By Azuka Onwuka

Nigerians are known to endure all manner of indignities without protesting. It was said that if political leaders pushed Nigerians to the wall, rather than fight back, they would burrow a hole on the wall and escape through the hole. But the #EndSARS protests have punctured that.

Azuka Onwuka

So, what changed? What changed was that the very existence of the Nigerian youths was threatened. Despite the decades of harassment from the police and the army, the youth had never risen like this against them. If the operatives of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad had restricted their nuisance to harassing the youth and extorting money from them, there would have been complaints but no protest. But SARS operatives crossed the line by tagging every youth a criminal and flippantly killing many of them. That action made every young person a potential corpse in the hands of the rogue SARS. Being a good boy was no guarantee. Dressing well was no assurance. Avoiding night travels conferred no immunity. One could be sleeping at home and still be arrested by SARS because there was a report that some “bad eggs” were in the neighbourhood. One could be returning from work and be arrested. And once arrested, one’s chances of coming out alive were very low.

Years of rot and division made it hard for Nigerians to complain about the wrong things in society. Nigerian youths would not protest against corruption in leadership. They would not protest against misgovernance. They would not protest against bad roads or run-down hospitals or dilapidated schools or epileptic electricity or a struggling economy. They do not mind how much politicians steal from the system and what they do with the power given to them. They just want to be left alone to be alive. But the threat from SARS changed all that. Having been denied virtually every good thing in life, the Nigerian youths refused to be denied the only thing they could call their own: their lives.

It is unfortunate that Nigeria has degenerated to a level where the youth would protest just to be allowed to be alive. It is a dangerous situation.

Happily, the organisers of the protest have done things in a mature way. First is that by last weekend, over N60m had been raised via online donations. Even though the protest does not have clear-cut structures, the donors did not worry whether their contributions would be embezzled or not. They were simply concerned about being part of the movement to stop the brutal activities of SARS.

Another highpoint is the way the protesters have avoided negative stories. Nigeria is said to be the poverty capital of the world as well as a third world country. Yet, Nigerian youths have been protesting for over a week across the country without looting shops. Instead of that, the protesters give food and drinks to even security operatives, take care of the treatment of those who are injured, repair the vehicles damaged by hoodlums and security men, clean the streets after the day’s protest, and ensure that there is no violence or lawlessness. This contrasts with similar protests held in the USA, South Africa and some other countries in recent times where protesters gleefully looted shops day after day, thereby making a mockery of the injustice the protest was meant to fight.

The Nigerian protesters have made it their duty to ensure that the venues of protests are tidied up at the end of every day. Dustbins and bin bags are provided for protesters to dispose of their trash. The protesters provide ambulances to take care of any emergencies. They hire private security men to help in ensuring orderliness at protest venues. They provide food and drinks for protesters. They provide charging points and cables for people to charge their phones while at the venues. They provide music for the entertainment of those present.

Interestingly, attempts have been made to discredit the protesters and derail the protests, but these attempts have been resisted. For example, thugs have attacked the protesters in Lagos, Abuja and other places, causing injuries and even death. Police have fired live bullets at them, causing deaths. Different groups and interests have tried to hijack the protests but that has failed. The protesters have refused to have known leaders, to make it difficult for such leaders to compromise the struggle. This has made it difficult for government to target their leaders and woo them with mind-boggling baits, as is alleged to have been done to the leaders of some protests in the past.

That the protesters refused to end the protests even after the announcement of the dissolution of SARS by the Inspector General of Police, Mohammed Adamu, shows the deficit of respect and trust the people have both for the IGP and the regime of the President, Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.). On a number of occasions, the regime had made different announcements restructuring SARS, investigating SARS, banning SARS, scrapping SARS, dissolving SARS and the like. Sadly, there was no positive change in the viciousness and callousness of SARS. SARS continued with its harassment, intimidation, extortion, impunity and extrajudicial killings.

The biggest thing Buhari brought into his presidency was his name: He was presented as a man of integrity, whose word was his bond, and who operated at the level of the common folks and was better positioned to feel their pulse and respond quickly to their problems. But surprisingly, he has detached himself from the masses since coming into office. He rarely talks to the public. He rarely goes to sites where major things occur. It is only at special occasions like the independence anniversary that his recorded speech is played to the nation. If he were close to the people, this protest would not have lasted for more than one day.

Predictably, Buhari may try to end the protests by sending soldiers to shoot at protesters and scare them off the streets. One prays that he does not go through that route for the sake of the casualties that may cause. When a group is non-violent but registering its unhappiness over an issue, it shows that such a group is not concerned about bringing the government down but concerned about having its demands met.

However, the protesters need to realise that whether Buhari reacts to their demands or not, no protest can last forever. They have made the point that they can bring the country to a standstill. They have made the point that they can go on for a month or more if they choose to. They have surprised those in government about their capabilities. It is time to pause and see what government will do in the next three months or six months over the issues raised. Undeveloped democracies are uncomfortable with protests. The protesters should not give those who have no value for human life an excuse to cause more deaths.

The alleged prison break in Benin City on Monday has all the signs of a planned job meant to give the #EndSARS protesters a bad name and clamp down on them. It was queer to see prisoners fleeing the prison with travelling bags, waving at cameras and even granting an interview. Even though it looked like a badly produced movie, those who directed it will still feel at ease to use it as an excuse to fire live bullets at protesters.

– Twitter @BrandAzuka

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