By Reuben Abati
The #EndSARS protests, which lasted for about two weeks until the crisis in Lagos on October 20, now known as the Black Tuesday in Nigeria’s contemporary history, may have abated, with the disappearance from Nigerian streets of the horde of protesters, looters, hijackers and miscreants, who together lent a new dimension to the protests.
But essentially what we are now witnessing is best described as the “silence of the graveyard.” It is at best “a temporary reprieve”. The embers of the youth revolution that resulted in death, arson, wanton destruction and expansive alienation, are still smouldering.
The extent to which this is true can be seen in (1) the renewed attempt in the Federal Capital Territory to loot a freshly discovered COVID-19 palliatives warehouse, (2) the threat by some civil society groups that if the federal government does not address the demands of Nigerian youths on police brutality and good governance, nobody should rule out the possibility of another round of protests, and (3) the reported state of anomie in Oyigbo Local Government Area in Rivers State, where the people and the military are locked in a potentially explosive situation, following the killing of six soldiers within the community by persons said to be militants of the Indigenous Peoples of Biafra Movement (IPOB) and the imposition of a 24-hour curfew on the community by the Rivers State government.
A “revolution” is like the spoken word – a word is like a seed, it germinates and in actuality, its embodied meanings could take on a utilitarian and practical edge. Kinjekitile in Ebrahim Hussein’s play of the same title, on the 1905-7 Maji Maji War against German colonial rule in Tangayika (modern day Tanzania), makes the point about the potency of the word: a word once spoken may be difficult to recall or control. Kinjekitile, the seer, energised the people with a word of hope about their own invincibility but even if he did not command the next line of action, the people were driven by their own emotions and enthusiasm.
The #EndSARS protest was a spoken word which assumed a life of its own. The protesters in Kinjekitile thought water, as directed by the spirit, Hongo, would protect them against German bullets. The protesters at Lekki Toll Gate and other parts of Nigeria believed that the Nigerian flag and the singing of the national anthem would offer them immunity from the same state brutality that they were revolting against. Many ended up as casualties. The state and the innocent have also suffered. The culture of hate that has been promoted thereby, the Nigerian fault lines that have now been further widened, and the gulf of alienation between the people and their leaders that has been further stretched, point to one fact: the need to save Nigeria from an avoidable blow-out between the people and the state that could prove costly. This will require a sober and detached reflection over the meaning and implications of the #EndSARS protests in terms of lessons, gains, loopholes and possible options.
One major lesson is about people power. Both #EndSARS protests in the South and the #Endinsecuritynow protests in the North were about the power of the people to insist on their own truths, hold their leaders accountable and ask questions. We often talk about the coercive powers of state, and how the control of such powers places Nigerian leaders in a superior position over and above the people. In the face of the people’s anger, the vulnerability of those powers was exposed and the true location of power in a state, nation and country was revealed. Power rests with the people. The youths of Nigeria coalesced around a word – #EndSARS. That word soon became a signifying coda, adopted and translated into different strands by even those who did not understand what it represented, other than an opportunity for rebellion against perceived enemies – from the police, to political leaders, to the rich and affluent, business owners and the ordinary man or woman riding a flashy car.
What began as a protest by young men and women in the privileged quarters of Lekki, Ikoyi, Ajah, Banana Island, Victoria Island, later joined by celebrities and social media influencers taking photographs, making speeches and eventually, playing music, eating shawarma, pizza, delicious rice and puff puff, soon degenerated into chaos. Even before Black Tuesday, the protests had spread across the streets of Lagos, from Lekki Toll Gate to Agege, Iyana Oworo, Ikorodu, Iyana Ipaja, Oshodi, Fagba, Mushin, Alakuko… The youths in these parts and their cousins in Benin City, Osogbo, Federal Capital Territory, Onitsha, Oyigbo, brought a new dimension to the protests. In Benin, they attacked two prisons. In Ogbomoso, they went after the Soun’s palace.
In Abuja, Lagos and elsewhere, they pulled down traffic lights and public infrastructure. These other protesters have been dismissed as miscreants and hoodlums, but no one has been able to deny that they are Nigerian youths. The sad news is that they are in the majority. With #EndSARS, Nigeria began to pay the price for its failure to provide for the future of its youths, to train its young persons and to empower them beyond slogans and rhetoric. The big lesson lies in the solidarity that we saw between the educated puff-puff and pizza eating crowd at Lekki Toll gate who spoke fine English and sang the National Anthem and carried placards, and the stick-wielding, “we-die-here” youths who went after public infrastructure and anything that looked rich. They were both united by one word, #EndSARS, which had become a catch phrase for youth frustration.
Nigeria is a divided country across all lines: ethnic, demographic, religious, and geographic, with tension and entropy sewn into the national fabric. Nigerian youths constitute more than 60 per cent of the country’s population but they are the most neglected, and of course the most divided: North and South, rich and poor. The children of the rich live in privileged places. They go to the best schools abroad. They acquire vertical education, and the kind of exposure that money can offer. But when they return to the country, they don’t get jobs. They have no hope of self-actualisation because the country itself is bleeding. And so they are angry and disillusioned. On the other side are the children of the poor: the products of Nigeria’s warped system.
