By Sunny Awhefeada
Nigerian rulers sowed the wind and they reaped the whirlwind in the October youth uprising. Although, the October incident made no pretence to being like the October 1917 Revolution in Russia, the Nigerian case will certainly alter the curve of our national evolution. Certain assumptions, perceptions and noxious acts are bound to give way for good. Nobody would pout and describe Nigerian youths as lazy henceforth. I doubt if the ruling class and their goons would test the will of the youth as they were wont to do hitherto. A new order of things is bound to follow and the tentative steps to freedoms and respect for the rule of law and upholding of human rights might have begun. Nigeria might not be the same again. The nation shall someday look back and recount the events of this moment and pay due homage to those patriots who carried the banner of freedom aloft sixty years after independence from Britain. Yes, independence didn’t give Nigerians freedom. It merely invented Nigeria’s own Praetorian guards who brutalized the citizenry.
The #ENDSARS protests not only touched at the very soul of “the trouble with Nigeria”, it also exposed the colossal failure of governments at all levels. The incident which sparked off the protest was not a new phenomenon. It was something that was happening every minute in Nigeria. The Nigeria Police harass, extort, blackmail, abduct and kill citizens at will. Everybody in authority knew, but nobody wanted to do anything. Then the youths said enough was enough. The Police have stolen enough for the owner not to notice. Their cup was full. And the youths did something. They proclaimed #ENDSARS. And who would have believed that what became a global movement would begin in Ughelli of all places courtesy of a video recording by Citizen Nicholas Makolomi. I hope our historians will remember him.
The original intention of the #ENDSARS protesters was to engage in peaceful civil disobedience in pressing their demand for a reformed police that will abide by the tenets of policing. The protest did go on peacefully until government fumbled by deploying unorthodox means in disrupting the peaceful rally. At the Lekki tollgate, Africa’s largest army was unleashed on unarmed youths who not only sang the nation’s anthem, but held the flag over their heads. There were also video recordings of thugs in government vehicles apparently sponsored to attack the protesters. These acts of barbarism could only happen in Nigeria. What followed was widespread looting and vandalism.
The state has labeled the perpetrators as hoodlums, but it is a reflection of the monumental failure of the state that so many of her youths have become hoodlums. If those energetic youths were indeed hoodlums, then the Nigerian state made them so.
Ours is a country of 120 million disillusioned, hungry and angry youths. The overwhelming majority of these youths are inventive, resourceful and desirous of making something out of life, but the Nigerian state has robbed them of all opportunities to break even. Their joblessness, hunger, hopelessness was made more precarious by the nation’s predatory police. Having been pushed to the wall, the youths kicked and fought back. The revenge of the oppressed, poor and hungry followed.
The destruction of lives and property such as the one that attended the fracas is condemnable and never to be encouraged. Unfortunately, rage often defies reason. The youths configured the situation and identified what to them were edifices of oppression and injustice. Law courts, police station, prisons and others were razed. The rampaging youths picked up uniforms of fleeing police officers, wore them and received smart salutes from fellow protesters.
The rampage grew wings and was carried by the wind to all the four corners of Nigeria. Hunger was a leitmotif in the tragic drama and, soon, warehouses housing COVID-19 palliatives (food items) fell one by one. The homes of the politically powerful also fell. The revenge of the poor was spreading. The hitherto prancing police, the abrasively corrupt customs, the bribe seeking officials of the Federal Roads Safety Commission (FRSC), all vanished from the roads, threw their uniforms away and walked incognito. Anarchy was on the loose. Media houses and other investments went up in flames. The Lekki shootings elicited global outrage with the army denying that its men were not involved.The Lagos governor played Pontius Pilate.
The Lekki shooting was the climax of the protests. The outcry against it, locally and internationally, was deafening. The expressive symbols that emanated from the shootings were also very instructive and spoke not just to the influence of the social media, but the power of the Nigerian imagination. Among the more significant expressive symbols were the Nigerian flag splashed with blood, the footage of a dying lady wrapped with the Nigerian flag and carried by a man and then the profoundly evocative anonymous poem, “Tell my mother I was unarmed”. Some telling pictures included the dismantling of the Jalingo’s signpost, the destruction of the Ekiti State House of Assembly gate, the emptying, not looting because the items belong to the people, of the many palliative warehouses nationwide. These should be taken as symbols of state dysfunction. There were pictures of a female amputee in the vanguard of the protest as well as that of another male amputee who lifted a bag of rice on his head with one hand holding onto the crutches. These are compelling symbols of defiance. As the hurly-burly was dying down, the police chief found his voice and ordered his men to reclaim the public space immediately. That was an insensitive order and the men discounted it.
Some incidents went against the grain and violated norms. Some security agents were not only caught on camera taking food items from warehouses, but some soldiers also encouraged the youths to be orderly as they were taking away the food items. Many soldiers were quite conciliatory in handling the protesters unlike the hounds that shot at the Lekki protesters. There were videos of soldiers who took on policemen who were extorting and shooting at civilians. In spite of going after policemen, the rabble also identified conscientious police officers and not only protected them, but sang their praises. A classic example is that of CSP Rabiu Garba in Anambra State. It only shows that there are still good men and women in the police.
History and culture suffered. While Azikiwe’s statue was pulled down, Awolowo’s lost its famous reading glasses just as two traditional rulers lost their palaces and a staff of office. If previous governments hadn’t banned the teaching of History, the young boys and girls who committed these desecrations would have known the roles of Azikiwe and Awolowo in emancipating Nigeria from colonial rule. They would have appreciated the sacredness of the traditional institutions and such desecration would not have happened.
The protests have come and gone, but the nation is smouldering. There are rubbles indicative of destruction and pillage. Families and friends are mourning. The ruling class is watching its back. The economy is badly hit and the cost of rebuilding is being counted. State governors are falling over themselves setting up judicial panels of enquiry and sordid details of police brutality are emerging. After the hurly-burly, it is time to think and take stock of the past and reckon the future.
All must be involved in this task of rebuilding Nigeria. We cannot recline and do business as usual. Governments at all levels must prioritize the welfare of the people who in turn must carry out their obligations as citizens. Government must be conscious of global currents and expect their consequences back home in view of the role of the internet. The recent unrest cannot be divorced from the George Flyod’s incident in the United States of America.