The events around the #EndSARS protest have shown that the struggle of Nigerians for democracy has not ended.
Under a democratic government, some rights and liberties are taken for granted. Under a democracy, principles such as ‘freedom of association’, ‘freedom of expression’, ‘right of protest’, and ‘freedom of the press’ are markers an non-negotiable. The #EndSARS protest has revealed how quickly the Nigerian authorities will eliminate these markers of democracy when faced with a semblance of mass protest.
The retributive actions of the Nigerian government against organisers of the #EndSARS protest have reversed our advances toward a democratic society. Freezing bank accounts of protesters, placing them on travel ban or arresting them in their homes, and in the process terrifying their family members, are things military dictators do. One could understand if old habits die hard. But it is unacceptable for us as a nation that the gains of more than twenty years of struggle against military dictatorship relapse, because the government has no answers to protesters’ questions.
It was not wrong to have participated in the #EndSARS protest. The #EndSARS protest did not begin in October 2020. The unprecedently low turnout recorded in the 2019 general election was a protest against the broken promises and level of poverty in the country, contrasted by the enthusiasm Nigerians showered on the same President in 2015. We are not better off as a people than we were in 2015. With 40.1%, about 80.6 million of our people, living in extreme poverty, we are the poverty capital of the world. The number of unemployed youth in Nigeria is larger than the population of Rwanda. And upon that is the existence of an extortionate police force that randomly kill young people. The justification for a citizen’s protest is just as self-evident.
One would expect that the government deploys economic resources to address underlying economic problems substantially. Instead, we have seen showy announcements that cannot scratch the surface of Nigeria’s monstrous poverty and unemployment problem. The government accompanied it with a clampdown on protesters to make them rue exercising their fundamental human rights. But this is not just some mistakes by the regime; it is a calculated attempt to re-write a narrower conception of democracy in Nigeria.
The terror of the state is not only visited on protesters; the state threatens the free and objective trade of journalism also. The National Broadcast Commission (NBC) fined the trio of Arise TV, Channels and AIT for reporting the stories as they were, without granting these stations fair hearing. The Commissioner of Police in Lagos has equally announced that the force will not allow any form of protest in the state. There is systematic asphyxiation of democracy ongoing here. A government should not threaten Journalists with monetary loss because the government is afraid of what they will write or say, at least not under a democracy. The Commissioner of Police has no right to withdraw the right of citizens to protest under any guise, at least that is how the court has ruled.
It is not enough to justify the litany of abuses of democratic rights by President Buhari’s administration by the violent turn the #EndSARS protest took. Violent protest is condemnable in its entirety. But it is wondrous where the police and military that are now employed to crack down on protesters were when hoodlums ignited violence by attacking protesters. Even the government has been unable to pin violence on the head of #EndSARS protesters in its narrative. Instead, it has repeatedly said that hoodlums hijacked the protests. But hoodlums hijacked these protests because security forces did not do their jobs of providing security to peaceful and orderly protesters exercising their constitutional rights. We must continue to bear witness to the admirable sense of organisation, peacefulness and orderliness about the #EndSARS protest, and reject any attempt to cast such historic festival of democracy in a bad light.
Citizens must retain their control over their elected officials, during and after elections. That is democracy. It entails protest. If a government is irascible to protest, it should avoid one by dealing with the economy, create jobs for youth, industrialise the country, and set up infrastructures for the economy to grow. The momentous struggle of Nigerians in 1993 for an end to military dictatorship cost several lives, and it will be disgraceful that democracy is narrowed because our political class don’t have the answers.
Writes from Abule-Egba, Lagos State