ENGAGEMENT With Chidi Amuta
In the aftermath of the frightening ENDSARS protests, government seems confronted with a choice of two untidy pathways. Either pursue reprisals against the suspected leaders of the protests or address the pervasive inequality that inspired the spin off anger, rampage, looting and criminal lawlessness.
The first option is lazy and untenable because the protests were, even by government’s hesitant admission, in legitimate exercise of citizens democratic rights. The second option is painstaking hard work that requires a higher sense of seriousness than is common with governments in these parts. From what we are witnessing, Abuja has chosen the easier route of seeing and treating the youth protesters as political adversaries that need to be vanquished.
Even in the best of times, governments thrive on finding adversaries to deflect attention from their own fumbling. The critical challenge however is in identifying a foe that makes sense. The administration in Abuja has made an unwise choice of adversary in its ongoing serial clampdown of suspected drivers of the recent ENDSARS protests. It is only an unwise nation that declares a war against its own youth population. It is ultimately a foolish choice and promises to be an unwinnable war.
To recap, here are the outlines of the minefield that our government is walking us into. Badly rattled by the spontaneity and wild ripples of the protests, the government has been groping for scapegoats and appropriate responses. A faction in government has chosen to go after the assumed leaders of the protests. Bank accounts of suspected youth and their organizations are being frozen. A less than intelligent Central Bank of Nigeria has hurriedly obtained the usual back door court order to back its authoritarian freezing of suspected individual and corporate bank accounts. Commonsense dictates that there are enough rules about suspicious transactions to flag activity on any bank account in Nigeria. The EFCC, NFIU and even the police have enough provisions in the rule books to stop any bank account suspected to aid nefarious activities.
Instead, an increasingly politicized Central Bank Governor has stepped beyond his job description into the nasty political terrain by labeling those whose accounts have been frozen as ‘terrorists’. This Central Bank and its overzealous governor know something about terrorist financing as it relates to the financial flows that power Boko Haram and other real terrorists in our midst.
The CBN’s autocratic move has found ready condemnation from most civil and ethnic cultural groups, thereby enlarging the coast of regime adversaries. Some political office holders have found it convenient to support the Central Bank’s infringement of individual rights by predictably supporting the bank account freezes. The Governor of Ondo state, Mr. Akeredolu, has gone as far as questioning why the affected youth should have active bank accounts and how they can explain the operations of their accounts. Apparently, only governors and their cohorts are allowed to hold and operate active bank accounts!
It has not occurred to the Central Bank and its supporting political cast that the world is watching us. A nation that is desperately in need of foreign direct investment and inflow of funds needs to desperately showcase a liberalized business environment. Meanwhile, we are arbitrarily freezing the bank accounts of our own citizens. Worse still, this move is at the instance of some spurious court order and in violation of the legitimate exercise of the democratic rights of innocent citizens!
Another faction of the government has insisted that the solution to youth activism lies in censoring the social media. Between the information Minister, the governors of the northern and South Western states and Buhari’s defence and security chiefs, there is unanimity on a clampdown on the social media and even the media in general. All manner of uninformed postulations about the negatives of the social media are being brandished by a mixed cast of half literate politicians and their handy serfs. Ironically, the same politicians who have in the past relied on the social media to fuel their election campaigns and publicize their dubious achievements in office are the people now championing an autocratic regulation of the social media.
The central irony of the anti social media campaign is the admission by the government that peaceful protest is a right of citizens in a democracy. Communication of such protest using whatever media current technology makes available is part of that freedom. To admit the freedom of protest while restraining the current medium of social communication is a political prank.
In the frenzy to exact a political penalty on the ENDSARS protesters, our leaders seem to have forgotten that the social media is not simply a platform for mischief or the spreading subversion and anti government propaganda. It is first and foremost the current dominant stage of human communication driven by the current stage of our collective technological heritage. It unites humanity as partakers in the fruits of knowledge and culture. It is above all else a vehicle for collective empowerment and wealth creation.
Through the power of the social media, the sons and daughters of unexpected people have broken free from the anonymity of poverty and ordinary backgrounds to acquire reputation as artists, musicians, comedians and celebrities of unimaginable wealth, power and influence. Above all, the social media has become a global tool for combatting inequality in many respects. The digital divide between developed and undeveloped worlds, between urban and rural areas and between the haves and have-nots have in recent years been reduced by the power of the social media. No sensible government should infringe on a platform with such immense benefits just to caress the ego of a transient collective of political animals.
Under the canopy of law and order, a badly rattled and self-indicted police force is on a retributive rampage. It is arresting and detaining people indiscriminately, brandishing wild claims about the number of policemen killed by hoodlums, guns seized and police stations torched by arsonists etc. The rhetoric of the police high command is nothing but a reinforcement of the adversarial attitude of the police towards the civil society it is hired to protect.
No one can of course deny the primacy of law and order. Nor can we expect our law enforcement officers to sit idly by while their lives are endangered by irate mobs and squads of criminals and miscreants. The line that needs to be drawn is that between credible threats to the life of police officers and their obligation to protect the lives and liberties of the civil populace, including villains. On the side of maintaining law and order, all responsible citizens are united and will defend the police in the lawful discharge of their duties.
Taken together, therefore, the actions and reflexes of the government and its agencies and prime pontiffs point in a dangerous anti democratic direction. When you arrest and detain people indiscriminately or freeze private bank accounts or institute spurious legal proceedings against innocent people for merely exercising their democratic rights, you directly assault the basic principles of democracy and endanger public peace. Profiling the youth for punitive visitation and singling them out for a draconian clampdown is an easy way of inviting a return to the disruptive mayhem of the recent ENDSARS protests. On this route, the Buhari government has taken a wrong turn and needs to retreat quickly before they get us all into bigger trouble.
