#EndSARS is not just one massive protest for police reform or even for democratic accountability. It is a reckoning meant to counter the crisis in governance whilst the looting which happened in the aftermath of the protests is a catharsis.
‘When we revolt it is not for a particular culture. We revolt simply because, for many reasons, we can no longer breathe.’
— Frantz Fanon
On October 3, 2020, a video trended on social media showing a Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) police officer fatally shoot a man in Delta State. Such brutalism—not entirely new to young Nigerians, especially as police brutality is an everyday occurrence in Nigeria—not only made visible the abuse of power by law enforcement but also engendered mass protests for reform under the banner of #EndSARS. But police brutality is not a uniquely Nigerian phenomenon; it is a global occurrence affecting all political regimes—whether authoritarian, competitive authoritarian, or democratic. In many cases, the perpetrators—usually law enforcement officers—of these gruesome acts are unaccountable for the brutality unleashed on civilians. In this respect, the #EndSARS protests must be construed not so much as peculiar to Nigeria but as part of a global movement toward curbing the excesses of police power.
Although the hashtag ‘EndSARS’ appeared as far back as 2017, its apogee seems to be the October 2020 protests. Besides demanding the abolishment of SARS, protesters have demanded the prosecution of accused police officers, the release of arrested protesters, compensations for families of deceased victims of police brutality, the establishment of an independent body to investigate police brutality, and increased compensation to police officers to enable them to do their jobs without corruption. But is #EndSARS just about police brutality? Anyone conversant with the multifarious histories, sentiments, and narratives of grievance in Nigeria would agree that the rationale for the protests traverse the eradication of brutality and reflect instead a deep-seated crisis in governance. Indeed, the #EndSARS protests and their aftermaths are a reckoning—a reaction, a newfound awareness, and sensitivity to police brutality in particular, and the corrupt political institutions in general, which have wreaked havoc on young people despite the nation’s enormous wealth and political clout within and beyond the African continent.
THE BURDEN OF POLITICAL SAVAGERY
Nigeria is one of the most corrupt countries not only in Africa but also in the world—it ranks 146 in the world with a high score of 26 according to Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index. With weak institutions and a fragile democratic experiment since its transition to democratic rule in 1999, Nigeria’s political leadership is largely unaccountable to citizens. All these have conspired to engender wealth for a privileged few and impoverishment for the masses. It is no wonder Nigeria is currently the ‘poverty capital of the world’ with around 89 million—that is, 50 per cent of its population—in absolute poverty and it is projected that by 2030 the numbers will increase to 110 million people. Youth unemployment is severe with 55.4 per cent of people aged between 15 and 35 unemployed regardless of whether or not they are university graduates. Unemployment owing to lack of economic diversification and the allocation of well-paid jobs in the formal sector to politically connected persons mean that young Nigerians resort to self-help mechanisms both in the underground economy and in the informal sector to eke out a bare existence. Basic health insurance is generally non-existent and self-medication rampant due to the exorbitant cost of healthcare and lack of access to essential medicines. Higher education is plagued by frequent strikes which undermine rigorous academic work. Frequent power cuts mean the average Nigerian rarely has access to constant electricity. These combined with meagre wages, bad transportation networks, poor sanitation, and vicious ethno-religious cleavages—Biafra secessionist sympathies in south-eastern Nigeria; farmer-herder conflicts in the Middle Belt; Christian-Muslim riots in Jos—make Nigeria an exceptionally hostile environment for youths with any modicum of ingenuity to thrive.
Indeed, it is under the pretext of such political corruption that two of Nigeria’s greatest banes emerged after 1999: the Niger Delta militancy in southern Nigeria and Boko Haram terrorism in northeast Nigeria. Fed up with the destruction of their environment, means of livelihood and the unfair distribution of resources, Niger Deltans took up arms to fight against a system that was corrupt and politically exclusionary. Although the Niger Delta conflict over environmental destruction and generalized poverty from oil exploration has been officially resolved through an amnesty programme, this has neither secured sustainable development nor ensured public accountability. With the capitalist logic of—borrowing David Harvey’s oft-cited phrase— ‘accumulation by dispossession,’ negligence by both Western multinational companies and the Nigerian government still makes the region unhealthy and uninhabitable for the already impoverished denizens. Gas flaring, oil spills, pipeline explosions, and industrial emissions pollute the water and air so that the latter, which should be a public good shared by all, are rather enjoyed by a few who have the luxury of owning homes in expensive urban areas, sending their families overseas, educating their children in private universities in Nigeria and abroad, and depositing monies in offshore accounts in western tax havens. It is no coincidence, then, that neonatal mortality rates are high for children born around places with oil spills in the Niger Delta.
