BY EMEKA UMEJEI
On 7 October, when youths in Lagos state set out on a three-day protest to call the attention of the federal government to the menace of the dreaded Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS), it was in a peaceful and ordered manner. The protest, tagged #EndSARS or the Nigerian Spring, was the first-of-its-kind since the advent of digital technology in Nigeria. The mobilisation was digital and the conduct of the youths was well-coordinated, synchronised, and syndicated.
What elicited the protest was the misconduct of officers of the SARS, who were supposed to employ high-level intelligence gathering tactics to fight crime, but resort to crudity and brute force leaving sorrows, tears and blood in their trail. There are several heart-wrenching stories of Nigerian citizens, who met their untimely death in the hands of SARS. SARS’ brutality reached a tipping point on October 3 when a message was broadcast on social media suggesting that men of the SARS had gunned down a Nigerian youth and made way with his car. As the video achieved virality on social media, it gave birth to the #EndSARS hashtag, which has come to define the protest.
At this point, it was evident that the youths who had been derided as the ‘Big Brother watching generation’ has had enough. Through the efficacy of social media, the youths mobilised for what turned out to be the most successful youth-led protest in recent times. The #EndSARS protest was so well-organised and coordinated that it quickly attracted international solidarity from voices such as Hillary Clinton, Jack Dorsey, Lewis Hamilton, Rihanna, Nicky Minaj, etc. Besides compelling the federal government to shift grounds and disband the SARS, the protest achieved some milestones. For example, protesters raised about N2million for an aged groundnut seller at the Lekki site of the protest. In another feat, more than N5m was raised to get a prosthetic leg for Jane Obiene, whose left leg was amputated in 2013. These actions were heroic, genuine, and patriotic suggesting that these youths were genuinely interested in the transformation of Nigeria from a sleeping giant to a true African giant. These youths are the true heroes of the #EndSARS protest.
Unfortunately, the Nigerian government responded to this genuine quest by the youths for a better Nigeria with brute force and lacklustre theatrics. The worst part of it was the deployment of soldiers to quell the protest resulting in the loss of lives and re-enacting the ‘unknown soldier’ spectacle, with the Lagos state government and the Nigerian military trading blames.
However, the exit of the true heroes from the scene of the #EndSARS protest threw up the second group of youths; who are the false heroes of the protest. This set of protesters took advantage of the lacuna created by the government’s pathetic response to the genuine quest of the true heroes. These hoodlums masquerading as #EndSARS are in it for their stomach; not for advancing civic engagement and enhancing democratic governance in Nigeria. They have since succeeded in looting and burning government and private offices across Nigeria. The false heroes are so disorganised and uncultured they stole Obafemi Awolowo’s iconic glasses from his statue.
This basic binary opposition of these two groups of youths, however, offers a useful point of insight into the state of political participation and democratic governance in Nigeria. The youths who organised #EndSARS to protest police brutality were gunned down by rampaging soldiers while those who have looted government and private properties are being seduced to return stolen properties. This is how Nigeria works: those who steal our common patrimony are treated with kid gloves while those who have genuine aspirations for the well-being of the country are never allowed near the locus of power. For instance, religious and ethnic differences were thrown into the mix to derail the genuine #EndSARS protest pitting southerners against northerners, who felt it was targeted at the Presidency of Muhammed Buhari. But the second wave of protests has enjoyed ethnic and religious harmony across the country. It has also achieved a greater measure of success in terms of national spread in comparison with the genuine #EndSARs protesters.
The true heroes of #EndSARS protest are symbolic of the genuine Nigerian, who is interested in participating in democratic governance for the well-being of Nigerians while the second is reflective of the greedy Nigerian politician, whose sole motivation for being in politics is to steal, plunder and loot our common patrimony. The fate of the true heroes of #EndSARS protest mirrors the precarity of the Nigerian political establishment, where genuine Nigerians seeking a better Nigeria are never allowed to come near the locus of political power. Tacitly or implicitly, the Nigerian political climate favours the false heroes but limits the space of participation for the true heroes.
False heroes are found in all spheres of Nigerian society: civil services, national assembly, politics, religion, academia, and private sector. Unfortunately, they are in majority and are often on the lookout to undermine the true heroes. If Nigeria is to make headway in democratic governance and leadership, the task to rein in the false heroes is a task that every Nigerian must undertake.
While some true heroes of the #EndSARS protest lost their lives and others suffer varying degrees of injuries, the speed at which the false heroes hijacked the #EndSARS protest reminds us to take seriously the task of separating the wheat from the chaff; until that is done, the false heroes will continue to dominate everyday life in Nigeria.
Umejei, PhD, is visiting assistant professor in communication and multimedia design at the American University of Nigerian in Yola, Adamawa.