The lack of definable leadership for last month’s EndSARS protest did not just make it difficult for the authorities to bribe or intimidate the inspirers of the protest, as some of the youths claimed on social media, it also made it possible for most of the youths to evade responsibility for the shortcomings of the protest. One of those shortcomings was not knowing when to call off the protests, a failing that led to the violent subversion of the protests by sundry criminal elements and shadowy political figures with a grudge. In the end, according to police sources, some 73 people lost their lives, including 22 policemen, and scores of police stations burnt. The cost to business is in excess of trillions of naira, with Lagos alone losing about a trillion. All this because the youths lacked the leadership and judgement to bring an otherwise excellent protest to a timely end. It would be strange to repeat that error when next they take to the streets.
But there is an error, perhaps even two, in the making already. The youths may lack the humility to apologise for letting their protests be hijacked and they bear direct and indirect responsibility whether they like it or not but they cannot claim that hindsight has not taught them a lesson or two about how to start a war and finish it. As they cross the uneven and uncertain divide between youth and the elderly, a line obfuscated by culture and arbitrariness, they must now persuade themselves to see virtue in moderation and find ways of developing the uncanny ability to judge complex and interconnected issues. They must remind themselves about the peril of victory, especially a quick one delivered only a few days after kick-starting their protests, and the triumph of defeat, one alien to their campaigns. By now they must have sensed that victory and great triumphs do not mean noisy celebration but impose a far greater degree of responsibility.
The youths still proceed and speak as if no lessons have been learnt, or that the catastrophic consequences of their failings do not compel them to engage the future more cautiously and tentatively. They isolate the concessions won from the government as if those concessions have no implications for the concessions not won. They have said and done nothing about the deployment of twisted social media narratives that told lies without compulsion, projected horrifying tales of abuse that were either unreal or exaggerations, and fanned stories clearly designed to achieve political goals and slander tribes and individuals. How would future protests be safeguarded from these manipulations? The same social media had been of tremendous help in exposing the horrors perpetrated by anti-robbery squads and regular policemen, sometimes even under the noses of their divisional police superiors. But by fighting an unregulated war, decentralising protest leadership, and elongating and diffusing their demands, they unfortunately allowed a great campaign to be hijacked and bastardised, nearly to the point of watering down and diluting the achievements of the protest. Now, nothing is certain anymore beyond the threat of repeating the protest sometime in the future. But whether they will get converts like they attracted during the October protests, seeing that many children of the revolution also lost humongous sums to looters, is hard to say.
The youths are about to make another capital error. They seem prepared to veer into partisan politics instead of limiting themselves to activism connected with issues that transcend partisanship, tribe and religion. There is talk of setting up a political party, or organising youths to pressure political parties. Apart from the sentimental drivel about entrenching a dichotomy between youths and elders, an unwise and impracticable thing to do, including describing the elders as disgustingly acquiescent, the youths must become aware that they could never form a consensus against any party or coalesce to the last man around an ideology or platform. If the elders could not unite around a common platform, with some of the platforms distinctly ethnic or religious, why do youths think they could suddenly reach a consensus on platforms, candidates, and tangential issues like restructuring, rotation, presidentialism versus parliamentarianism, regionalism, etc.?
France’s Emmanuel Macron was not the product of a youth-led innovation in French politics. Nor was his movement, En Marche!, targeted against elders. It was both an ideological movement and a tantalising offer of newness away from the staidness of French politics. Besides, Mr Macron was a protégé of one of the dinosaurs of French politics, Jacques Chirac, and was a former minister who had been carefully groomed for leadership, including attending France’s highest policy institution, École nationale d’administration (National School of Public Administration) or Énarque. Mr Macron, a former member of the Socialist Party, was not a product of happenstance. Nor was his centrist movement, La République En Marche! (LREM), an arbitrary construct from a variegated French political milieu. Nigeria is unlikely to embrace any party simply because it is youth-led or designed to promote certain issues or even ideologies that resonate with youths. Instead, any youth bright enough to appreciate issues salient to Nigerian politics and society can enunciate his ideas and galvanise both young and old to create an unstoppable movement. Mr Macron did his own in about a year. It is not impossible to do it in two years in Nigeria, provided such a youth has the intellect and experience.
Promoters of the EndSARS protest will be unable to turn their activism into a movement, considering the baggage they have unhealthily allowed to bifurcate their action and pollute the protest’s essence and goals. They will need to look elsewhere. A better option is to eschew their nonsensical romance with promoting a party for the sole aim of taking power anytime soon. Surely they can’t be so impressionable and incurably romantic to think they could unite and take on the elders. Indeed, they give the impression that they are not properly grounded intellectually and emotionally to think that in a few months they could do what their phlegmatic elders could not do in more than 60 years. Instead of stumbling into politics which they are not prepared for, Nigerian youths, particularly in the EndSARS ‘movement’ should see the battle they started in 2017 and particularly on October 8, 2020 as an unfinished war. There are too many unresolved issues with police and law enforcement reform that need special attention and concentration. EndSARS should be turned into a pressure group to monitor the reform and ensure it does not miscarry.
Already, given the backlash over the killing of some 22 policemen, and especially because there was no massacre at the Lekki tollgate, there are indications that the country’s reactionary law enforcement and security system appears minded to frustrate changes needed to foster better security and stability for the country. There is doubt that given the country’s present structure, a better law enforcement and security system can be engendered. That doubt is justified. It will be hard to forge a workable police organisation and security system out of an unworkable political, social and economic patchwork. It won’t happen. So even before the youths began to be distracted, their original goal was endangered by the stultifying arrangement that has kept the country leprous and bedridden for decades. And without doing anything about Nigeria’s exploding population, the pressures of desertification, an extremely gross economic dependency system, and an overweight and futile system of government, the country as well as EndSARS activists will be fooling themselves.
In the midst of all this, it would be stupefying for the youths to think their modest and badly mismanaged EndSARS protest success can be quickly transformed into something enduring and remarkable. The rot goes far deeper, and is innately systemic and implacable. It is a monstrosity that requires years of single-minded focus, brilliance and occasional protests to undo. But it is also a campaign that cannot be successfully prosecuted by a leaderless pressure group probably already enticed by the allure of political power, probably insensitive to the demand of the times, and wary of taking responsibility.