Years ago, as we were driving through some Lagos streets early morning on a weekday, we saw idle young men sitting in front of their houses, some with wrappers surrounding their waists and toothbrushes dangling from their mouths. They stared at us. Their faces instantly instilled the fear of God in me. In a sober tone, I told my driver: “I can see bile in the eyes of these guys. One day, they will start attacking anyone who drives a clean car or looks decently fed.” I could sniff the tension, the resentment. Something was going to give sooner or later. For effect, I added: “I pray I won’t be in town that day.” That was meant to be a joke. We both laughed it off. But is it still funny now?
In an article published on July 7, 2008, “One Day, the People Will Rebel”, I did warn our leaders that Nigerians would take to the streets one day if they would not change their ways. In another article, “Whatsoever a Man Soweth” — published on May 12, 2019 — I resurrected the warning, adding: “We have sown the wind and we are reaping the whirlwind. The teens and teenagers that we refused to care for yesterday have become our nemesis today. They are now in our neighbourhood and on the highway, making life unbearable for us. The security system we failed to overhaul and modernise for ages — despite security budgets in billions of dollars — is now unable to protect us.”
I was not saying anything extraordinary. It was just logical. For many years, even when the economy was much better than this, we were perching on a ticking time bomb. The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) kept estimating that 70 percent of Nigerians were living on less than $1 a day. It was all statistics to us. Instead of creating jobs, we were busy banning and unbanning okada. The police, FRSC, VIO, LASTMA, tax collectors and task forces were terrorising bus drivers, okada riders, traders and other self-employed Nigerians. We thought there would be no consequences. State-society relations were tense. Social unrest was within a sneezing distance.
In other news, ordinary Nigerians struggling for daily bread were regularly reading and watching dramas of stolen billions in the media. We were buying presidential jets and budgeting N37 billion to renovate the National Assembly complex in a country mired in abject poverty. Hospitals, roads and schools remained in a terrible state. Politicians were partying in Dubai and piling up luxury cars which they showed off on Instagram for our viewing pleasure. Civil servants and politicians were openly celebrating their children’s graduation from secondary schools in the UK and the US. Longsuffering Nigerians were watching all these things. Resentment was inevitable.
When the #EndSARS protests started early October and began to gather momentum, it did not dawn on me that finally, the stage was set and a nationwide conflagration was at hand. I surely feared that things could get out of hand — prolonged street protests could be unpredictable — but not in my wildest calculations could I have foreseen anything near the scale of the disorder, destruction and death. I never imagined that harmless BRT buses would be burnt, or private businesses, including cinemas, would be razed, or warehouses would be looted. I never expected hospital beds and toilet seats to be stolen, or security agents to be involved in wanton criminality. But here we are.
That is why every public protest needs an exit plan. The #OccupyOjota protests of 2012 would have ended in bloodbath but for the experience of some of the organisers. President Goodluck Jonathan had agreed to most of the demands of the protesters, but some people insisted the protests must go on. Jonathan decided to deploy troops. Before then, the word going round was that militants were planning to take advantage of the chaos to bomb Lagos. Imagine a bomb being thrown into the crowd! The protest leaders quickly got the people off the streets. Wisdom is profitable to direct. You can retreat without surrendering. It is not cowardice. Rather, you can see the bigger picture.
I will continue to argue, nonetheless, that nothing whatsoever justifies the Lekki shootings or any killings at all. In fact, I had been praying that soldiers would not be deployed to “restore order”. It can never end well. It does not matter if they used blank, rubber or live bullets. Military involvement in civil protests is a no-no. Also, anyone who has been around for a little bit would know that peaceful protests cannot be guaranteed for long across the country. Things can degenerate quickly. Disorder puts everyone at risk. We all need to be more interested in prompt crisis resolution. We live in a fragile country, where class, ethnicity and religion can easily blow things out of proportion.
But, like I wrote in my previous article, the youth should not be discouraged. Yes, it is true that they did not know how to manage their victory. But we are all entitled to our mistakes and misjudgements. It is a teachable moment for everybody, including the government. The carnage aside, the youth should be proud of themselves. I am one of those who believe that this is a watershed moment in our history. If Nigeria remains the same after the #EndSARS protests, then we are eternally doomed. Call me naïve, but I expect the police and politicians to start paying more attention to the cries of Nigerians. #EndSARS is more than SARS. It says a lot about Nigeria.
One thing for sure: Nigerians are angry and frustrated. Make no mistakes about it: the burning of police stations and the offices of FRSC, VIO and LASTMA was not accidental. These are the uniformed people who torment Nigerians the most on a daily basis. They represent the oppressive state. This was the opportunity for the oppressed to get even or hit back, as it were. Sit down with commercial bus drivers or petty traders and ask them what they go through in the hands of some of these guys daily. The #EndSARS mayhem gave them an opportunity to vent their anger. Let me state this clearly: arson is wrong and criminal — but let us have that argument some other day.
