Martins Hile, Editor, Financial Nigeria magazine

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  • Governance
  • SMEs
  • Social Development

Buhari and the youth who dared to speak out 03 Nov 2020

It is unclear whether the #EndSARS protests in October 2020 would mark the beginning of a historical transition in Nigeria. Specifically, would the protests lead to substantive police reform in the country? The primary aim of the nationwide, non-violent protests was to seek an end to police brutality and justice for those who were victims of excessive force by the police.

Furthermore, would Nigeria provide an environment for the remarkably courageous young people, who championed the protest movement both online and on the streets across the country, play an integral role in formulating policies to achieve the country's social and economic progress?

The prospect of the events of last month setting off much-needed reforms soon enough depends on the extent to which President Muhammadu Buhari is willing to engage. He should not be half-hearted. After all, he rose to power as a democratic president in part because a number of young people believed in his anticorruption ballyhoo.

The youth played a key role in burnishing his image and presenting him as a “born again” democrat. Buhari was the president who would provide jobs for the youth and secure the country at a time when insurgents had kidnapped schoolgirls in Chibok and the youth were demonstrating.           

But we may not have to wait for the adjudication of history to know what Buhari's legacy would be. Five years of his administration already left many of his former ardent supporters with buyer's remorse. But his response to last month's protests was a jarring contrast to the people-oriented persona he presented when he was a candidate running for president.   

Multiple accounts, including by Amnesty International, told of the unprovoked shooting of unarmed protesters by soldiers of the Nigerian Army on the evening of October 20 in Lekki. The Lagos State Governor Babajide Sanwo-Olu reported he went to hospitals on the next day to visit protesters who were wounded in the shootings. He later confirmed three casualties as against the multiple figures reported by Amnesty and others.

The world was watching and calling for Buhari's reaction on the day after the shootings. Apart from the report that the president attended the Federal Executive Council's meeting on that Wednesday, no one publicly heard from him. Apparently, the president considered it an affront to him that after he ordered the Inspector General of Police (IGP) to address the concerns of the youth regarding police brutality, the protesters did not end their demonstrations. How dare this generation of young people defy the government's magnanimous disposition to engage?   

Buhari’s irritation was evident in the broadcast he made on October 22 and subsequently. The way he began the presidential speech with a warning, smacked of an authoritarian streak. The president went on to quibble with the protesters, saying inter alia, "the promptness with which we have acted seemed to have been misconstrued as a sign of weakness and twisted by some for their selfish unpatriotic interests."

Speaking with former Nigerian leaders, Buhari said the administration’s decision to start the process of addressing the demands made by the youth emboldened them and they gradually became violent, according to his spokesman, Femi Adesina. The president completely ignored to mention the shootings in Lagos. His failure to explain the circumstances that warranted the shooting or call for an investigation emboldened the military to vehemently deny its soldiers opened fire on civilians.  

Nothing describes gaslighting better than this response to the protests by the administration. According to Robin Stern, an associate director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, gaslighting refers to “the act of undermining another person’s reality by denying facts, the environment around them, or their feelings." Apart from failing to acknowledge the grievous shooting of unarmed civilians by the military, the president made ominous threats, stating the government "will not allow anybody or groups to disrupt the peace of our nation."  

In his attempt to gaslight, Buhari conflated the peaceful protesters with the hoodlums who went on the rampage, looting and destroying property. In effect, the government chose to promote its own narrative of the protests in order to threaten peaceful protesters and refuse to honour the memory of young Nigerians who lived and died while exercising their right to peacefully protest.   

Young people who demonstrated their loyalty to the nation by fearlessly waving the national flag and singing the national anthem as armed soldiers approached them and cocked their guns, cannot be accused of unpatriotism. One can only admire their profound courage as they paid the ultimate price for daring to speak out.  

Scholars have argued that protesters’ main aim is not always to breach laws. Apart from Carl Cohen's thesis that, “genuine democracy demands dissent, thrives on protest,” the aim of protests in a democracy is often for justice and the stability of the country. #EndSARS is a tool for negotiating equity in law enforcement. As the movement has since moved online following the end of the physical protests, the government should desist from efforts to delegitimise #EndSARS. Young people who are calling for police reform are not the anarchists.  

The #EndSARS protests – as peaceful, physical demonstrations – lasted two weeks. But it would be a disservice to the memory of the protesters who lost their lives for the movement to become a footnote in Nigeria’s history. Indeed, even the police who were killed by hoodlums should not be forgotten. Their memory should propel necessary policy reforms; hopefully, #EndSARS would have helped in accelerating incremental change in law enforcement in the country and progress in other areas to positively impact the lives of every Nigerian.

Martins Hile is the Executive Editor, Financial Nigeria publications.