If the hawks around Aso Rock prevail, we may be teetering at the brinks of illiberal democracy. One of the misfortunes of democracy in recent times has been the rise of illiberal tendencies. Under the guise of law and order and the higher interests of neo-nationalism, populist autocrats have ridden on the chariot of electoral mandates to foist disguised autocracies on hapless peoples. See the roll call: the Philippines, Russia, Hungary, Brazil, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and a bit of Mexico. The main features of illiberalism are beginning to creep into the Nigerian landscape. These are: the diminishing of citizens rights, the undermining of law and order and the hollowing out of basic institutions. This is an unfortunate direction in which Nigeria does not need to go.
Undoubtedly, the infiltration and hijacking of the peaceful ENDSARS protests by street urchins and hoodlums is a sad development. In the process, property was destroyed or stolen, warehouses were looted, public peace and security was disrupted with a wild and rapid breakdown of law and order. The drift towards anarchy was frightening just as the political consequences of lawlessness stared us in the face. The political leadership of the country had justifiable cause to panic and fret.
In all the responses to the aftermath of the ENDSARS protests so far, however, there is a surprising misdirection of official energy. What frightened government and people in the mayhem that accompanied the protests is perhaps the sheer sense of vengeful violence, anger and militant aggression with which the hoodlums and street criminals transgressed the bounds of law and order. It was like an invading vandal force in the devastation they unleashed on Lagos, Abuja, Calabar, Oshogbo and Benin among other urban centers. The targets of the arson and vandalism were mostly government assets.
The looted items were either food supplies or the good things of life in government warehouses or fancy shopping malls where the rich shop. The note of anger and devilish common purpose of these ‘other’ Nigerians was spontaneous and uniform. Notably, prisons were targeted for breaching to release convicts serving assorted terms. Class anger and revolt against the system was everywhere boldly written.
A look at the scope of destruction of public and private assets by hoodlums left a landscape that resembles a war zone. The glee of the looters as they invaded government warehouses and super markets to help themselves to goods and supplies hitherto beyond their reach brought home something that the government has not had the courage to name.
If anything, this aspect of the protests brought us all face to face with the reality and scope of inequality in our country. This, more than any immediate adversarial political intent by the youth, is the challenge posed by the ENDSARS protests. The hoodlums and miscreants were literally an invading force from another land within. What has all along separated this hostile army of poor and criminal minded citizens from the enclaves of affluence and plenty in our urban centres is merely the restraining presence of security and law enforcement personnel. Arguably, without this army from the underground world of poverty and desperate frustration, the ENDSARS protests would have remained an orderly series of processions of mostly well off youth.
Government and public discourse on the bad side of the protests has tended to cast the hoodlums and criminals as strange evil outcasts. Not quite. This army of desperation and hunger, want and deprivation, anger and frustration is the direct reflection of Nigeria’s scandalous mismanagement and frightening inequality.
We are the home of over 112 million of the poorest of humanity. An estimated 40% of our population, that is about 80 Million people live on incomes of less than $2 a day. The combined wealth of Nigeria’s five richest people is $30 billion, enough to banish poverty from the country in the shortest possible time. An estimated $20 trillion was stolen from Nigeria’s coffers between 1960 and 2005, a sum that is 95% of the 2012 total GDP of the United States ($18 trillion).
The gaps in access to social services are even more disturbing. An average of 29.5% of Nigerian youth are unemployed. Over 65 million Nigerians lack access to good drinking water while 130 million lack adequate sanitation. An estimated 13 million children are out of school.
The challenge of the moment is essentially one of minding the widening gap of inequality in the land. The youth bulge is bound to get bigger as Nigerians aged between 1 and 40 now account for over 75% of our demographics. Our schools, colleges and universities continue to churn out droves of half educated youth who are equipped with basic skills but cannot find work. Our urban population continues to grow but most urban dwellers live in slums, shanty towns and ghettoes that can only intensify the bleakness of useless lives. I am yet to see any Nigerian state government with an informed programme of urban renewal. Our unhappy statistics are almost inexhaustible.
The result is the existence of an underground republic of extreme poverty and vicious desperation tucked under the armpit of islands of stupendous wealth and affluence.. The army of ravenous looters and determined arsonists that fed off the ENDSARS protests is the product of this cumulative inequality. We cannot wish it away. But we can mute the anger of the encircling mob by reducing the degree of inequality, poverty and marginalization. Not much in this direction has come through in the rhetoric of government people in recent times.
The alienation and bitterness are such that this majority hardly see themselves as coequal citizens of the Nigerian federation. They have no sense of ownership or partnership in a commonwealth that has consecrated them and their future generations into perennial poverty. Any breakdown of law and order as we the elite have defined it is an opportunity for them to break out of the ring of fire into which we have condemned them. When they do break loose, they assault our cocoon of privilege and affluence in waves of violence, looting and arson. In their mindset, what they loot from us is their share of the national asset wrongfully appropriated by a locust elite. Too long an embrace with hardship and abject poverty has inured their humanity and lessened their empathy, creating a psychology of spontaneous hostility to symbols of government, wealth and the prevailing order.
I agree with the government that we should seek solutions to the kind of mayhem that spilled off the ENDSARS protests but we should not seek solutions that profile our youth and brand them with criminality for exercising the freedom of citizenship.
It is good that the government has shown a token recognition of the need to begin addressing our scandalous inequality. But we need to go beyond token gestures to address the structural fundamentals of the central problem of inequality. We need to galvanize our youth energy in this task, not to dissipate it. ENDSARS was perhaps a brief warning skirmish. The fire next time may not be so friendly or brief.