underlined by the preponderance of opinions and views being expressed by prominent individuals and senior citizens, a few of whom were directly affected by arson and looting precipitated by hooligans that infiltrated the ranks of the ENDSARS protesters.

For instance, the leader of the seventh Senate, Senator Victor Ndoma-Egba, who said the destruction of his house in Calabar by hoodlums was pre-mediated, underscored the anger, especially among the youths over the state of affairs in the country. Apparently highlighting the lessons in the whole scenario in the last few weeks, he called for sober reflection, pragmatic action and purposeful leadership towards changing the current narrative. “I am worried, however, that we now have an environment that is breeding armies and possibly generations of understandably frustrated, angry and bitter youths that are often exploited by unscrupulous political jobbers. Given our demography, our youths can either be a blessing, if they (our youths) remain our most important and prized resource by fundamentally reforming our society and systems to guarantee them the realisation of their innate potentials and that they are engaged. It is in our collective best interest to do so, and we can do it, and must do it. Every situation, reinforces itself and unless, therefore, we break the cycle of hopelessness, anger, hunger and frustration among our young ones, the situation will only get worse. This will certainly be detrimental of all. Let us act, and act immediately.”

 

Power of the people

The agenda for restructuring has become an albatross for the country, dominating public discourse, and the youths had tried to latch on it to further propagate their cause under the #ENDSARS campaign.. It is yet to be seen how far they can go on the issue against the background of the success in the crusade for reform in the Nigeria Police.  A prominent politician and former Secretary to the Ekiti State Government (SSG), Ambassador Dare Bejide, gave reasons for the way the youths were able to mobilise for the current demands. He said that because the issue raised by the youths had a universal effect on the populace paved the way for the overall impact. His words: “#ENDSARS campaign is an issue that arose from a problem that affects almost all Nigerians. As a single issue, it is easier to mobilise people to support it. Politics is much more complex involving the mobilization on multiple identities, issues and interests.” he stressed.

A former Minister of Education and one-tine Nigeria’s ambassador, Professor Tunde Adeniran also highlighted the man lessons in the protest of the youths over bad governance over the years. He stated: “Nigerian youths are far more politically conscious than the older generations know or are willing to concede; Nigerian youths have the capacity and the network to organize themselves to bring Nigeria down if their genuine concerns are not addressed; any genuine protests could easily be infiltrated by those with criminal intentions or some contrary agenda; and that the Federal Government must take issues concerning their youths more seriously and be proactive in this regard.”

An elder and member of the Board of the Trustees (BoT) of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), Senator Olu Alabi, is on the same page with Professor Adeniran on the lessons of the protests. According to him, the main lesson was that the the “people in government at all levels should not take the ordinary Nigerian for granted again. It is #EndSARS today; it could be ‘#EndFATLegislators’salary’ next,” he reasoned.

On whether the success could easily pave the way for the youths in partisan politics, a former acting governor and Speaker of the Kogi State House of Assembly, Abubakar Bello, said that they still have a lot issues to contend with in that regard. He acknowledged that they were regarded as future leaders until the Not-Too-Young-To-Run initiative meant to brighten their chances in political participation.

But despite the good intentions, there were still considerable challenges militating against any meaningful participation of the youth in the political process. According to him, “The process of political recruitment and membership by the parties, including political parties’ funding make it extremely difficult for any young person to make any breakthrough or impact. Even when they are given slots in the party executives as youth leaders, experience has shown that youth leaders’ so-elected are outside the age bracket of those regarded as young people.  At end of the day, we have youth leaders that are over 50 years of age.”  The former acting governor added that despite the provisions of the parties’ constitutions on party primaries for the choice of candidates, the decision on who emerged remained invariably in the hands of godfathers, stressing that in making their decisions, the youths are considered inexperienced and not trustworthy for political offices. Youths, he stated further, were only considered worthy of political offices by political godfathers when their children were involved. “While most political parties waive the requirements of nomination fees for women during party primaries, the youths are not so lucky, as they are required to pay so much money running to millions of naira like other party members. Even when they manage to scale through party primaries and emerge as candidates, the monetisation  of the general election, including voting-buying at the polling units have made it increasingly difficult for any young person to win elections and be relevant in the decision making process,” he noted.

