By Denja Yaqub
WHAT started like an impulsive reaction to the killing of a young man allegedly by operatives of the defunct Special Anti-Robbery Squad in Ughelli, Delta State early October eventually snowballed into a massive movement that has not only remarkably engulfed the Nigerian space with coordinated street protests, but Nigerian diplomatic missions and cities abroad.
With very few young people carrying placards calling for the demobilisation of the notorious anti-robbery squad of the Nigeria Police Force, SARS, the protests became more popular in days as security operatives made several attempts to break the protests violently by firing teargas, water cannons, etc, at the congregations in Abuja, in particular and later in some parts of Lagos.
At Lekki Toll Gate, Lagos, live bullets were reported to have been fired at unarmed, peaceful protesters at night, hours before the expiration of a 24 hours curfew earlier imposed by the Lagos State Government.
Prominent young musicians, entrepreneurs and other professionals joined the protests at various locations. Davido, the popular pop artiste joined the Abuja protest. DJ Cuppy, a popular female Disc Jockey flew into Lagos from Dubai, United Arab Emirate to join the protests.
As the protests grew in size and locations, the police high command responded by disbanding/rebranding SARS and announced a replacement named Special Weapons andTactics team, SWAT, believing that hurried, muffled concept will fool the public, not just the protesting youths in believing the character, form and operational methods of SARS had changed. Of course, the announcement infuriated the sweltering fire in the protests.
As it is in Nigeria, like many other countries today, any unusual slight on the well-being, however minimal, of the citizens can ignite a mass protest. But the significance of the October protests by the Nigerian youths is the fact that it was premeditated, well planned and coordinated beyond state imagination.
This became more obvious as the protests got wider in number, spread and attention even as state attacks were unleashed on the protesters. Violent street urchins, obviously hired, also joined the military and other security agents in massive attacks against the peaceful protesters across the country.
The country has not only lost financial resources during this period as economic activities were stalled, schools were hurriedly bolted just days after resuming from the COVID-19 lockdown; the Government of the Federal Republic of Nigeria suffered tremendous global image damage.
Perhaps, the protesting young people may have convinced everyone that their protests were directed at police brutality; which indeed is a popular appeal to a smart generation that has excelled in contemporary technology and e-enterprise with the attendant dangers of misuse by not a few amongst them to defraud unsuspecting victims through the internet. The concept of the protests naturally attracted the bourgeoning unemployed youths, considered about 70% of Nigeria’s population.
Indeed, Nigeria sits on a time bomb that any public action against public authority in any part of the country by any group of persons can easily ignite to a colossal magnitude as the country’s political class has not demonstrated visible ability to deliver good governance that attend to the needs of the citizens; while we all watch public office holders live in nauseating opulence.
In each of the 36 states of the country as well as the Federal Capital Territory, there are at least three public tertiary education institutions, in addition to an average of four private institutions. Consequently, these institutions exit not less than 10,000 as qualified graduates annually, while none of the states are taking serious interests in establishing industries to accommodate these graduates and their competencies.
The civil service is understandably incapable of hiring all the graduates. The economy requires manufacturing industries to boost its profile at the global market and ensure its capacity to contend with the needs of a presumably developing country. But, clearly government at all levels seem comfortable with oil as the only fuel of the economy.
The petroleum industry itself has been left in decay for decades, typical of a visionless ruling class; a heartless class with a Nigerian extraction that undoubtably thrive in immorality, riddled with massive corruption, deviltry and open disdain for the citizens.
Every facet of the Nigerian society has been immersed with crisis; from individual to corporate levels. The citizens are overtaxed. We pay higher for dilapidated, malfunctioning or non-functioning services such as electricity. Roads have collapsed. Public education is in shambles. The citizens have no access to clean public water. Jobs are disappearing and yet, public office holders flaunt wealth in the face of the malnourished populace.
There is a growing level of hopelessness glowing in the faces of majority of the citizens, enough to ignite a mass uprising at the slightest opportunity such as provided by the EndSARS protests.
Recall that the trade unions had earlier mobilised for a national strike that should have commenced on September 28 this year. Though, the strike was fundamentally meant to address issues around deregulation of the petroleum sector and the increase in electricity tariff, the strike could just have been a treadle for the take-off of the EndSARS protests and possibly mutilate the form, mode and ultimate objective of the strike.
As trade unions operating within the limit of the fundamental principles of industrial relations, all demands leading to a strike are still subject to negotiations, which a mass protest of the sort that the EndSARS protesters portend cannot achieve.
That the unions, led by the Nigeria Labour Congress and the Trade Union Congress of Nigeria suspended the scheduled national strike after an agreement with the Federal Government is healthy and provides opportunities for deeper engagements rather than risk a massive state attack that is clearly undesirable and unproductive at this time.
There were clear demands by the trade unions, which were submitted to government two weeks before the scheduled strike. No trade union will avoid a negotiation, even a minute before commencing strike actions, if there are convincing indications of flexibility from government or employers.
The ability of the unions to fight against anti people policies is strengthened by its organisational capacities within the structures of industrial relations on the rules of engagement. Over the years, the trade unions have led struggles against policies that circumscribe peoples’ rights to decent living with significant successes.
However, beyond the trade unions, government must see the reality in the pains and anger of the entire citizens. The need to restructure governance to make it people focused is more urgent now than ever.
The dimensions of EndSARS protests has shown the readiness of Nigerians, as demonstrated by the youth, to take the bull by its horn, head on. Just as the protests were assumed to be winding up, ordinary citizens took on warehouses where palliatives meant to assuage the pains, hunger and indigence of vulnerable citizens during the COVID-19 lockdown period were hoarded.
What else could accelerate mass revolt when items, especially food, earlier announced to have been distributed to citizens across the country, have been discovered by the youths to have been abandoned in warehouses for reasons yet to be explained? Just as it remained unexplained why billions of naira and other currencies have been expended on the electricity and petroleum sectors without visible improvement in services.
Until government becomes truly of the people, by the people and for the people, the impending mass revolt in Nigeria remain unstoppable. People must see government at work at all facets of their lives.
We must not take the youths for granted. They have given hope to the rest of us.
*Yaqub is Assistant Secretary (Information and Public Relations), Nigeria Labour Congress, Abuja.