Looting: A reckoning for Nigeria’s political elite class, By Jude Feranmi

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It is only patriotic to start this piece with my condolences to the families of those whom we have lost in the last couple of days. One death is too many to lose, for fighting for the right to live, the right to not be extorted and the right to protest to the government while being protected by the same government. May the soul of the departed rest in peace.

I have been overwhelmed in the last couple of days by a lot of what has happened in our beloved country and it has been so difficult to put my thoughts into words. But in times like these, it is imperative to speak out. In fact, the now common slang – soro soke – which means to speak up is relevant even now that the protests have begun to wane. Speak up, we must. But how should we start?

Beyond the back end organising with other young brave Nigerians who I have the utmost respect for, I participated in the #EndSARS protests in the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja and the commercial capital, Lagos State and witnessed the protests in my own home state in the state capital Osogbo and the marches and road blockage in Oyo State. I was chased by men of the Nigerian Police Force in the capital up to the point of injury, and shot at the next day in front of the Louis Edet House Police Headquarters. In Lagos, I marched with fellow young Nigerians from the government secretariat around Alausa and drove round the Osun State capital trying to locate young people who were shot at, with the hope of assisting, only to meet a dead body in the Ladoke Akintola University Teaching Hospital. Every major street in the capital was taken over by young angry people burning tyres and blocking roads. As I drove back from the hospital, the thick smoke from a large fire hovered around the city. It was the post office burning – i still cannot confirm if it was set on fire. These images are sealed in my memory beyond what my iphone captured

As I tried to find my way to Lagos after the weekend, I got trapped in Ibadan and couldn’t access any major exit out of the old town. The express was blocked, the access road to pass Ijebu Ode was blocked, the access road to pass abeokuta to Lagos was blocked and every street driving to these outlets was characterised by an exchange of money for passage – paid to the boys on the street blocking the road. In all we paid more than N2000 in N100 and N200 installments. There was only one place where we met actual #EndSARS protesters. It was also the only place we didn’t pay money to pass. When we left at 4:00AM the next day to find our way to Lagos, I thought it was Uhuru when it took us about 3 hours 20 minutes to get Alausa. We drove in to Alausa by 7:20AM and met young able bodied men waiting for us right in front of the secretariat – We couldn’t pass. By the time we realised it was a dead end and decided to turn, where we drove in from was already blocked. I and my brave colleague walked from Alausa to the Airport to catch my 12:30 PM flight to Abuja. In my 28 years of being a Nigerian citizen, that walk is the scariest walk of my life till date – I saw in the eyes and heard in the voice of every young person participating in the lockdown an anger that I have never seen before. By 12:00 noon, the curfew was announced and so began the trail of events that culminated into the #LekkiMassacre and the destruction of property and the loss of lives that followed.

I have written all this because let’s face it, maybe writing this helps me with my mental health, but the political elite class of this country who read blogs and opinion articles like these were probably locked safe in their penthouses and guarded gates. They most likely see the carnage and the destruction and think ‘hoodlums’ and ‘thugs’ invaded the streets to cause chaos and havoc. They most likely didn’t hear the sound of the voices of anger that I heard while taking that walk or see the faces of the ready to die able bodied men some of whom later chose to loot, steal and destroy any symbol or asset of the ruling elite. And it is for these people that I write with the hope that someone somewhere will get a picture of what is really happening.

Every member of every strata in society has a language in which they can be spoken to and they can be understood. It is also the language that they most often speak. On the second day of my joining the protests, one of the highlights of that day apart from being shot at and tear gassed was that we turned the front of the police headquarters in Abuja to a reunion ground. People who had not seen themselves since university days or since law school days started mixing again and exchanging contacts and catching up. For those of us who went to school and had the opportunity of a tertiary education, the language with which we voiced our grievances was the peaceful, non-violent protests to the government with a graphic design of our #5for5 demands – in a mirroring of the IGP’s 5 things you need to know about the defunct SARS Unit that was disbanded. What a response! What metaphor! We were even civil enough to indulge in word plays and carefully crafted demands for the government that included improvement in the welfare of the very same people who were extorting us, brutalising us and killing us.

In what followed, the young people that we conveniently tagged hoodlums and thugs were allegedly ‘recruited’ to cause havoc and delegitimize our demands. On the streets of Abuja and Osun, they attacked protesters and caused chaos. But that was just a tiny fraction of them. The ones that did not need to be recruited soon gave voice to their own agitations and they didn’t have any carefully crafted demands. They didn’t need Twitter to organise and meet at a designated place. Their streets were their protest grounds. They didn’t need any organisation to crowdfund any donations to ensure they could get food and drink to sustain their agitation. Those of us who wanted to pass had to pay compulsorily without the option of even turning back. They didn’t have nor did they need any accountability framework to say how much was raised and what was paid for in beautiful designs on yellow background. They shared their income as they deemed fit and returned the next day. And when the military showed that they could be violent on tuesday night, they responded with an even greater show of violence and destruction. As we showed our grievances in the language that we understood, they also showed their own grievances in the language that they understood as well.

