By Tochukwu Ezukanma
For long, we derogated Nigerian youths for their greed-laced indolence, civil indifference, and political passivity. With the #EndSARS protest, which started, almost spontaneously, in reaction against the brutality and bestiality of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS), the youth earned the respect of the generality of Nigerians. For an ostensibly leaderless protest, the youth demonstrated impressive organization, orderliness, and peacefulness. Their speeches evinced knowledge and versatility, and their stated objectives were unassailable. They meticulously handled the logistics for the protest and carefully tended the sites of the protest. Many of us that, in the past, disparaged them, for once, had reasons to doff our hats for them.
I was at the converging points of the #EndSARS protest at the two Ikeja Underbridges: General Hospital and Computer Village. The two venues were crowded with protesters. They were boisterous but orderly and peaceful. The gatherings had an aura of a carnival. Music blasted from loudspeakers and was occasionally interrupted by announcements. The protesters, mostly youthful and very educated, romped to the rhythmical throbbing of songs by Nigerian artists. Some of the songs were just entertaining, with romantic and platitudinous lyrics. Others, though entertaining, had poignant lyrics that resonated with the protest. Their lyrics brayed against official oppression, irresponsible leadership, and social injustice. These included the songs of the indefatigable iconoclast, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, with their coarse, solemn and prophetic messages, and Idris Abdulkarem’s Nigeria Jaga Jaga; everything scatters, scatter; poor man dey suffers, suffer; etc.
But what could have been wrong with such a magnificent spectacle? Nigerian youths fired by patriotism, yearning for a decent life and longing for social justice, and totally oblivious of tribal, religious, political, and socio-economic divides, stood up in unionism in the exercise of their democratic right to peaceful protest. What was wrong with the youth – the flower and promise of Nigeria – demanding accountability and respect for the rule of law from the Nigerian Police Force and the ruling elite?
Evidently, it did not sit right with the forces of greed and insensitivity that have, for long, misruled the country, stolen and splurged her commonwealth, treated the people with horrifying scorn, and unleashed their tool of intimidation, repression, and extra-judicial killing (the Nigerian Police Force) on the people. These forces of evil – the Nigerian ruling elite – for long, maintained its stranglehold on the country by its artful manipulation of the masses: calling white black; evil, good; and setting us against one another, along ethnic and religious lines. The protest demonstrated unity, unity that straddled tribal, religious, and zonal fault lines. It evinced courage, moral courage to do what is right, irrespective of personal consequences. The ruling elite was disconcerted by this strategically directed unity and courage. They feared it will unravel their oligarchic grip on Nigeria.
Thus, there was the need to, first, discredit the protesters, and then, attack them. The hoodlums that infiltrated the protest were sponsored by government agents. There was footage showing them being dropped off by government-owned vehicles and being directed by men that cut the image of State Security Service (SSS) officials. The distinction between the protesters and the hoodlums were dazzlingly obvious. The police could readily differentiate the hoodlums from the protesters and could have checked their criminal activities if they so desired. They allowed the hoodlums a free hand because the ruling elite needed to cast the criminality of the hoodlums as part of the protest. To rationalize their planned attack on the protesters, they needed to tarnish their image.
Finally, on Black Tuesday, the Nigerian army struck, and murdered at least twenty seven and injured more than thirty protesters. That any government could attack those youths, an epitome of our best and brightest, and the cream and future of the country boggles the mind. It was an anachronism, repulsively out of sync with the time. After all, Nigeria is a democracy, and Nigerians have constitutionally guaranteed right to self-expression and peaceful protests. Not even in the darkest days of military despotism and obscurantism did Nigerians witness such a barbaric onslaught on the innocent. Never before in the history of Nigeria did a government turn the guns on peaceful, flag-waving, national anthem-singing protesters. The attack was so surreal and macabre; it seemed like a scene of a horror movie.
Outraged by the massacre and the shameless attempt by the federal and Lagos State governments to deny and disassemble the massacre, other Nigerian youths, less enlightened and more frenzied than the protesters – “the hoodlums” – took to rampaging through the streets of Lagos, looting, destroying and burning. They targeted government institutions, and properties and businesses of those suspected of having encouraged, or acquiesced to, the killing. Both the protest and the post-protest rampage were palpable vents of anger, long-repressed anger. Nigerians are angry, very angry at the status quo. They are angry at an evil oligarchy that, in its cruelty, cupidity, and sordid designs, misruled the country and systematically degraded her people.
If not urgently assuaged, this pent-up discontent and disillusionment can become explosive. For the good of the country, the power elite must recognize and address this smoldering anger. It cannot be addressed by quibbling and sophistry, denials and alibis, brutality, and repression. It demands unflinching resolve and determined actions at fundamental reforms that will ensure accountability, respect for the rule of law, severe curb on official corruption and theft of public funds, principled distribution of the national wealth, etc.
With their protest, the youths were speaking for Nigerians. Their message remains clear, loud, and unequivocal: we have, for so long and for so much, stomached the instomachable, tolerated the intolerable, and suffered the insufferable. Enough is enough.
Tochukwu Ezukanma writes from Lagos, Nigeria