#ENDSARS: Nigeria Youths And The Hope For A Brigther Future

Nigeria is home to a thriving contradiction. Here is a country that celebrates its aspirations to greatness—economic success, food security, accountable governance, territorial integrity, internal security, and improved living standards—sabotaging its young and vibrant population. A pseudo-welfarist democracy, Nigeria’s young vibrant ‘human capital’—the potentially productive portion of its population—has to contend with gross insufficiencies, maladministration, corruption, and intimidation in state-owned and administered facilities. In public infrastructure—stable electricity, good roads, and clean drinking water—and public institutions—schools, hospitals, government agencies, and the security outfits—lies a deep and spreading rot; an insufficiency, inefficiency, and inconsistency that constantly mocks any such aspirations to lofty heights. Hence it is reticent euphemism when it is suggested that the odds are stacked high against the Nigerian youth, especially when we add limited employment opportunities to the possibility of being randomly picked-up, harassed, robbed, maimed, or killed by ‘rogue’ agents of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS), the branch of the Nigeria Police allegedly set up to check the rampant robbery incidents through discrete operations.

The call for the disbandment of SARS by the predominantly young adult protesters and a section of the elderly (some mothers), which is premised on the numerous cases—some captured on film—of SARS brutality; blatant extortions, unlawful searches, detentions, torture, robbery, illegal check and transfer of funds from citizens and murder, is a known recurring phenomenon that started in 2017. The insistence on total disbandment of that unit of the Nigerian Police, which stems from the failure of several reform enactments and ‘bans,’ to bring an end to the menace of SARS, has given credence to the argument that the problem lies deeper in the conduct of the entire Nigeria Police.

The Nigeria Police has one of, if not the worst track records in public relations of any government agency, whether in security or administration. The history of police illegalities in Nigeria is long, with numerous instances of dark and depraved conduct by its personnel. Widespread amongst these instances of police lawlessness is the extrajudicial killings of the infamous “Apo six” in 2005 and Yusuf Mohammed, the late leader of the terrorist group Boko Haram in 2009, an act which has been credited as one of the immediate causes of the insurgency in the Northeast. The results of police thoughtless killings of the Boko Haram leader live with us today. Millions of families are displaced and thousands have been killed. In the end, the citizens and army had to suffer the consequences of this extrajudicial killing. Also symbolic of these murderous instances is that only two of the six police personnel who carried out these dastardly acts were made to face the full consequences of their actions, which points to another disturbing aspect of policing in Nigeria, the absence of accountability.

The recognition that the depth of the rot in the Nigeria Police transcends any particular operational unit—that there are other extortionists and murderous gangs within the Nigeria Police—has led a crop of the Nigerian public to demand a complete overhaul. There is, however, some disparity in demand for a change in police operations. While those who are distanced from the brutality extol SARS’ ‘virtues’ and relevance and have called for its continued existence, the divide amongst those who bear the brunt of its lawlessness and who also perceive the existential dangers, appear to be more about urgency, utilization, attainability on the one hand, and effectiveness and sustainability on the other than it is a disagreement on the need for a change in policing standards. However, a closer look at those who argue for the continuity of SARS goes beyond the set of unaffected persons. For instance, the Arewa forum is credited with trending #ProSARS on Twitter, the same medium where the #EndSARS struggle had commenced. Based in the northern part of Nigeria, others from this region commenced the trend of #EndBanditryInTheNorth. This goes on to show where the major disparity comes from. The North-South divide suffers different problems while of course there are always the beguiled pro-government apologists who act as foil for any struggle they perceive as anti-government.

The conveners of the ‘END SARS’ movement in their demand for immediate scrap of the police SARS unit demonstrate the urgency of the situation. Another day with SARS meant the possibility of losing more lives to the recklessness of the rogue outfit. Indeed, there trended some graphics depicting how demonized the rogue unit is. In the image, there exist two routes—right and left. On the right leads to armed robbers’ path while the left leads to encounter with SARS, the driver opted to take the right, resolving to face the robbers than SARS. Alarming!

Secondly, the publicity, huge profiles in the entertainment industry involved, following, and commitment the movement commanded was utilized to apply optimal pressure on the establishment. And lastly, the expectation was that pushing for the disbandment of a particular unit is more realistic especially riding on this rare momentum which will not last the period it might take to deliberate on a complete reform, what with the Nigerian government’s penchant for getting into commitments it never plans to keep. As a matter of fact, it is true that the government has announced in 2017, 2018, and 2019 that SARS has been banned, disbanded and spewed out other grammars outlawing their existence. Meanwhile, there are others who do not believe ‘END SARS’ is enough to end this menace. In the same manner they trend ‘END SARS’, they also trend on the other hand, the ‘ENDPOLICEBRUTALAITY’ and ‘POLICE REFORM’. These agitators recognize that to ensure significant and sustainable police conduct changes, the entire Nigeria Police need to be reformed, hence their call for continued agitation even after the announcement by the police Inspector General.

Unfortunately, the ‘END SARS’ protests, which culminated in that disbandment announcement by the Inspector General of Police, is just one outcome of a larger systemic failure. With a culture of glossing over and ‘managing’ situations that otherwise demand urgent redress, Nigeria is ill-prepared for the changing times and their peculiar demands. Even now, it totters on into an unknown future, a wounded giant leaking cohesion and unity from its many unattended and unhealed wounds. As the times change, laws also need to be updated and adapted to suit current realities. The Nigerian state has relied on archaic laws and systems that have outlived their usefulness in their present forms and instead have become impediments to its growth processes. That the police assume the prerogative to detain, try, condemn and administer capital punishment points not only to inadequacies in the justice system but also to the executive and legislative arms of government, which have failed in their constitutional roles and capacity to equip and support the former in functioning and wielding all its powers more efficiently. If the judicial arm had been able to prosecute offenders in the Force and brought to justice, there would be no frequent occurrence of police brutality and SARS killings let alone an ‘END SARS’ movement.

There are tangible reasons to conclude that the days of reckoning are here. The increasing frequency in occasions of near protest is gradually giving way to actual protest actions. The abandoned Nigerian Labor Congress (NLC) protest action, the ongoing strike action by the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU), and the END SARS protests are all odors emanating from a decaying and collapsing system. It is the outward expression of the unsuitability and failure of existing administrative structures, a lack of meaningful policies, and the absence of political will and commitment to addressing matters that require urgent attention.

How can we possibly remedy the situation? First and foremost, the state must recognize the importance of the youth in achieving its goals. It is no hidden wisdom that a country which expects socioeconomic yields, in the form of highly innovative products and services (known drivers of rapid development), will have to invest heavily—its resources and will—in creating an enabling environment for its human capital to function at optimum (to thrive). Secondly, all government arms must be attentive to the people’s challenges while taking proactive steps to enact new laws, refurbishing outdated ones, and making policies that would equip the masses to better their prospects and build Nigeria in the process. Thirdly, accountability must be paramount in all government activities, in all its arms and agencies, critical amongst which are law enforcement officials, who must also be seen to abide by the rules and face penalties for abuses. In the absence of the supremacy of the rule of law, anarchy is the destination. With these in place, in whatever capacities or units, public officials serve, we can be reassured of professionalism and the other trappings of a working system.

Prof Falola is University Distinguished Teaching Professor and Humanities Chair, The University of Texas at Austin.

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