Where is the lesson in all of this? We, that have to create graphic designs so it appeals to our fellows in a way that makes them want to join us in protesting, we that have to list our demands in careful and concise ways so that the government can understand what we are demanding, we that have no response to the water cannons and the teargas but to either choose to be drenched by the water or run from the teargas, we are in the minority! As I type this, I wish I could shout it, WE ARE IN THE MINORITY! And this is not a 40% minority, this is a 5% minority. I would wager a bet that the total money raised by those of us crowdfunding online is nothing compared to the amount of money that our fellow youth counterparts on the streets raised from extorting vehicles across the entire southern part of the country. What is worse? The cost of the destruction that has been wrecked by our fellow youths who can’t speak in our own “peaceful-protest, non-violent-civil-disobedience-language” is most probably in the billions.

It will only be sheer stupidity for any member of the current political elite class to see all of this and think things will always continue as usual. It will be unnatural to see this army of hopeless, nothing-to-lose youths of our country build up constantly and think that today will always be like yesterday was, because even the first law of nature is the law of self-preservation. Yorubas will say “igi gogoro ma gun mi loju, at’okere lati n wo” translated to mean if a long stick is not going to enter your eyes, you would have seen it coming from a long distance. A few months ago, various shops were looted by Nigerians, majorly food items were carted away, including bread, when reports of xenophobia attacks against Nigerians in South Africa was reported widely. A lot of people could not connect destruction of lives and property by South Africans to destruction of our own property in Nigeria by Nigerians, especially as a response. What we recently saw happen to the stores and the shops of fellow Nigerians is the second episode of that looting experience. But this is a series.

More people fall into the poverty line in Nigeria on a daily basis, compounded by COVID-19 and when they fall into poverty, they join the hopeless, nothing-to-lose army of youths in our country. Now, let’s imagine what happens over time as our population continues to increase and more poor people continue to give birth to even more poor children. More hopelessness, More poverty, More agitations.

Fortunately, we are a democracy, the institutions of any democracy offer constant hope to the people that tomorrow can be better and that if the leaders today are not able to deliver the future we want, then we can change them when elections come and that hope, that belief in the possibility of a better tomorrow, that is what makes nations rise, that is what makes economies prosper, that is what make societies flourish.

Unfortunately, that hope does not exist in our democracy. We know that our tomorrow will be worse than our today because we cannot change our leaders in the rigged electoral process even when they don’t serve us or serve in our best interests. This fuels even more hopelessness and more anger or why should a poor young man who also hopes to be rich one day walk into the property of a rich person and destroy it, if not that he is hopeless. What has GTBank or the other banks that have been destroyed got to do with the agitations about SARS except that they are a symbol of a life their destroyers will never get to have.

There are those who continue to peddle the narrative that this would not have happened if the #EndSARS protesters were reasonable enough to have called off the protests. Majority of the people who make this argument also fall into the elderly category and there is an increasing generational debate that the recent events have triggered. Let me say first of all that ‘omode gbon, agba gbon ni a fi da ile ife”, translating loosely to mean “it is the wisdom of the young ones and the elderly that is required to set up a strong city”. Secondly and most importantly, there is an inherent denialism and superiority complex in the narrative above. It is simply saying that those on the streets do not have any agitations about the state of things, whether #EndSARS or not. It is simply saying that the young people on the streets do not have any ability to show their grievances until they are triggered. It is simply saying that the anger of the young people protesting #EndSARS should have been bottled even when the demands were not met, were taken loosely and protesters were still being brutalised. For a movement that was driven by the tiredness of being brutalised, extorted and killed by a single unit and the true anger of the people up to the point of saying enough is enough rather than a leader’s popularity, ideas or mobilisation power, that rationale is at best simplistic and at worst lacking introspection.

For the sake of hope for our future and for the sake of that sacred belief in the possibility of a better tomorrow, we need to reform our electoral process and set in place a fool proof system that guarantees a credible nomination process from the parties and a credible election system at the polls. Without this, I am sorry to say, we are soon headed into absolute chaos – the proportions of which will shake our country to its foundations. Like I said, if we are not careful, this is a series. He or she who has an ear, let him hear what the spirit is saying.

Jude Feranmi is the Convener of Raising New Voices Initiative and can be reached via feranmi@raisingnewvoices.org
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