Jide Akintunde, Managing Editor/CEO, Financial Nigeria International Limited

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#EndSARS protests and the failure of leadership in Nigeria 04 Nov 2020

One of the most debated aspects of the protests by Nigerian youth against police brutality was the fact that the protesters were without a leader. Dubbed #EndSARS, the peaceful protests held last month in major cities and suburbs of the country and on Twitter. The protests were well organised, coordinated and resourced, but no one was named as the leader.

To some, this was a brilliant strategy. Leaders of such protests are usually easy targets of the government. They are either arrested or financially induced to betray the masses supporting their call for civil resistance. The EndSARS protesters also rejected partisan political support. They didn't want the protests to be seen as a disguised political agenda against the sitting government.

But for others, it was a bad idea that the protesters were without a leader. They wondered who the government would negotiate with. The largely inexperienced youths, it was thought, would be overwhelmed by the big occasion they had created. The whole nation and Nigerians in the diaspora, foreign governments and international institutions were following the protests, which had also drawn the support of international celebrities, including US rapper, Kanye West.
But what was on trial was not the protesters. It was convincing that the youngsters had availed themselves of good strategists. Their protests were peaceful. Although there were several issues the youths could have demonstrated against, including high youth unemployment rate at 35 per cent, they wanted an end to the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) of the Nigeria Police Force.

This was a legitimate call. The SARS had gone rogue. Its officers arrested citizens for phantom crimes, only to extort money from them. There were reports of the officers actually robbing hapless citizens, in some cases leading people to ATMs at gunpoint to make cash withdrawals from their accounts for the security agents. Many citizens have also been killed by the officers who seem to operate with impunity. These and other crimes had made the past Inspector General of Police attempt to reform the unit. His order was defied. This was following the call for the “overhaul” of the SARS by the current Vice President, Yemi Osinbajo.

What was on trial was the leadership of President Muhammadu Buhari and that of the ruling party, the All Progressives Congress (APC). Under the watch of the president, some elements within – or sympathetic to – his government started to use thugs to attack the peaceful EndSARS protesters. The unlawful and violent activities of the criminals were captured on camera in Abuja and Lagos. In one footage from Abuja, vehicles with covered number plates were seen dropping off and picking persons who attacked protesters. In Lagos, thugs were seen alighting with machetes, knives and other dangerous weapons from government-owned mass transit buses to scare off or attack unarmed protesters.

Police officers were not seen arresting the hoodlums. The government seemed to have abdicated its responsibility for law and order. The unlawful acts being perpetrated by the thugs, if not sanctioned by the state, were unrestrained by it. Apart from the instance of the involvement of the career criminals, the otherwise peaceful protests were derailed.

To say the least, it was unimaginative to draft hired thugs to scare off or attack the peaceful protesters. Those hirelings constituted only a small percentage of the legion of able-bodied men and women who could jump into the fray at the opportunity of mayhem to start looting public and private properties. That was what happened.

The most outrageous and tragic intervention in the peaceful protests came on the night of October 20, 2020 at the Lekki Toll Gate, where more blood was splattered on Nigeria's chequered history, and literally on the national flag. As hundreds, if not a few thousands, of young Nigerians were readying to make the protest at the toll gate an artistic performance that night, some armed men in military fatigue approached the protesters and started firing gunshots at them.

The blatant attack was orchestrated. Earlier, the CCTV cameras at the toll plaza were removed. Shortly before the guns rang out, electricity supply to the toll gate was cut off. The cowardly attack needed the cover of darkness – not only the darkened conscience of those who masterminded and carried out the attack.

One must admit that it was at this point that the strategy of the protesters failed them. They were seated, waving the national flag, and singing the national anthem. They had thought that doing so would deter any violent attack against them by the Nigerian state. But they were dead wrong. They did not factor the betrayal of the country, and of the faith that citizens continued to have in it, by the self-serving leaders.  

The moral outrage against this betrayal has been ringing. It is louder, and would be far longer, than the sounds of the fired bullets. Posterity will hear it. There is nothing that can be done to muffle it.

Certain things should just not happen. The “Lekki massacre” should not have happened. Leadership should not have contemplated it. Leadership should have prevented it. It is leadership failure of a monumental proportion that would allow the shooting to have happened. And once it happened, it cannot be explained. Therefore, President Buhari could not mention the attack in his subsequent address to the nation – even though the speech came two days after the sad incident.

After Buhari's denial came the gibberish of the National Leader of the APC and former Governor of Lagos State, Bola Tinubu. Speaking about the shooting of the flag-waving and national anthem-singing peaceful protesters at the Lekki Toll Gate, Tinubu in a feat of verbal gymnastic that took him all over the place, said: “Those who have suffered casualty during the gunshots, need to answer some questions too. How were they there? How long were they there? What kinds of characters were they?”
As the shooting reverberated around the country, hoodlums, presumably those who were not hired to disrupt the peaceful protests – but not unlikely including those who were – took to the streets rioting, burning public properties, including the headquarters of the Nigerian Ports Authority in Lagos, and BRT buses worth billions of naira. The rioters also went looting private properties and those of some politicians.

The criminals soon hit a jackpot. They discovered, in one state after another, the warehouses where relief materials meant to be distributed to citizens as palliatives for the COVID-19 pandemic were kept. Inexplicably, but not out of character, governors in various states chose not to deliver the supplies, majorly food items, to the people. Having caused, and weaponised, mass poverty among Nigerian masses, the leaders certainly derived pleasure in seeing the people suffer. Perhaps, the palliatives were being kept until the 2023 general election cycle, when they would be given out – even if expired – for votes. But the items are gone now and the extent of the inhumanity of the so-called political leaders exposed.

The ignoble response of the government to the EndSARS protests also caused a major collateral damage. It exposed the vulnerability of the country to simultaneous security attacks in multiple locations of the country. The security agencies could not prevent the rioting and looting that were taking place at the same time in several states. It was an indecent exposure by a clueless leadership. The hope is that the security inadequacies would be fixed before anyone might exploit it in the future.

The job of the Nigerian youth is not complete. They have to use the power of their votes to end the deadly reign of the gang of incompetent leaders of the country. The youths can do this. They constitute by a wild margin the plurality of the Nigerian electorate. It is a different kind of leadership that can take police brutality as an aberration that must end; the current leaders would at best merely rename SARS to “SWAT” in a semantic and farcical change – as they have done.

God bless the memory of those peaceful protesters that were killed.