By Michael West
I shudder to entertain my fear since the #EndSARS protest started as we might actually be at the threshold of a prolonged agitation that may likely blow the wind of sweeping changes that are long overdue. Should the protest extend beyond next week, government will require a careful and strategic approach to manage the situation. The spontaneous nature of the protest in many states across the country should get government strategists and handlers thinking. They need to respond to the situation with equanimity to stave off the protest from slipping out of control. The most difficult protest to contain or control is a protest without faces or coordinators. Therefore, extreme caution is needed to manage this delicate moment. Employing intimidation, repression or confrontation may escalate the already tensed situation.
Like what happened in Ecuador where a nationwide protest became a tool to express bottled up discontent and oppression of the masses over the years, I see the on-going protest beyond the call for an end to SARS and its atrocities. In a matter of days, political and economic agitations may become a dimension that will further prolong the protest until some fundamental national questions are frontally addressed. I see the possibility of the protest leading to outright restructuring of the country. I see the protest ushering some reprieve for long cheated and deprived segments of this country. I see federal character principle at the core leadership structure. I see sufficient devolution of powers to the three tiers of government. Should the beneficiaries of the present lop-sidedness resist the change, the inevitable consequence may be unpredictable.
Some people are of the opinion that since the government is yielding to the demands of the protesters, they should calm down and allow for the implementation of their demands. But there’s lack of trust and confidence in the government that it will do what it promised. Twice in the past, SARS has either been pronounced disbanded or reformed but the atrocities of its operatives kept soaring. Therefore, until evident actions are seen, there may be no stopping the protest. Also, the swift change of name from SARS to SWATat the peak of the protest is ill-timed, ill-advised and suspect. The hasty action may keep the youths longer on the streets as #StopSWAT is now trending in cyberspace.
President Muhammadu Buhari administration should learn from other countries where similar nationwide protests have rocked their spaces in the past. Our government should study how they managed the situation and successfully navigated their ways through. It should also learn from how such protests had snowballed into a revolution which ultimately consumed the government in power due to recalcitrance and acts of impunity
In Chile for example, while demonstrators clashed with security forces on a Friday evening, President Sebastián Piñera was pictured dining in an upmarket Italian restaurant – a sign, some said, reflected the chasm between Chile’s political elite and the people on the streets.Chile is one of Latin America’s wealthiest countries, but, like Nigeria, also one of its most unequal – it has the worst levels of income equality among the 36 member nations of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).
In Ecuador for example, the government backtracked and suspended its fare hike in an effort to quell the protests. But the protests continued, growing to take in wider grievances. Reuters news agency quoted a protesting student as saying “This is not a simple protest over the rise of metro fares, this is an outpouring for years of oppression that have hit mainly the poorest.”
Lebanon has seen a similar unrest with plans to tax WhatsApp calls prompting wider protests about economic problems, inequality and corruption. Protests of this nature have also taken place in countries including the United States, United Kingdom, Germany, Spain, Austria, France and New Zealand. Participants have glued and chained themselves to roads and vehicles and tried to disrupt busy city centres.
In July/August 2019, Omoyele Sowore-led #RevolutionNow protest was swirling the political space. The mobilisation and sensitisation were grossly inadequate. More so, the convener, Sowore, was blackmailed as a frustrated political jobber who resorted to calling for a revolution after losing at the ballot against the Buhari. He was arrested, detained for weeks and subsequently charged to court. He was later granted bail on some stringent conditions.
The spate of the protest is beyond expectation. Then, the protest is faceless. This makes it much more delicate. Virtually all protests that snowballed into revolutions across the world are usually faceless because there are no arrowheads, leaders or coordinators to discuss or negotiate with.
A common trend in an emerging revolution is that the demands keep increasing. As government tries to respond, another demand from the existing ones will surface. The circle of demands will continue like that until government becomes overwhelmed. In the face of mass action like this, the use of force will be counter-productive as it will rather aggravate the fragility of the situation.