Boko Haram’s terrorism came into the picture as soon as militancy declined in 2009. Again, this terrorism owes much to the crisis in governance not least because the North East region wherefrom the terrorist group’s deceased leader, Mohammed Yusuf, emerged is a relatively deprived region in Nigeria with low literacy level and amenities. This made the message of Yusuf quite appealing to parents and guardians who sent their kids to him to receive fundamentalist Salafist jihadi education as an alternative to Western education, which Yusuf considered corrupt and evil.
Under the leadership of Abubakar Shekau, Boko Haram became very lethal, pledging allegiance to Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant with the ultimate aim of carving out an Islamic state from Nigeria where strict sharia law will be applied. It is estimated that since 2009 when the group was founded, over 30,000 persons have died with more than two million persons displaced. The Nigerian government has committed a lot of resources to defeat the terror group with little success. Boko Haram is still a force to reckon with and has gone across border with presence and attacks in neighbouring countries such as Chad, Niger, and Cameroon.
As if all these were not enough, the Nigerian economy slipped into recession in 2016 bringing untold hardship to workers of different stripes, especially those in the informal sector. The informal sector contributes 65 per cent to Nigeria’s GDP. This is unsurprising given that majority of Nigerians are engaged in some form of informal work including market trading, street hawking, tailoring, hairdressing, and butchering. Coupled with the coronavirus pandemic, the World Bank has predicted the Nigerian economy will slip into severe recession, which it has never experienced before since the 1980s. Indeed, it is predicted that the poverty rate will increase from 40.1 per cent in 2019 to 42.5 per cent in 2020, plunging several households into abject poverty. The situation is further worsened by the drop in oil price globally, which constitutes 80 per cent of Nigeria’s exports. As I write, the Nigerian economy has officially slipped into recession as Q3 2020 Real GDP contracted by -3.62 per cent. But for millions of Nigerians this is not really news as their lives have always been in recession and the official news of economic decline merely corroborates their everyday lived experiences. Obviously, those who will suffer from the recession are the poorest and most vulnerable informal workers most of whom are women.
DOWN WITH POLITICAL CORRUPTION!
From the foregoing analysis of the political savagery of the Nigerian condition, it is lucid that #EndSARS is not just one massive protest for police reform or even for democratic accountability. It is a reckoning meant to counter the crisis in governance whilst the looting which happened in the aftermath of the protests is a catharsis. I comprehend catharsis as the relief that derives from purging repressed desires and emotions to institute a functional system. Since the military era, youths have had their desire for a better Nigeria repressed by the political class who, armed with the military and usurping the legal apparatus, rest content with the dysfunctional political system. The pain, anguish, and suffering—perennial conditions of the ordinary Nigerians at home—had found no outlet for decades and so the protests provided a platform to unleash collective anger on a predatory political system perceived as a hodgepodge of democratic and military proclivities unaccountable to no one. This is axiomatic from the widespread looting of the COVID-19 palliatives across the federation, which has been condemned as antithetical to the main aim of the #EndSARS protests. But those who condemn these acts fail to comprehend the view of the looters: namely, that looting is equally a legitimate protest against a corrupt system. The looters ask: why would COVID-19 palliatives be put in warehouses when ordinary people are starving? Were they reserved so as to be employed for political campaigns to further betray the masses? Or they are specifically for politicians’ families and cronies? If the palliatives are for the people, so the argument goes, there is basically nothing wrong with taking them anyway even without official authorization from the state government, which is merely an agent of oppression and domination.
This is, of course, no attempt to eulogize looting. However, we must understand looting in the context of a depraved system that has failed the ordinary people most of whom have nothing to lose but their starvation. For the looters, they are reclaiming what, in fact, belongs to them. It is by looting the food relief meant for them that they themselves can be relieved from the ravages wrought not so much by the coronavirus pandemic as by the political culture of corruption, which not only breeds inequality but also precludes the fair distribution of resources. This is catharsis, tout court. One could contend this act directly or indirectly compelled some state governments to commence the distribution of the palliatives to those heavily impacted by the pandemic. In the north-western state of Sokoto, for example, the special adviser to the state governor on relief and rehabilitation, Zubairu Albadau, announced the immediate distribution of the COVID-19 palliatives to ease the pain inflected by the pandemic on the poorest citizens of the state. Depending on how you look at it, the looters seem to have achieved their aim.
RECLAIMING THE STATE
But while the distribution of palliatives may help address the problem of poverty in the short-term, especially during the pandemic, they are not sufficient for long-term fixes. Nigeria’s governance crisis is profoundly systemic, and need be addressed through building strong democratic institutions post-#EndSARS. Palliatives are merely reliefs from pain that do not substantially interrogate the root cause of the condition. Without systemic changes, the proverb ‘the more things change, the more they stay the same’ may likely become the perennial condition of the Nigerian populace. There are three ways such condition could be evaded.
