By Prof Hope Eghagha
Nigerian youths are angry. North and South, East and West, the youths are angry. Very angry! It is akin to a volcano; no, it is a volcano. Raging inside. It had been waiting to erupt. Anyone who matters in the country should feel the pulse. It is boiling. It is hot. It is rising. And there is no repressing it.
Listening to their stories one could say they kept quiet for too long. Parents and government officials should privately interview the young people of this country. They have terrible stories to tell about the police each time they go out. A young, prosperous-looking youth is often profiled as a criminal by the police. They are treated as such and compelled to pay their way out! Or get killed, with a trumped up charge of armed robbery!
Indeed, the youths have been too patient. They listened to us their parents. They listened to pastors and other people in authority. We all preached patience, encouraged them to endure, to be hopeful, to struggle, to believe in the future just as we did in our time. But this preaching no longer holds water for them. They have decided to take their destiny in their hands. No one can fault them. The government must listen. It is a sad story; a story of sweat, tears, and blood!
Personal anecdotes from our young men and women demonstrate how bad the police have been, and how widely spread was their menace. How could we have allowed our children to live in permanent fear of policemen who were recruited to protect them, to protect us? How and why did they become criminals in uniform? Extrajudicial killings. Arbitrary arrests. Extortion. Robbery. Impunity. Arrogance.
In all of this, the policemen gave the impression that they had the backing of the state. ‘I go kill you and nothing go happen’, was their refrain. And it happened that they killed and nothing came of it. They killed the innocent. They killed the accused. They killed fathers. Husbands. Sons. Daughters. They killed sons who came visiting from abroad. They waylaid returnees from the diaspora and dispossessed them of monies and precious items. It did not matter how you dressed. Once you were young and good looking, you were meat for them. The youths became an ATM, cash-dispensing machine for the scoundrels in uniform!
The SARS men looked rough. They looked like armed robbers. They wore dread and carried dread in mien and action. Their dressing was menacing, evil, cultic. Black Tee shirts with a red inscription- FSARS! Black trousers. Black fez cap. Dangling guns. Some carried dreadlocks. Carried tattoos. We encountered them everywhere. In towns and cities. In the outskirts of Benin, we encountered them. Those ones? Monster from hell! They respected nobody. Feared nobody. If they thought you were going to report their dreadful activities they became more menacing. They could waste your life right there in the bush.
It is said that men paid monies to seniors in the police to be deployed to SARS. Is this true? Their stay in SARS was an opportunity to make money for the rest of their lives. People paid the men to arrest their business counterparts, the youths say. If the money in dispute was 100k, the SARS men would ask you to inflate it to 200k. The difference went into the pockets of SARS.
The volcanic eruption against the notorious Special Anti-Robbery Squad therefore was an entry point into a litany of exclusions. Exclusion from the dream of achievements. Of hope. There is denial of self-dignity. Good education. Potable water. Good roads. A decent job after graduation. A conducive environment to thrive in business. Home itself was like home on exile. Deprivations.
The protest was peaceful. Well organized. Their points were well articulated. We were proud of the organizers. But the government allowed the protest to go on for too long. Government complained that there was no leader to speak to. Very lame. The protesters said they did not have leaders. They were wary of leaders that could be compromised, the Nigerian disease. So, there was a dilemma.
The shooting of protesters at Lekki aggravated an already charged situation. How could anybody fire live bullets at peaceful protesters who were singing the national anthem? Worse still, there are denials. Who ordered the attack? The military high command is in denial. The President’s address did not help matters. He was silent on the main issues. It was not time to be tough. It was time to speak words of peace to the angry youths, to mollify them, to feel their pains.
The first reaction to the demands was good- scrapping SARS. But the protesters wanted to be convinced that it was not window-dressing as it had been in the past. Creating another unit immediately was a wrong step. The police hierarchy did not feel the mood in the country! The federal government then went mute till things deteriorated.
The youths need a second speech from the president. A more conciliatory speech. He is father of the nation. He cannot be mute when some of his children have lost their lives. The youths need action. Government’s response could come in the form of a massive intervention and social programmes.
The IBB government sensed and felt the anger in the nation and responded with the Peoples’ Bank. Late Tai Solarin was placed as Chairman. It was a populist move; but it helped the image of the government. In 1989, the government also created the National Directorate of Employment (NDE),charged with creating ‘decent employment opportunities for the nation’s teeming unemployed persons’. It also helped.
Above all, government must restore confidence. The anomalies in the country should be addressed. Power supply. Distorted income between political appointees and the ordinary people of society. Graduate unemployment. Power generation and supply. Including youths in government. Not tokenism. Prepare them.
A nation that has such a high population of youths cannot be continuously governed by grey beards who barely understand the brave new world. The current youths are well informed. To be sure, they are NOT lazy. They rule the internet/social media world. Social media also rules their world! They can do things, get things done and spot inefficiency from a mile! They raised funds to help certain persons. The lady on crutches, Jane Obiene, a 2013 unemployed graduate who took part in the protest, got funds from fellow Nigerian youths to procure an artificial limb. For me, she was the face of the peaceful protest!
Ethnicity or religion do not matter to them. The Lekki example was a very poignant message for the country. Christians, Moslems, all ethnic groups coalesced into a movement of youth. State of origin or one’s religion did not matter. That is the Nigeria the youths want. That is the Nigeria that should be given to them. It is the only way to save Nigeria, to save their future.
Nigeria needs the police. The Police needs Nigeria. But it must be a reformed police. Focus right now is on SARS. But generally, policing needs to be reformed in Nigeria, needs to be restructured to achieve the objectives of internal security. There are good police officers just as there are bad officers. When the police structure really changes and the people, the states can have a say on who becomes Police Commissioner or DPO, the police is likely to be more friendly and responsive to the people.
I commiserate with bereaved families and hope that the federal government will also say and do something to calm nerves. If by default or design the youths’ restiveness is suppressed now, it surely will erupt again. The time to act is now!