The #EndSARS demonstrations playing out on the streets in state capitals up and down the country in the last two weeks can be described as the most significant civil action mounted by the youth in this country since the return to civil rule in 1999. It is the equivalent of the “o to gee” movement that toppled the Saraki political dynasty in Kwara State in 2019. The state had hitherto been an impenetrable fortress for the opposition, but the All Progressives Congress had other ideas.
The party mounted a spirited campaign to wrest power from the Saraki stranglehold, and it succeeded with the revolutionary swansong of “o to gee” (enough is enough). The same can-do spirit has now been deployed at a much wider (national) level to dispense with the most potent symbol of oppression and mayhem on Nigerian streets and neighbourhood: the disgraced, and disbanded Special Anti-Robbery Squad. This is a special unit in the Nigeria Police, which had been entrusted with an awesome array of lethal weapons ostensibly to curb crime, but which in recent years had been turned on innocent citizens with reckless abandon.
The personnel in the squad had been thought to be untouchable; they appeared at random on street corners, neighbourhoods and the highways, then, turned the environment into a war zone in a blink of an eye.
They felt so invincible that they would not even bother putting on their police uniform while on duty. Stomping the ground with arms akimbo, they were the latter day brigands protected by the long arm of the law. So, good riddance!
Be that as it may, however, that a nationwide protests of such magnitude would have captivated the cities with so much rage and anger, and the Minister of Interior, Ogbeni Rauf Aregbesola, would keep his counsel even up till now, is nothing short of mind-boggling.
It is scandalous, in fact. What kind of political leader are you, minister? Are you the person Soyinka referenced in his classic: ‘The man dies in him that keeps silent in the face of tyranny’? Do you not feel burdened by what has been going on? Are you totally ensconced in your Abuja bubble that you are no longer able to hear the children crying? Yes, the Vice President has issued a tepid ‘apology’ above your head, but there is still a legitimate expectation on you to answer the call of duty.
Police officers have also been seen on television screens trying to placate the public, and changing the label of the institutionalised symbol of oppression from SARS to SWAT. But, they are the same people responsible for the unbridled lawlessness in the first place. Besides, this is not just a police problem; it is a systemic rot in the law enforcement regime that needs rationalisation from political leaders. This is where a diligent minister earns his stripes.
It is difficult to accuse Aregbesola of cowardice given his antecedents; Lagos Commissioner for Works and Infrastructure (1999-2007); governor of Osun State (2010-2018), but patience with his lackadaisical attitude on this occasion is wearing thin.
It is noteworthy that the Nigerian Army has predictably stepped into the vacuum Aregbesola created by issuing a thinly veiled threat on the “subversive elements and troublemakers”. According to a social media posting on Thursday, October 15, 2020, by the army acting Director of Public Relations, Colonel Sagir Musa; “The Nigerian Army hereby warns all subversive elements and troublemakers to desist from such acts as it remains highly committed to defend the country and her democracy at all cost”, and offering to “…deal with any situation decisively”. Just wondering, did they obtain ministerial clearance for that release, as they should have?
You can see the irony in the statement. The army vowing to defend “democracy at all cost”. What democracy? Democratisation of violence, perhaps? The biggest defenders of democracy at play here are the gallant youths protesting wanton violence by men and women in uniform, including the army. People are protesting against violence and troublemakers in the ranks of the police, then, the army steps in, promising to visit even more violence on the protesters, who have been largely peaceful. Had there been ministerial leadership, there would not have been room for posturing by the army.
The military wants the last word on this, but it has absolutely no role in civil protests; none whatsoever. Not only that, in a genuine democracy, which they now profess to defend “at all cost”, the military has limited visibility in civil life besides protecting the territorial borders. Is this too difficult for the Nigerian army to accept? It is not the business of the military to determine the characters of the protesters. We have the regular police as well as intelligence officers to take care of that.
What this lays bare, once again, is the continued militarisation of Nigeria’s democratic space. If it was not so obvious before, it is now clear that this country is jointly run by civilian as well as military authorities. One is elected, the other self-appointed. Uniformed personnel continue to hog the headlines on Nigeria’s internal affairs while ministers stand idly by.
Ministers have turned spectators in this tragic political sitcom, instead of setting the tone for dialogue, and laying out the parameters for democratic accountability. In advanced democracies (to which, one hopes, we aspire), it is a rarity to turn on the television set and see a phalanx of uniformed officers lecturing the public on how to behave, and how they will face the wrath of the law, etc.
This is the domain reserved for political leaders. If there is a major altercation between, say, protesting citizens and uniformed officers, it is the political leaders that step forward to own the situation. Democratic leaders lay down the law for armed officers, not the other way around. The armed forces (the police and all) must be brought under civilian authority or, we lose all pretensions to democracy. Civil authorities, not police, should have been the first to announce the disbandment of the hated SARS to demonstrate grip. It is not the job of the police to set up reform of their own organisation’s shortcomings. That is a job for civilian authorities (albeit) with input from the force.
Having said all that, and in the final analysis, what can one recommend that has not been recommended before? Introduce an entrenched system of community policing? It has been suggested a gazillion times and rebuffed. Institute ‘Oputa-style’ commission of enquiry into all aspects of policing and make recommendations? That too, has been done to a lesser degree, but still to no avail. In this column’s view, the policing imbroglio speaks to a deeper crisis of governance in this country. We have an unrepresentative democracy, where 75% of the national budget is frittered away on revenue, and where a handful of privileged elites hold down the rest in a bone-crushing arm lock.
Very often, the police are let loose on the community hopelessly underpaid, demoralised, dehumanised, and hungry. They are then handed fully loaded guns to go and keep the peace. What do you expect would happen at the slightest provocation from a defenceless public? Compared that to the average, (barely literate) legislator whose take home pay in a single year exceeds anything a police officer (of any rank) could ever earn throughout a 35-year career. It is easy to vilify the police in the heat of the moment but, paradoxically, they are both perpetrators AND victims of the systemic rot threatening to eviscerate all in a sea of violence. Remember the enduring aphorism: as long as there is only one bone for three dogs, there can never be peace in the kernel.