By Hakeem Baba-Ahmed
Those who bear the burdens of government should equally participate of its benefits—Thomas Jefferson,3rd US President
IT will take a long while to close the chapters opened by events which appeared to be triggered by the #EndSARS protests. Not even the most meticulous and farsighted planner could have envisaged that the nation would be shaken to its foundations by a whole series of miscalculations and poor management that are still unfolding. The nation will pay dearly for these miscalculations and responses to them.
The way we are going about it, the genuine grievances of citizens will retreat under a combination of poor perception of contexts and triggers by leadership, faulty responses by the Nigerian state and those who still think there is a cause to pursue, and adoption of the wrong strategies to achieve short and long-term objectives.
Given the copious evidence that the #EndSARS campaign was a well-planned, coordinated and funded uprising that fed-off a genuine grievance against elements of the Nigeria police, its management showed a shocking lack of awareness of the environment and an unforgiveable level of political sophistication.
Unless the game plan was ultimately to dump hoodlums, criminals and irredentists on the lap of the Nigerian leadership and withdraw into comfortable middle class cocoons, it is difficult to identify what could have been achieved by a movement that was fueled by political goals well beyond the demand to scrap the infamous SARS, driven by a motley crowd of opportunists, and conducted by people who enjoyed exposure but were hamstrung by distrust or reluctance to accept leadership and show their hands.
Lekki was an unplanned stop along an ill-fated journey for a good cause; for those who tagged along with their plans tucked away; for a Nigerian state that was caught in a state of traditional complacency over vital governance issues; and for those who dared to hope that some genuine public good could be salvaged out of a struggle that was lost from day one.
The Nigerian leadership now deploys a shaky carrot-and-stick approach that will neither feed nor punish a nation which has been reminded of its scale of vulnerability. The founding interests have walked away, leaving behind a hashtag, and a cause that risks obliteration from a state which feels it has won the war and, therefore, the right to rename and reshape the enemy.
It left behind old, shadowy players who may not have been on the guest list, but are now reaping a harvest. The Nigerian state now has ample space to address the original grievance as it deems fit, without the prying eyes of people and organisations who thought that ending SARS and reforming the police were major goals worth all the endeavour.
It still has to meander between restoring basic policing as a vital instrument of governance (a tough task because the police had moved from villain to a deeply traumatised institution which had confronted a level of hostility it could not have known existed even among the criminal elements) on the one hand, and writing new rules for a police informed by the need for a strong arm, particularly in these post-protests period, on the other.
It is squeezing the life out of the remnants of the protests by blocking its funds and stonewalling the investigations into what happened at Lekki. These are some of the elements of the stick being deployed by a leadership which will not win awards for thinking on its feet. They will buy it a bit more room for maneouvre, but they will only take the nation to a point where the leadership will believe it has restored normalcy. This administration’s normal has never been good enough for this country.
The poor quality of the carrot will compound a shortsighted strategy which believes that dispersing the crowds, attempting to raise sentiments around dark, sinister political goals embedded in them, tinkering with the police and giving them a dream for better lives, and deploying an aggressive posture against leaders and young people will get government’s back off the wall. There are three elements in this carrot approach.
The first is the cultivation of a sympathetic language that hints at an appreciation of the cause behind the protests against policing institutions and related matters. Given deep-seated distrust between leaders and the vast majority of Nigerians, it will take the highest levels of transparent sincerity, imaginative and aggressive campaign to reform the police, and raising levels of accountability and sustained engagement of younger Nigerians by all governments to convince the population that appropriate lessons have been learnt.
The track record of this administration does not give comfort that this can be achieved, but there has to be hope that it will recognise the historic nature of these moments and circumstances enough to change its traditional approach to complex governance issues. There is substance here that should not have shadows creating false images.
The second is the imperative of the carrot approach is recognising the values of a good messenger. Governors and traditional rulers serving as first-line contacts to take down a very sensitive message will be at best problematic, and at worst a major blunder that could worsen the chances of engaging the real targets. Many governors will still be shaking from the trauma of the protests. The pillaging of warehouses by multitudes who felt no guilt from retrieving what they thought was theirs, but hidden by governors have worsened perceptions. Traditional rulers have very little traction with the general population.
Nigerians know that this category of leaders have long been consigned to virtual irrelevance by politicians whose tenuous hold on power makes them very suspicious of any form of competition. The fact that governors who have lived with poor, insecure populations and traditional rulers who have to ask for approval to breath will explain why the northern bit of the public relations sweep produced a communique that looked every inch as if it was manufactured in the Villa. It even had the traces of total ignorance over the reality of the scale of insecurity under which northerners live, or a mention of atrocities over northerners for being northerners.
Eastern governors fighting a vicious turf war with IPOB used the gesture to play a game to tilt sympathy towards them. In the West, the region that had suffered the most damage in political and economic assets, the messenger made the message about himself, flagging a regional agenda as a panacea for peace. The presidency selected poor salesmen to market a very expensive merchandise. They will either sell it at their own prices, or convert it entirely into their own.
The third element lies in real goals which can be achieved within a very limited time. Policies which reduce numbers of unemployed young people will be useful, but they are not what the federal government keeps mouthing as its flagship anti-poverty programmes.State governments must also prioritize anti-poverty policies.
The fight against insurgency in the North and IPOB in the South, banditry, rustling and kidnapping must be scaled up. Poverty and insecurity are tearing the country apart. They represent the real substance that should inform policy henceforth, or will keep challenging the Nigerian state that sends shadows after them.