Also, Nigerians are hungry. Food is increasingly out of reach for many. We cannot glorify looting, but when you see what people were stealing — bread, noodles and garri — you would understand that a major motivation was what they would eat for a few days or weeks. We should not be surprised. People collect loaves of bread and tiny bags of rice to sell their votes, aware that they may never benefit anything else from the politician again. Nigerians who are comfortable economically cannot understand this mentality. There are people who wake up every day without an idea of where the next meal would come from. Things are that bad. Stealing foodstuff is, to them, not a sin.
What else does the mayhem tell us? People are wicked. Why would you set fire to private property? In the past, anger was directed at public buildings — in the mistaken belief that it would hurt only the government. This time, private businesses were targeted. The miscreants did not only pillage the shops, they defecated in them and burnt down many thereafter. Some rioters, after stealing TV sets, smashed the screens of the ones that were too big to be carried away. I saw a video of people removing roofs. This is not #EndSARS. This is wickedness feasting on public disorder. Let’s not confuse this with anger. The situation only brought out the sick sadists in them.
What’s more, robbers were on the prowl. We should not for one minute assume that robbers were on break during the protests. The anarchy provided a great opportunity for them to strike. When you see ATMs being smashed, you know that this is not part of the drill. You may want to attribute it to exuberance but I would say they were looking for something else. When you steal motorcycles and tractors and then dismember them to sell in bits and pieces, there is every indication that you are a professional robber disguising as a hungry, angry or disgruntled Nigerian. With due respect, your night job is armed robbery. Or you are an aspiring robber. The protests only helped your case.
Anything else? Many people have argued that the looting spree puts our youth on the same level with politicians. The argument is that if they too have the chance, they will steal. This seems to question their moral right to complain about corruption. Someone even said Nigeria has no future if these are the people that will be calling the shots later. While not justifying the looting, I will argue that we can only make a defining judgement if we were in normal times. You cannot have anarchy on this scale and expect rational behaviour. More so, you cannot use the behaviour of probably 100,000 rioters (some might not even be youth) to judge 100 million young Nigerians.
In all, the looting of warehouses storing COVID-19 relief materials tells us that Nigerians are neither deaf nor blind. They were aware of the billions of naira said to have been spent on palliatives. They listened to news regularly. They knew the miserable packages they received — if they got anything at all — during and after the lockdown. They knew when the trucks brought the materials. They knew where the warehouses are. Some of them had even been engaged to off-load the materials. The fact that Nigerians go about their daily business peacefully — suffering and smiling — does not mean they are ignorant of the fraud or are happy with their condition. Is the message clear to all?
AND FOUR OTHER THINGS…
Nearly two weeks after the Lekki shootings, we are still trying to know the truth. Certain facts have now been well established. Governor Jide Sanwo-Olu of Lagos state declared a curfew and invited the army to restore order. The army has finally admitted that the men that “restored order” were Nigerian soldiers, not impostors. It is also clear that there were shootings. It is further confirmed that people were hit. The injured were taken to the hospital. But how many people died? Where are the dead bodies? The Lekki incident will not go away like that. All the facts must be established. No matter how long it takes, I’m confident the whole truth will come out one day. Irrefutable.
The US opposition to Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala’s election as the next director-general of the World Trade Organization (WTO) tells us something about the rigged world order: that one powerful nation can override the choice of every other. Okonjo-Iweala polled 110 votes to her rival’s 54, and the panel that makes the final recommendation said she was the woman for the job. But the US would have none of that. Those who said it was President Donald Trump, and not President Muhammadu Buhari, that nominated Okonjo-Iweala for the job should be better educated now. Most essentially, though, I hope the almighty America would be forced to eat the humble pie this time. Absurd.
POLICE, YOUR FRIEND?
Hate them, love them: you need the police. The unchecked anarchy during the #EndSARS mayhem says it all. When I was a newspaper editor and was closing as late as 2am every day, I was never at ease if I did not see police on the road on my way home. Not that I trusted them so much, but I felt more secure. The absence of police on the streets during the mayhem and the ugly consequences that ensued should remind us once again that we cannot do without the police. Therefore, the first visible fruit of #EndSARS should be the birth of a modern, smart, humane and professional police force committed to protecting life and property. Let’s keep our eyes on the ball. Focus.
While all eyes were on #EndSARS, President Buhari renewed the tenure of Professor Mahmood Yakubu as the chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC). All things equal, Yakubu will be in office for 10 years. For the record, this is the first time since Independence that an electoral boss has been re-appointed. Mr Eyo Esua (1964-66), Chief Michael Ani (1976-79), Justice Victor Ovie-Whisky (1979-83), Prof Eme Awa (1987-89), Prof Humphrey Nwosu (1989-1993), Chief Sumner Dagogo-Jack (1994-98), Justice Ephraim Akpata (1998-2000), Dr Abel Guobadia (2000-05), Prof Maurice Iwu (2005-10) and Prof Attahiru Jega (2010-15) all spent one term or less. Remarkable.
▪︎Kolawole is publisher of TheCable