The scale of destruction in Lagos between last Tuesday and Friday was mindboggling. A computation of the cost of the damage is still ongoing, but it is unlikely to be accurate. In about two obscene weeks, angry hooligans, young and old, seizing upon the prolonged EndSARS youth-led protest, and fuelled by mischievous and alarmist social media posts, took to the streets to wreak incalculable and unprecedented havoc on society. The blame game began before the protests ended in Lagos and some other states; it will continue for a few more weeks. So, too, will fishing for justifications to explain why the protesters irresponsibly waited for longer than necessary to end their action, why mischievous elements among the protesters streamed false stories to instigate fiercer riot and global sympathy, and why angry rioters not connected with the EndSARS protesters embarked on a looting and arson spree that simply cannot be explained by hunger and alienation alone. The questions will stream out in the weeks ahead, but the answers will be few and unsatisfactory.
Unlike Lagos, the looting and arson have not quite ended in other states. From all indications, and as this column suggested last Sunday, President Muhammadu Buhari may have already survived this first and major test of his presidency. But neither the reputation of his presidency nor his image as a leader has come out of the protests unscathed. Both reputation and image are so badly damaged that it is inconceivable his voice and action in the years ahead and in the 2023 succession will amount to anything. But he is not the only one damaged. The protesters themselves, particularly the youths who anchored the EndSARS action, have not given the country any indication that youths possess the experience, depth and restraint needed for leadership. Their cause was just and resonated with a vast majority of Nigerians. Their initial methodology was also sound. But in less than two weeks, and unable to appreciate when to end a war they started so brilliantly, they exposed Lagos and other cities to probably the worst brigandage ever, risking the polarisation of the country, exposing themselves to allegations of plotting regime change, and suggesting by their actions that the superficialities of the protest, such as the feasting and entertainment, meant more to them than anything else.
It is hard to see Lagos recovering soon. The scale of destruction is simply horrifying. Some buildings that had become or were on the way to becoming national heritage are now irrecoverably lost to arson and vandalism. Many state and national landmarks are gone. The judiciary has lost records which may never be completely pieced together. And public and private assets, whether in the finance sector or public transportation sector running into billions of naira, have been needlessly and unjustifiably wasted. In all, more than one trillion naira may be needed by Lagos to rebuild. The dislocation cannot be fully imagined. Some experts say the looting and arson point to the magnitude of hunger and frustration in the country, and the high degree of alienation felt by unskilled and dispossessed youths. And given the scale of looting all over the country, not to say the readiness to commit murder, it is not clear whether the country is not already lost.
Too many things went wrong with both the protest and the official response. Central to the protest and the vandalism that followed it is the question of national leadership. Despite having a great cause, the youths may have failed to conduct themselves in a such a manner as to appreciate when to start and end the war, and to be able to achieve the best concessions and resolutions. How well did the country’s leaders also respond to the protest, and did they even understand its complexities, its underpinnings? And do they have the depth and expertise to tackle the problem in case of a reoccurrence? First, the youths themselves. By choosing not to have visible leaders for their protests, but only a collegiate of amorphous inspirers who operated on the web, they showed lack of courage that risked their cause being hijacked. It was not surprising that mischievous elements among them concocted fake news and false accounts of how the protest evolved, with particular reference to the so-called Black Tuesday when some soldiers had a controversial confrontation with protesters in Lekki. Not only were death figures exaggerated, gory and colourful but untrue accounts of what transpired, complete with fake photographs, were posted on social media with the sole aim of whipping up emotions and fury. The world was misled, otherwise cautious civil society groups and the Nigerian Bar Association were fooled, and so too were many eminent Nigerians. And without protest leaders capable of gauging the mood of the protest and determining the appropriate moment to call it off, groups of violent rabble, allegedly including road transport workers and Nnamdi Kanu’s Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB), simply seized the opportunity to hijack the protest and inflict maximum damage. Other states have since copied their modus operandi to telling and devastating effect. The youths may learn from this experience, but their first real and exciting outing, probably since independence, has led to an unmitigated disaster far outweighing the concessions they gained.
The protesting youths may have also done irreparable damage to their claims to leadership. The EndSARS agenda was a laudable and targeted goal. The protest’s objectives were virtually and unprecedentedly achieved in the first few days. But perhaps baffled by the ease with which they secured the prize, they shifted the goalpost once, twice, then foolishly made it open-ended. The shifts were disastrous. Not only did they mistake their surgical strike to get the police reformed for larger structural and political objectives, they also displayed shocking inurement to the dangers their long stay on the streets could cause, and even more shocking naivety in expecting that the new and infinitely more complex national political transformations they desired could be achieved with a few extra days of protests. Far worse, they also began to entertain the idealistic notion that promises could be made to them and kept concerning recruiting them into leadership. But no one ever barred them, contrary to their complaints. Nor is there anything intrinsically wrong with either the youths or the elderly aspiring to leadership. As history indicates, leadership is not about age, but about depth, about wisdom, about judgement, about character, all of which were lacking on the streets while the protest lasted. Leadership is not about dancing, revelry, blocking highways and inflicting pain on travellers and commuters.
