#EndSARS: Lessons in brinkmanship

Nigeria had its own version of the Arab spring in October. Perhaps, in a manner never before witnessed in her epileptic sixty-year-old history, the country had a taste of raw rage of the youth. The fury camouflaged in the #EndSARS protests.

It was triggered by a viral video on the 3rd of October in which a young man in a Delta community was being brutalized by suspected members of the dreaded police unit: Special Anti-Robbery Squad, SARS. After shooting their victim and pushing him out of a moving vehicle, the brutes drove away in his car. He was thought to have died. 

As the video spread, a loud voice was raised in the social media against the loathed police unit. Assurances and clarifications by Festus Keyamo, a Minister, that the victim was alive and stable in a hospital did not halt the sentiments. The online agitations promptly morphed into a well-organized public unrest. 

The demonstrations started peacefully on the seventh day of the month when youths in their hundreds gathered at the police headquarters in Ikeja Lagos demanding an end to police brutality. Within hours, the nonviolent protests had spread across the country.

The organizers were tactful and they left no one in doubts. They fed the protesters and were able to establish a helpline that could respond to emergencies. They also provided medical/ legal services to those in need and even set up a radio station – Soro soke. These were financed through crowdfunding and were cited as examples of the country’s leadership potentials.

The federal government’s hasty concessions of first stopping the unit from open duty and later outlawing it did not assuage the angry and hungry protesters. Like a true spring, they increased their demands. Youths in their numbers daily took to the streets to raise their venom against bad government.

In no time however, a black leg entered into the campaigns. Hoodlums infiltrated their ranks and hijacked the protests. Not surprising, it nosedived into an amorphous orgy of violence that pushed the nation nearer to the brinks. In fact, boarder line insanity and anarchy.

The ripples effects of these on life and the economy are enormous. Insecurity and violent actions traversed the Nigerian federation on two legs. Protesters/ hoodlums moved from one correctional home (as prisons are now christened) to another to enforce jail breaks and set tamed criminals on the loose. People were raped without inhibition. Road blocks or bonfires were set and motorists and pedestrians had to pay for passage. Nigeria was transmuting into a total Banana Republic.

In the midst of these, unknown soldiers fired live ammunition on unarmed protesters who were camping at Lekki toll gate in Lagos. Scores reportedly died in the encounter whose casualty figure is still unknown.

The hoodlums/ protesters returned fire for fire based on their capacity for violence. Targeted media houses were attacked, vandalized or burnt. Palace of the Oba of Lagos, Rilwan Akiolu, incidentally a retired Police boss was attacked with the mob making a mockery of his crown and staff of office.

A looting spree peaked all over the country. Covid-19 palliatives and other warehouses where foods were kept became first line targets. In some northern states, tractors, fertilizers, drugs, high-tech medical equipment, building and electronic materials were looted by vandals. It nearly degenerated into ethnic violence in some places.

Members of the security agencies became easy targets of attack. Police stations and banks were razed by arsonists, even as arms were carted away. The Police confirmed the death of 22 of its men, many others on danger list in hospitals and burning of 205 police formations. The breakdown of law and order was near total.

Unemployment was at the root of the protests. People below 24 years make up more than 60 percent of Nigeria’s over 200 million population. The bulk of this group are unemployed. According to the National Bureau of Statistics, as of the second quarter of 2020, the unemployment rate in Nigeria stood at a staggering 27.1 percent and the underemployment rate at 28.6 percent. Of the 21.7 million unemployed, young people (aged 15 to 34) account for a whopping 34.9 percent. They also account for 28.2 percent of the 22.9 million underemployed Nigerians.

Other factors contributed to the bottled up anger of the youth. Corruption, impunity and flamboyant display of wealth by the political class have driven the young population to the limit of endurance. In addition their discontent and frustrations was compounded by the Coronavirus lockdown and nine months closure of universities courtesy of an industrial dispute between government and teachers.

The youth have shown maturity in the protests. Nevertheless, they have displayed capacity to make the country ungovernable when pushed to the wall. An idle hand is the devil’s workshop, says the Holy Scriptures. It is time for all to think and act out of the box. That is the only way to prevent the fire, next time!

We call on those in authority to implement police and political reforms in a manner that will not put the youth at disadvantage. Job creation is key to reducing the tension in the land. Government must also be decisive in punishing those culpable of abusing citizens’ rights and compensate victims of the protests. That is the way to truly pull back from the brinks.

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