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Blood and protests in Nigeria’s streets: The perspective of a bishop

A prolonged period of military rule stretching through 30 years has left in its trail a militarized environment where violence has become embedded in the polity.

A demonstrator holds a sign during protest in Lagos, Nigeria, Oct. 17, 2020, over alleged police brutality. Several Nigerian bishops, including the head of the bishops' conference, have criticized police attacks that have left at least 10 protesters dead and hundreds injured. (CNS photo/Temilade Adelaja, Reuters)

It was meant to be a few hours of peaceful demonstration to call attention to the indignities daily visited, especially, on young people across the country by the now (in)famous Special Armed Robbery Squad (SARS).

SARS was one of 14 agencies set up by a then Commissioner of Police Simeon Danladi Midenda in 1992, following the death of a military officer in the hands of policemen. It was also to address the issues of national security, ranging from counter terrorism, armed robbery, protection of national assets and so on by the police force.

Violence and fear aimed at youth

However, over time, SARS fell into disrepute having become a source of fear and an agent of terror to citizens. They became popularly known among Nigerians as, ‘kill and go,’ an illustration of the high handedness and impunity that had come to characterize the squad. Its members were seen as enforcers for the high and mighty in society. Violence and fear had become their weapons of enforcing their will. It is against this backdrop that an otherwise peaceful gathering of young people, suddenly turned violent. How else can you explain the idea of soldiers opening fire and killing young people who were on their knees or sitting on the floor, hands raised, singing the national anthem and waiving their national flags?

SARS had become associated with extra judicial killings and not a few Nigerians had suffered various forms of bodily and psychological injuries, some of them forever maimed. Citizens have also suffered prolonged detentions without trial and with inhuman treatment. Young people were often stopped randomly, their phones and other gadgets searched for incriminating evidence of any imagined involvement in crime, even when no crime had been committed or reported. Often in the course of extortion, they would lead their victims to the bank and compel them to buy their freedom by making cash withdrawals.

SARS targets young people largely because they are seen as the candidates for trouble, that is, crime. Crimes such as armed robbery and online fraud are often associated with the youth. Although other groups occasionally suffer from their hands, a majority of SARS victims are the youth who are often busier on the streets. The youth also are more likely to stand up to them in a way and manner that the older generation cannot.

A trained lawyer, turned entertainer, Folarin Falana, popularly known as Falz, was one of the ‘leaders’ of the protest. He said, “We thought maybe 50 to 100 people would come out,” other youths. He confessed that, to their utter shock, the dam broke and in a matter of hours and then days, young people trooped out across cities in Nigeria under the hashtag, EndSARS. With no clear leadership, young people simply self organized on the spot as they themselves watched Nigerians from different walks of life come to join them. The rest, for now, is history but there are many questions and lessons to be drawn from the nearly two-week series of events which later saw the country descend into chaos.

Protests and confusion

The question in the minds of everyone seems to be, what happened and how did a simple procession turn into one of the most significant events in our democracy? How did protest against police brutality end up giving birth to other protests? The protesters claimed that they had no real leaders as a strategy for avoiding compromises or arrests and disruption of the protest by the government and its agencies. The government has been accused of sponsoring their own hoodlums to cause chaos and frustrate the protests. The hoodlums first threatened and later invaded the processions, leading to violent disruption of the otherwise peaceful processions. In northern Nigeria, politicians, using blackmail, sowed the seeds of confusion among their own youths by presenting the protests as being sponsored attempts to overthrow a Northern, Muslim president. The strategy worked and except for some insignificant attempts in Kano and Kaduna, the northern youths stayed away.

Even in the most settled democracies, it is not uncommon for demonstrations or protests to turn ugly. A combination of factors often accounts for this. For example, the political climate often determines whether otherwise peaceful protests can succeed or turn violent. A lot depends on the maturity and discipline of the key political actors, from the police to the leaders of the movement. A lot also depends on the experience of all sides, with protests.

Depending on the legitimacy of the government in power, the timing of the protests (is the regime weak? are elections close by? what are the socio-economic conditions? etc.), is also important. In an environment of mass discontent generated by either social conditions or unresolved issues of political exclusion, these protests could become combustible platforms for airing a complex web of other issues.

In our situation in Nigeria, a prolonged period of military rule stretching through 30 years has left in its trail a militarized environment where violence has become embedded in the polity. Even as we write, the military presence in government is not lost. Currently, the president, the national security adviser, the minister of defense are all retired generals. A long culture of coups, the attendant execution of soldiers allegedly involved in failed military coups, and further execution of citizens on allegations of armed robbery have made life quite cheap in Nigeria.

Over the years, the police have sought to endear themselves to ordinary citizens. In 1983, I was part of a team set up by the police authorities to address the issues of police-community relations in the federal capital, Abuja. Since then, almost every police chief has sought out the best mechanisms to improve these relations. The police force, for example, has campaigned on the theme, “The Police is your friend.” Notwithstanding, members of the police force have been the subject of ridicule in Nigeria. Nigerians joke over the belief that the average policeman or woman is a beggar because, if you meet him on a road block, he asks you, ‘Wetin you carry?’ (what is in your vehicle). If he comes to your house on a visit, he asks you, ‘Wetin you get for me?’ (what do you have for me).

