Nigeria: #EndSARS Protests - Our Own Arab Spring?

16 October 2020
opinion

If there was one more needed instance to prove that the ultimate power rests with the people, the #EndSARS protests that have rocked the nation in the last one week, is a perfect case.

No responsible government can truly ignore the loud yearnings of the people. The protests have drawn out President Muhammadu Buhari (even though he has not really addressed the nation on the matter, but commented on it during a ceremony), Governor Babajide Sanwo-Olu of Lagos State, and of course, the Inspector General of Police, Mr Mohammed Adamu.

The fire of the protests had begun in a little way. But it soon spread like wild harmattan fire across the length and breadth of Nigeria. By last Monday, what had hitherto been a peaceful protests in the various towns and cities, became rather violent and bloody, resulting in casualties.

Roads wee blocked, toll gates around Lekki axis of Lagos were blocked, people could not go to work.

That the protests continued on Monday, 24 hours after the controversial SARS had been disbanded by the Inspector General meant that there was more to the protest than just SARS brutality.

Many had thought that since the protests were essentially demanding the end to SARS operations, there would have been some respite after the IG announced the dissolution of the body. But no. The fire raged on with greater ire, this time with a 5-point demand. Some of the demands include: justice and compensation for the victims of SARS killings, release of all arrested protesters; the reform of the Police force, psycho-medical assessment of the SARS members; and the improved welfare for the police force.

One other reason that has fuelled the fire of the protests is that this is about the fourth time the notorious SARS has been banned, but yet it keeps bouncing back with even fiercer operational fervour. So it comes down to the issue of trust. It is even more disturbing following the prompt formation of Special Weapons and Tactics Team--SWAT, which will not perform the same original functions of SARS. But many fear it may just have been a matter of nomenclature, as the same uncouth and brutal officers of the disbanded SARS will be the same folks flocking into the new SWAT.

What is the guaranty that the disbanded SARS will not resurge with another name and become even deadlier? Nigerians are wary of the police force. They are clamouring for a total overhaul of the force to be effective and pro-people. They should be seen to be protecting the people they are meant to serve, not killing them.

By last Monday, the message was clear: Nigerian youths have had it to their hilt. And they are not willing to allow the status quo carry on with business as usual mode.

The youths, vexed by sundry factors, seem avowed to take their destinies in their own hands and battle the forces perceived to have mortgaged their future. It is reasonable to argue that the fire of the protests flamed fervently because many of the drivers of the protests are unemployed and idle. Is it not said that the idle mind is the devil's workshop?

By last Tuesday, the scope of the protesters simply widened. Lawyers joined the protest calling for the end to SARS and an end to police brutality.

Indeed, there was another set of protesters with a different motif: the native doctors. Many of them dressed in the red and white clothings of typical juju priests, with patches of white powder and native chalk all over their faces and bare body, they carried placards with diverse messages like " We are broke. Native doctors no get clients again. #EndSARS".

For these set of protesters, it is purely economic. They are believed to have been the ones who have often prepared fetish charms and amulets either to armed robbers or the infamous Yahoo Boys. And with the viciousness of SARS, their "clients" have been hounded away.

Different strokes for different folks.

Unless it is well managed, market women and mechanics and all such artisans are warming up to join the rank and file of the protesters. The days ahead are uncertain.

So, while the protest was triggered by the haughty and brutal actions of the SARS, the real content of the protests is a high volume of bottled-up emotions confronting the Nigerian youths. They have been denigrated, neglected, and their future mortgaged. Many of them have fled the nation to other countries, even poorer African countries, in sheer desperation for a better life. In Nigeria, they are not sure of tomorrow. The jobs are not there. There are no social safety nets to cushion their pains. There is despondency. There is disillusionment. There's a forlon look at tomorrow. Their tomorrow seems stolen and swallowed.

All they hear are tales of how the past was good. How graduates at the point of graduation had different jobs awaiting them and had to choose from the lot. Not anymore. Their today is tasteless and their tomorrow is bitter.

Without justifying it, that is what has pushed many of them into untoward means of earning a living.

One of them asked a pungent question: when I was poor, government and SARS did not know me or care about me. Why do they suddenly want to quiz me or profile me when I get rich? Are we all sworn to any affidavit of poverty?

Many have likened the lingering protest to the Arab Spring upheaval that raged and ravaged many Arabic countries including some African countries like Egypt, Tunisia, about ten years ago.

Indeed, just like the #EndSARS protest was triggered by the alleged shooting of a young boy in the front of Wetland Hotels, Ughelli, Delta State, last Sunday, by SARS operatives, so also was the Arab spring triggered by the ill treatment of a street vendor, a 26-year old Mohamed Bouazizi by local officials who seized his wares. Frustrated, Bouazizi had set himself ablaze. And that was it. The flame blazed wild and wide. It overwhelmed the security agencies. All attempts to placate the protesters failed. It even resulted in forcing President al Abidin Ben Ali to flee Tunisia. And that was how it spread to Egypt, Syria, Yemen, Libya etc. It was a protest that troubled the Arab world for over two years.