This other group has not enjoyed the opportunity to go to school. A few may have had the opportunity, but these are mostly school drop outs whose little education is of no use. The only toys that they have ever played with in their lives are a wrap of marijuana, a shot of cocaine, tramadol, a gun and a bullet. They speak the language of the streets. We saw them at work during the #EndSARS protests. In the South, they took over the protests. In the North, they became hired agents of their oppressors and attacked the protesters. Lesson: A country that fails to invest in the future of its youths is bound to count the cost in the shape of anarchy. Nigerian youths – whatever label we give them – protesters or miscreants – have spoken up. They have shown that they have a voice that must be heard. When some funny lawmakers in the Lagos State House of Assembly – Mudasiru Obasa, Mojisola Alli-Macaulay and Desmond Elliot – tried to reconstruct the nature of the #EndSARS protests, the same youths dragged them like dirt on environmental sanitation day! Those lawmakers must have now learnt that it is better to think before uttering a word!
Our youths need jobs. They need to be taken seriously. The challenge of poverty and hunger also needs to be addressed if Nigeria must have peace. Political leaders and government officials must also learn to be accountable. As it happened, the protests moved beyond a revolt against police brutality, to an attack on warehouses where COVID-19 palliatives had been hoarded, organised attacks on the homes and properties of politicians, even innocent entrepreneurs. It was shocking to be confronted with the ugly truth that Nigerian politicians had converted COVID-19 palliatives for personal use to be distributed as birthday souvenirs.
One of such persons even had the effrontery to confess that he was saving the materials for his birthday anniversary. He wasn’t intelligent enough to figure out his own folly. The angry youths who attacked COVID-19 palliatives warehouses across the entire country were not alone. They were joined by ordinary people, pregnant women, and the army of poor Nigerian masses. What has been labelled as looting and criminality is subliminally an expression of the people’s frustration with government. Why hoard palliatives when the people are in need? To further show the rise of the lunatic fringe in high places, there has been a report that COVID-19 palliatives provided by the private sector coalition, known as CA-COVID are now actually on sale in some stores, locally and in London!
Nigerian policemen and women suffered a lot: 22 policemen were killed, 205 police formations and stations were set ablaze, operational vehicles were destroyed. We sympathise with the Nigeria Police, and all the families who lost their loved ones in the course of the protests. Nobody deserves to die in such manner. There will be need for healing and reconciliation at all levels. However, in an attempt to rebuild trust and confidence among his men, the inspector general of Police (IGP), Mohammed Adamu has been quoted as saying that policemen have a right to defend themselves and that any policeman that is assaulted by anybody has a right to fight back.
The IGP should talk more about peace building strategies, rather than the politics of vengeance and confrontation. There is a federal government committee in place to work out the processes for giving effect to the 5-for-5 demands. The Committee should conduct its work with the speed of light. States of the federation have agreed to set up panels of Inquiry; about 13 states have done so, the others should hurry up. Nigerians need to know the truth and they need to know that justice will be done. The Nigerian military stands accused. Its leaders must stop talking as if the military is above the laws of the land. Thy must learn to be humble and accountable.
II. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala: Best Woman for the WTO Job
The emergence of Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala as the consensus candidate for the position of the director general of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) has been held up by the last minute objection of the United States. The consultations process by the “Troika” saddled with the responsibility of selecting a consensus candidate in line with the Procedures for the Appointment of WTO DG (10 December 2002), followed due process and after 500 meetings and consultations, over a period of four months, 104 countries chose Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, 60 other members chose Ms. Yoo Myung-Hee, the candidate of South Korea who, along with Nigeria’s Okonjo-Iweala, had made the final shortlist of two as of October 8. Further consultations gave Okonjo-Iweala 163 votes. South Korea did not withdraw the candidacy of Ms. Yoo, but it also did not oppose the Nigerian candidate.
Under Articles 15-19 of its procedures, WTO chooses its DG by consensus. The General Council has now decided that a final decision will be taken on December 9, after a week of further negotiations with the United States. If that fails, the body will have no option but to activate Article 20, which talks about “recourse to voting as a last resort.” This gives us confidence and hope. Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala has the critical support of her country, Nigeria, and all categories: developed, developing and other members of the WTO, across all representative continents. The U.S. Trade Representative says “due process” has not been followed. That is not true. The attempt by the United States to tell a lie to give others a bad name is what has now united other members of the WTO Council against the United States. The U.S. also says the WTO needs someone with “real, hands-on experience in the field.” Everyone else is convinced that Dr. Okonjo-Iweala is eminently qualified. Look at her credentials. First Class. Outstanding. Great personality.
The United States is playing gutter politics. This is about the U.S. Presidential Election 2020, and the trade conflict with China. Before now, President Trump described the WTO as “horrible” and too partial to China. He wants to be seen on the eve of one of America’s most divisive elections (cf. 1800, 1824, 1860, 1960, 1968 and 2000) as a strong nationalist who puts America first. There is also a ring of déjà vu to this. In 2012, the United States thought Okonjo-Iweala was too bold to seek the position of president of the World Bank, despite the unwritten rule that the office is reserved only for Americans.
The U.S. prefers South Korea’s Ms Yoo because they think she would be more pliable. They also don’t want China to fill the slot of deputy director general. Okonjo-Iweala is also accused of being a globalist. Under President Trump, the U.S. has played the politics of isolationism, unilateralism and a recourse to bilateralism on his own terms. I also think there is a racist sub-text to this: Trump has opposed every multilateral institution led by Africans: the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the African Development Bank (AfDB) are the most recent examples.
Will the U.S. have its way? I don’t think so. If Trump loses the US presidential election today, as he should, that will change the game. If he wins, the WTO, in any case, operates on a “one country one vote” basis. A recourse to “voting as a last resort”, an exceptional departure from customary practice, should get Nigeria’s candidate the job, which she certainly deserves.