In the wake of the crisis, I was on a national television program with Suleiman Abba, a former inspector general of police. In the course of the discussion, he admitted that the criminality of SARS was known to them at the top but the infractions were never punished because of nepotism and favoritism in the system. The guilty were often shielded by their godfathers in the system. Getting to join the SARS branch was a special privilege reserved for those with connections within the police force or with the political big wigs.

In the course of my work as a member of the Truth Commission in Nigeria which examined human rights violations in the country between 1999-2001, we heard horrifying stories from victims of the highhandedness, extra judicial killings, inhuman torture, citizen disappearances among many others, that they endured from the police. Despite dozens of inquiries and recommendations, nothing had been done to make the police force a respectable institution in Nigeria. This was at the heart of the protests.

A dangerous spark

Thus, the events of the last weeks in Nigeria were merely a spark that lit the dry grass of rage that had built up on the psyche of ordinary citizens against SARS over the years. It is tempting to ask if there is any relationship between the looting and destruction that followed and the peaceful protests of the young people that preceded it. The answer to this question is similar to asking whether the murder of Archduke Ferdinand really started the first World War in 1914. As I have stated, often, protests simply offer a trigger for a range of other social ills.

The looting that followed the protests suggests clearly the very high degree of outrage that had been seething for a long time among the populace. Repugnant as it was, it is still a definition of the chasm of mutual distrust and frustration by ordinary Nigerians against the recklessness and corruption of the political elite and their insensitivity to the welfare and needs of the people.

Even at the best of times, poverty levels have continued to rise and COVID-19 only further exposed the structural weaknesses of the state and its inability to alleviate the pains of its citizens. These were the sources of the rage by citizens in the country.

Peaceful solutions

It is doubtful that the political class in Nigeria will change its ways and tow the part of moral rectitude soon. However, we must still pause and ask a few questions about the future. We recently sponsored a virtual conversation organized by the youths of our diocese under the theme  ‘The Youth Protests: Memories of Yesterday, Dreams of Tomorrow.” It was well attended and it served as a great platform for many young people who participated directly or those who followed the protests on social media. We all came away with a lot of take-aways, and they are summarized as follows:

First, the spontaneity of the protests and their spread shocked the participants themselves. Leadership seemed to have emerged at local levels as the protests unfolded largely based on the need for coordination as the hours turned into days and days turned into weeks. The youths had a set of five demands concerning police reforms and the welfare of its officers.

Even though the authorities reacted immediately, consenting to the demands, the youths still felt unsatisfied. The subsequent infiltration and disruption of the protests opened an ugly phase, but it is significant that the youths stepped back and left the streets. Their show of discipline and solidarity for one another was quite commendable. The sight of Christians shielding Muslims in prayer and vice versa in a highly-polarized environment like Nigeria, was significant.

Secondly, the lack of visible leadership may have seemed like a good strategy in the short term, but in the long run, it created room for sabotage because there was no clear plan about how long the protest would last, or how to structure a response to a government offer. The youths tempted fate by showing no clear consistency and focus on developing a timeline for their demands. The list soon became arbitrary and opened the window for suspicion of intent by the federal government and its agencies. With no proper planning, the lack of proper co-ordination would, in the long run, become the first strategic weakness.

Finally, in the short term, the protests energized the youths and gave the federal and state governments a shot in the arm. Nothing like this had ever happened in Nigeria and no one expected it to happen at the time it did. However, in the medium and long terms, we concluded that as a faith community, we need to derive moral inspiration from the Church’s social teachings. With this, we can provide ingredients for the pursuit of the common good.

Opportunities and challenges

There is no doubt that the youths secured some quick wins by forcing the hands of the government to respond to their demands. In the long run, however, the future depends on whether the youths can hold their lines of seeking a better society or if they will become seduced and coopted by the political class. The blood that was shed would become redemptive if fear traded places. The youth showed that they no longer fear their leaders. We hope that now, it is the leaders who will learn to fear the people.

This is a great opportunity for the Church to guide its youth so as to guarantee a firm moral foundation for politics in our country. To this effect, the principles enunciated in the Holy Father’s encyclical, Fratelli Tutti, should now offer a torch for our young Catholics to help light up a society riddled with divisions and injustice.  Fratelli Tutti emphasizes the moral imperative of dialogue. Religion has been invoked as a major fault factor in violence in our society (such as the actions of Boko Haram). The Holy Father addresses the issues of the global movement of people, and the youth constitute a huge number in this regard. The Encyclical’s appeal to political responsibility, using the story of the good samaritan to address the issues of moral obligations in a diverse society such as ours should have great appeal to the youth. When the Pope Francis speaks of politics as a lofty vocation, one lofty form of charity and a platform for the pursuit of the common good, these themes should resonate with young people who need to understand these values as they are stepping into public life.

In this way, we can have a youth movement that is guided by the ethos of the Catholic Church. Through this, we could hopefully avoid the nihilism of the youth movements of the 1960s in Europe which laid the foundation for the moral decay and the deep secularism today.

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About Bishop Matthew Hassan Kukah 2 Articles
Bishop Matthew Hassan Kukah is the Bishop of the Diocese of Sokoto, Nigeria. He is a member of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, Chairman of the Commission for Dialogue and Mission for the Regional Episcopal Conference of West Africa, and Founder of the Kukah Centre, a public policy think tank based in Abuja, Nigeria.

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