By Ehi Braimah
TUE, OCT 13 2020-theG&BJournal-When the SARS protests began, it did not look like it would take a life of its own. By the time a critical mass was achieved mainly through citizens’ engagement around the world enabled by the social media, SARS was consigned to the dust bin of history. The acronym SARS (Special Anti-Robbery Squad), a special unit in the police force, always evoked a sense of foreboding; it reminded you that an enemy baying for blood was in the neighbourhood – their “kill and go” mentality and human rights abuses are the primary reasons for the ongoing global protests.
Suddenly, Nigerians have found their voice through #EndSARS protests to correct the ills of society. The protests have been spontaneous in character and viral in execution with notable celebrities leading from the front. Why would a country that is so blessed with abundant human and natural resources still be struggling at adult age? Could this be a generational curse? I don’t think so. The colonial masters have played their part and they have since moved on; the ball is now in our court and we just have to play by the rules.
The protests are delivering an unmistakable message: we cannot remain like this forever; Nigeria must become a better place for all. This overarching message has been ignored serially by every administration and the result has been incremental decay in every sector of our national life. The challenges of nationhood have remained with us since 1960 but we cannot continue to wink in the dark. We have reached the point where we have to be brutally honest with each other – we need to start rebuilding this country from the ground floor up.
This task is for everyone and we can achieve the goal without fighting each other; we do not need the kind of re-structuring that will break up the country (in fact, that would create more problems of identity) and we do not need the military to seize power. What we need are frank and honest conversations on how we should live and work together as Nigerians where there is equality and not a semblance of it. We have pretended about these issues for too long and they are at the heart of the #EndSARS protests. It is better to say, “I’m Nigerian,” than saying, “I’m Hausa, Ibo or Yoruba.”
At the Lekki protests in Lagos, one of the placards read: “The power of the people is stronger than the people in power.” This is another strong message to those in authority and it explains the thinking of Nigerians which should be taken seriously. The point that is ringing loud in the message is that Nigerians believe they have been taken for granted for too long and they are now ready to “shake the table”. This is the context in which we should all see the #EndSARS protests. We should therefore not be surprised if similar protests are organised in the future. However, as Governor Babajide Sanwo-Olu of Lagos State noted when he addressed the Lekki protesters, these protests should remain orderly peaceful. When they are hijacked by hoodlums, the protests lose their soul, essence and relevance.
The political and military leadership have failed us woefully and Nigerians are angry. The overwhelming SARS protests energised mainly by youth movements are a manifestation of pent up frustration and anger that boiled over. When you are down, you fear no fall. This is the story of protesters who camped at various locations defying weather elements because they believed in the same cause. It was therefore not surprising that SARS was disbanded. President Muhammadu Buhari has promised significant reforms in the police force but why should we believe him? Is it a mere political statement? Similar promises were made in the past but nothing changed.
Unfortunately, Nigerian leaders and politicians cannot be trusted and that is just the way it is. Scrapping SARS is the first step to a complete a wide ranging reforms agenda in every segment of society that should begin with honest conversations among and between students, parents, teachers, religious leaders, captains of industry, the academia, political leaders, the armed forces, civil society organisations, not for profit organisations, our development partners and so on. This engagement should be continuous and we can build on the outcome of the 2014 National Conference.
Our leaders know what the “issues” are but they have been unable to or they have simply refused to summon the courage over the years to do what is right: build a just and egalitarian society where there is fairness, transparency, equity and social justice. It is that simple and it explains why Nigeria has not made the kind of progress that is befitting of its current status as the “Giant of Africa”. I said it before and I will say it again – this giant needs to wake up! This is another important message that is being delivered by the #EndSARS protests because the protesters believe that Nigeria can become a land flowing with milk and honey. Nigeria is not a failed state, but it was programmed to fail – and it is failing — by some “vested interests”. When we continue to prioritise sectional, tribal and religious sentiments over important national considerations, our “man-made” problems will not go away – that would be wishful thinking.
Besides monumental corruption, the pervasive culture of impunity at all levels that reigns in the country unhindered allowed SARS to transform into a gestapo organisation. SARS was as brutal as the German state secret police during the Nazi regime – their methods were provocative, crude, abusive, inhuman and wicked. SARS operatives lived in their own cold blooded world without any care for even their next door neighbours.
Narrating his own experience through his Twitter handle, the Ooni of Ife, Oba Adeyeye Ogunwusi, said he supports the scrapping of SARS because her 25 year-old daughter had an ugly experience with SARS that almost took her life. “This is the beginning of greater things that would come to Nigeria,” the Ooni prophesied. Of course, I want to believe that is the wish of every Nigerian. It is the same story of anguish, bitterness and outrage from those who are lucky to be alive after swallowing the bitter pill of SARS. The police are supposed to be our friend and there are indeed some hardworking and decent officers in the police force. Some of them are also professionally minded and they would go to any length to discharge their duties in line with international best practice. But the bad eggs are more and they should be flushed out without any further delay.
It is evident that the unacceptable and horrifying conditions of service are their biggest challenge. The police force is not only underfunded, police officers suffer in silence and they are forced to resort to self-help even if they have to engage in criminal activities to survive. These are certainly not the best of times for Mohammed Adamu, the inspector general of police – he is on the hot seat. The police force needs a new orientation, but if we do not also reform the society by providing good governance where the rule of law is upheld, nothing will change – the outcome would be “same old same.”
On Boxing Day in December 2018, I was travelling to Benin City with Ayo Banjo, an associate and member of my Rotary Club. We were heading to Akoko Edo local government area for the 8th edition of the annual Ososo Carnival in the pristine Ososo community. As usual, there were several road blocks and check points at intervals of about 100 metres or less. At one of the checkpoints before Ore, one of the SARS men stopped our car and my driver pulled over. There were other cars in the forced stop-and-search parade.
Clearly, they wanted money but the officer was going about it the wrong way. As usual, their methods were harsh, unfriendly and provocative. My documents were complete and in order. “Let me see the permit of your tinted glass,” the officer barked at my driver, after obtaining his driver’s license. The permit was handed over to him. “This permit is fake,” the officer yelled at my driver as he raised his voice a few decibels higher. When the argument was becoming heated, I stepped out of the car to explain to the officer that I obtained the permit at the Command Headquarters in GRA, Ikeja where my biometrics data was captured. “This permit is not fake,” I told the officer confidently.
Since our officer wanted “Christmas palliative”, he was not impressed. At this time, my associate joined us but my driver was becoming irritated. The officer now visibly angry reacted by cocking his rifle. My driver’s offence was that he dared to challenge his conduct. “My friend let me warn you,” he told my driver in a threatening voice, “this is our own government right here in the bush, so you cannot teach me my job. If you do not give us our Christmas money, you people are not going anywhere.”
To cut the long story short, we parted with “Christmas money” and we continued our journey. This was the ordeal of most travellers as every checkpoint was converted to a toll collection centre. The dangerous part of this daylight robbery was how vehicles running at over 100 kilometres per hour were stopped. Several avoidable accidents have occurred on the highways because of the egregious conduct of these police officers. God bless Nigeria.
Braimah is the Publisher/Editor-in-Chief of Naija Times (https://naijatimes.ng)