Although the Ughelli video recording of the incident has been faulted by the Delta Police command, as being fake, it has already triggered a nationwide angst against the SARS. And the nation is feeling it hot and hard

It is not for nothing. SARS has been a terror agent against Nigerian youths largely. The Special Police unit has been harassing, arresting, intimidating, terrorizing and even killing Nigerians, especially youths unduly.

Noble as the intent in the formation of SARS was, the mandate for the unit has long been illegally expanded by the operatives themselves and not necessarily by the police authorities.

For the records, it was formed to tackle armed robbery, kidnapping and other violent crimes. They were specially recruited and deployed from the regular police force. Men considered suitable to be in SARS were men and officers of proven integrity in combating violent crimes. But over the years, the SARS operatives have become officers for all kinds of crimes and even misdemeanor, including being hired to settle land tussles between families. Such is the abuse that the fear of SARS has long become the beginning of wisdom. But no amount of wisdom is able to save the youths from the vicious SARS.

It is worse with young men who look good. They become veritable suspects when they dare to drive a "fine car" or wear unusual hair styles, or wearing of ear rings. Having dreadlock or possessing iphone or even laptop collocates with being a fraudster, otherwise called "Yahoo-Yahoo boys". And they get crushed by the SARS operatives.

Too often, they are immediately arrested and harassed. They go further to search their phones targeting bank transactions etc.

Many victims have accused the SARS operatives of demanding payment before they are released. Sometimes they escort the victims to withdraw cash from ATM machines, or at some other times they produce POS machines and ask the victims to make transfer to them. Nobody knows how they got those POS devices. Do banks issue POS to individuals? Forcing or threatening arrested persons to part with their monies and other valuables with gun pointed on their head is absolute criminality, especially as they never wear uniforms. What else is robbery?

The abuse is monumental. It is remarkable that in the face of all the harassment, SARS hardly prosecuted its victims. They merely swooped on them, robbed them and released them. They clearly operated like laws unto themselves for so long. Nobody ever cautioned them.

It is even worse that the SARS operatives are annoyingly rude and ruthless. They boast: "we will shoot you here and nothing will happen". Indeed, for many years nothing happened as they killed young Nigerians everyday. Not anymore. Forever. Perhaps.

Given their penchant for operating outside the law, Nigerians are skeptical whether deploying them into other units of the regular Police, as promised by the IG will not lead to the same thing: brutality and high handedness. For the like of SARS, Police can never claim to be your friend. They are as heartless as they are savage.

That explains why there is a demand for a psychological assessment of the SARS operatives so their normalcy can be established before they are deployed. The IG announced few days ago, that all the former SARS men will undergo psycho-medical tests.

Many of them including even the regular policemen truly operate like abnormal human beings. Were it not so, why have they been killing innocent and unarmed protesters?

Why should a responsible police force attack unarmed protesters with live bullets? What happened to tear gas canisters or even water canons as weapons of dispersing protesters (if they must) or at best rubber bullets?

What is the correlation between placards and live bullets?

Protests are legitimate so long as they are not violent. Police ought to protect protesters and ensure they are not harmed, not Police themselves harming and killing them.

That is why there is a clamour for a general reform of the Police force.

In response to the demands of the protesters, Gov Sanwo-Olu of Lagos State not only ensured that all arrested protesters In Lagos State have been unconditionally released, he called for a full list of all those who have suffered the brutality of the SARS for compensation. Many families have remained in sorrow because SARS had dealt them some unforgettable blows in the past by killing one or more members of their families. The governor went further to indeed hold a consultative meeting with President Mohammadu Buhari and the Inspector General of Police on the matter. He has striven to walk his talk.

To appease the protesters a high level virtual meeting between some celebrities, human rights activists and the CBN governor, Godwin Emefiele as well as Alhaji Aliko , Tony Elumelu, Segun Agbaje, Rabiu Abdullahi, Aisha Yesufu, four state governors (of Lagos, Delta, Kwara and Oyo states), etc., was held to help persuade the protesters to sheathe their swords.

But the appeal has not cut any ice simply because there are no clear leaders. Worse still, the rank of the civil society has been broken as they are no longer on the same page. The social media has however remained the chief mobiliser of the youths. The fire is catching on.

However, there is another set of protesters in Katsina and Zamfara States who are clamouring for the retention of SARS. They argue that without SARS they will all be routed from their homes because of the rampant cases of insecurity by way of kidnapping, cattle rustling and other violent crimes in those states.

They argue that the excesses of SARS be curbed, but that the security outfit be retained.

It is not that they too do not suffer the brutality of SARS and the other tactical outfits, but they would rather be brutalized by "government forces" than be killed by ruthless bandits.

Indeed, many people argue that society needs the functions of SARS or whatever it transforms to because in the absence of SARS or any such special outfit, life and living will be greatly endangered in many parts of the country.

That means that the regular police are not sufficiently equipped to combat the rough necks of the society.

In all, Nigerians are not against the operations of the police, all they ask is that they should operate like human beings, not as sub-humans or even animals. SARS or whatever it transforms to (Special Weapons and Tactics Team--SWAT) must operate with a human face.

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