To begin with, #EndSARS brought young Nigerians from different religious and ethnic backgrounds together. Most protesters were united against police brutality despite their differences—and this is largely why the protest gained momentum nationally. This sort of protest should be recurrent not least because #EndSARS may be a one-off event if civil disobedience is not institutionalized as part of our political culture. We need frequent actions of civil disobedience, which transcend class and ethno-religious cleavages to become the norm rather than the exception. For if the political class come to see the force of mass protests, they are likely to be wary of making policies that are antithetical to the wellbeing of the citizenry. In other words, a culture of sustained civil disobedience is essential for institutionalized democratic engagement and consolidation. For example, mass protests against a disputed parliamentary election in Kyrgyzstan forced Kyrgyz president, Sooronbai Jeenbekov, to resign. His resignation statement read as follows: ‘I’m not holding on to power. I do not want to remain in the history of Kyrgyzstan as the President who shed blood and shot at his own citizens. Therefore, I’ve decided to resign.’
Beyond civil obedience, young people must channel their grievances to the electoral process in 2023. Nigeria is renowned, inter alia, for electoral manipulation including the use of thugs, mostly young people, for intimidation and for electoral fraud. Young Nigerians must not give in to exploitative politicians who assume prestigious political positions for their own private gain. Nigerian youths must defend the integrity and transparency of the electoral process by directly participating in the forthcoming elections en masse and holding the electoral bodies accountable. Furthermore, the focus of the youth should be less on the personality of the candidates and more on their policies in terms of the distribution of public goods and social development. In Rural Democracy: Elections and Development in Africa, Robin Harding notably contends that electoral competition in Ghana and Botswana is based on the provision of public goods and services. In 2016 Ghanaian presidential elections, for example, presidential candidates were judged by the public with regard to how they would provide Free Secondary High School (Free SHS) education for every Ghanaian regardless of class or region. President Nana Akuffo-Addo made this one of his campaign promises and this government initiative was introduced in September 2017 after he won the election. Also, during the 2016 Ghanaian elections the conundrum of dumsor (power outage) which had had severe social and economic effects on businesses and the common people became a central facet of political competition. Akuffo-Addo equally campaigned along the lines of putting an end to dumsor which had become prevalent under the administration of former president John Dramani Mahama. The Ghanaian electorate were, and still are, attracted to idea of the provision of public goods as the end of politics. This means politicians who want to get elected campaign in terms of how they would ensure the fair distribution of resources. This should be the new normal in the public imagination of Nigerian youths.
Finally, we need to rethink our constitution and our constituted powers. The Nigerian constitution is saturated with relics from the colonial past that are atavistic and irrelevant to the current socio-political realities and economic development goals. Sections on women, gender, and customary laws are not just outmoded and mediaeval but in need of amendment or abolishment. LGBT rights are still not considered human rights but criminalized due to atavistic appeals to the naturalness of heterosexual orientation and the unnaturalness of the seemingly ‘deviant’ homosexual orientation. Additionally, the presidential system practised in Nigeria is flawed and gives enormous power to the president without meaningful constitutionalism to ensure checks and balances amongst the judiciary, the legislative, and the executive arms of government. The powers constitutionally granted to the president means anyone who occupies the president’s office directly commands the police, the army and appoints the boards of over 700 parastatals. Such extensive power in the executive office does not bode well for democracy and undermines institutional checks and balances. Nigerian youths must call out this misnomer in the state’s fragile democratic experiment to curb political corruption. Not only is this economically healthy, it is also requisite for public legitimacy and accountability.
SUSTAINING THE PROTESTS
The truth is that Nigeria, in all its complexities and contradictions, is the quintessential epicentre of myriad postcolonial grievances waiting to be addressed by thoughtfully engaged citizens. But, as in all things, the attitude of Nigerians toward Nigeria is one of ambivalence. For some, the country is bleak and unredeemable; for others, the country is the only place they can really call home, hence the need to make it better. The #EndSARS protesters belong in the second category. They comprehend that the problem is as much about extirpating police brutality as about instituting good governance which caters to the well-being of everyone. For these young Nigerians, SARS is just a microcosm of the wider political conundrums. What is needed, they contend, is a radical transformation of the political institutions that have betrayed the social contract, and entails a mutual relationship of respect between the government and the governed. However, to achieve this, Nigerian youths must in addition to the use of social media—Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook—go all out to campaign for substantial changes in our political institutions⎈
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