A medical practitioner and World Health Organisation consultant, DrTunde Ipaye, also spoke on the lessons that emanated from the action of the youth. The former Commissioner for Health in Ogun State said the people had proven that they are the sole custodian of the mandate given to public officials at all levels. :  “The biggest lesson of the ENDSARS for me is that the ‘powerless masses’ have regained their voices through Nigerian youths. The political class needs to wake up now and behave in a way that will put people at the centre of public service. To do otherwise is to expect the anger of hitherto powerless Nigerian.

“For the first time in Nigeria history, the ‘arrogant and insensitive’ political leaders went underground and lost their voices on both sides of the divide because the legitimate demands of the youths has no political coloration. It was about the operation of the ordinary Nigerian by the police and the managers of the national assets. The second lesson is that the assumption that Nigeria youths are lazy and directionless has been put to rest. We have seen how purposeful and organised they can be in the face of oppression. This is the longest and the most organised form of protest in Nigeria’s history before they were infiltrated by hoodlums and paid thugs. Even at that, they brought in a lot of ingenuity, sense of duty and accountability throughout the protest. On a final note, I hope the waste in the public expenditure will be revisited and resources would be freed for national development,” he enthused.

 

#EndSARS October protests as another Independence Day

For Professor Chima Onoka, the protests has become another watershed in the annals of the country because of the immediate and long term implications. “October 2020, our 60th year as an independent country from British rule seems to have become a year for independence from an ideological position. Nigerians have been so used to military control that the country has recorded limited tests on our democracy outside a war period. The #EndSARS protest was an item to test the ideals of democracy, spearheaded by a population most of whom were born after the civil war. That war did not bring independence; neither did it really usher in unity. The fault lines are still apparent, and this makes the older population to always thread with caution even when they feel oppressed. The younger generation is trapped in uncertainty about how to engage with such positions, especially with the knowledge available in a globalised world.” Professor Onoka reasoned that the current generation, being the future of the country, needed to be better informed and guided for their potential to be maximized, warning that their courage and innovation should not be quenched if Nigeria is to have a future.

“With the #EndSARS protest, we have serious lessons to take away. One, there has been a lot of social dissatisfaction but the repression from the SARS was so universal and uniting that it easily formed a rallying point for a protest. From the outset, if political leaders had been more sensitive, they could have responded better if they saw the bigger picture, and not just the SARS aspect. The opinions of several people today show that the manner of the response has only deepened the distrust towards the government, the feeling of nationalism and perception of the value of citizens’ lives in the eyes of leaders. While a disillusioned group will find ways of remaining docile for the sake of peace or leaving the country in search of opportunities, a majority are likely to stay on with demands of better governance. One thing is certain, Nigeria is likely to experience a renaissance in political interest and participation especially by the younger generation.

“Two, Nigeria has very deep divisions, not just about the ethnic issues which the younger generation did a lot to push back on, but the social-economic structure. Basically, we have the political leaders, then the idealistic young who make up a huge part of the current and emerging middle class (including older people) and the genuine decent protesters, and then the forgotten people. The third group became the hoodlums. The boundaries are not fixed lines though. Neither the government nor the protesting group understood or prepared for the forgotten group, whose source of livelihood from all kinds of indecent work had been compromised by the two groups. No matter how much Nigeria develops without them, they will always step out to destroy whatever is being built. If we are going to achieve sustainable development in Nigeria, our policies, educational, health and economic systems, as well as lifestyle and social interventions need to be built with them in mind as a primary target. The shopping malls and banks are a testament of their periodic response which are reminders.”

But Onoka believed that there was hope for Nigeria if timely responses were given  by the political leadership. He asserted: “Because we are a people that recognize that we must give account of our lives and actions to a higher being someday, we can still take the chance to bring about a new Nigeria that [we can be proud of]. It will first need a heart; a heart of empathy amongst leaders; one of forgiveness among citizens, and one of love amongst all. These are hard to come by, but everyone needs to support everyone else to take possible steps today,” he admonished.

 

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