If the youths gave the erroneous and impetuous impression that they were a different breed altogether, and were not offspring of the elderly incompetents ruling the country, it is worse that Nigeria’s inept gerontocracy displayed timidity, cowardice and lack of wisdom in responding to the protests. President Buhari was the archetype. The leadership elite still do not understand the protest, panicked when they encountered the resolve of the youths, and falsely gave the impression that they could grant concessions without enunciating and implementing deep and fundamental restructuring of the country to deliver on their promises. The police Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) may give way to a better Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT), but overall, they still would not be able to give the country a better policing system. And since the country’s institutions, whether bureaucratic or security, are inextricably intertwined, it remains to be seen how piecemeal improvements in one part can imply or engender holistic improvements. The federation is too badly structured to deliver on the EndSars objectives. There will only be marginal improvements.
The protest, which after the first few days became domiciled at the Lekki Road axis of Lagos, close to Victoria Island, was separate from the activities of hoodlums who moved into the vacuum to cause untold damage. The same dichotomy between vandals and protesters was also noticed in other states. The government was expected to crack down on the looters, and the protesters themselves were expected to end their action in view of the dangerous transformation their peaceful protest was acquiring. But the youths stood still, and the government cringed. Joint military and police patrols would have doused the flames, but fearing a conflagration, the government inexplicably let the looters have a field day. Hopefully, they will scour the social media and other footages to get the identities of looters, arsonists, vandals, and social media purveyors of fake news to make an example of them. They cannot instigate riots and mayhem from the comfort of their social media platforms or the hardness of the streets and expect that there will be no retribution. If offending SARS personnel are being investigated preparatory to a trial, those who sacked police stations and murdered policemen must also be brought to book. The footages exist. The government must never allow the precedent to be set that criminals hate speech purveyors, hackers, arsonists, and looters — can hide under the guise of protests to perpetrate crimes. The government was not balanced in protecting policemen while the protest lasted. They must not make the mistake of letting the deaths of policemen go unavenged. Nothing justified the misdeeds of some SARS operatives; but nothing also justifies the killing of policemen in the name of protests. The state must exact terrible vengeance on those who destroyed public infrastructure and murdered the innocent.
It took about two weeks, after so much damage had been done, for the president to address the nation on the protests. He needed to take charge quickly, considering that the security agencies are under his control. But he finally gave a noncommittal address that showed neither understanding of the problem nor resolution of character. Consequently, everyone ignored him, particularly emboldened vandals who had expected tougher posturing from Abuja. By wilting under the first major test of his administration, the president may have sealed the image the public have of him as a vacillator, and a leader whose party, the All Progressives Congress (APC), should be dismissed as ineffective and visionless. He was elected in 2015 after repeated failure to clinch the presidency, and without a solid democratic pedigree. And in 2019, he was re-elected against the run of play, also without any substantial record of achievement. His poor handling of the protest, his uninspiring speeches, his inability to understand the systemic and structural underpinnings of the EndSARS crisis, and his insistence on treating the police crisis as an administrative and image problem may doom his legacy, if not his party. His style and policies, as exemplified by his speeches and statements, indicate sadly the low quality of his cabinet and kitchen cabinet. The skills level available to him is worrisomely low, and he has shown little capacity to understand or deal with the country’s increasing complexities and centrifugal tendencies.
More, his handling of the simmering protest also highlights his isolation and independence from his party. Once the crown settled around his ears in 2015, the president became estranged from the political forces and coalitions that brought him to office. Alienated and isolated, the forces have been unable to offer him advice, join him in the policy formulation so desperately crucial to his success, and have proved powerless to entrench the party in their states. Now, the president and his party must contend with the challenges to the old order typified and crystallised by the EndSARS protest. The old structure of governance is atrophying, and the youths, having tasted blood, may become a huge factor in Nigerian politics in the coming years. They may be unable to present a common front in the years ahead, but they will manage to form a great pressure group which political parties and state and federal governments will ignore at their peril. President Buhari may be unable to appreciate the tectonic shift triggered by the EndSARS protest, but had the party retained its former chairman, Adams Oshiomhole, and had the APC been properly organised and run well, complete with a Board of Trustees (BoT), it might be able to anticipate the future, reflect and accommodate these shifting political nuances, and emplace materials and conditions that would help it to rebuild and fortify for the future. The way they are going, they will be lucky to avoid extermination in 2023.
No state governor handled the protests with the firmness and great judgement expected of them. They were confused and weak, and the protesters sensed these failings and went for their jugular. The federal government was much worse, but the youths themselves were inebriated with their initial success. The law enforcement and security agencies have been shown to be anachronistic and lacking in the equipment and experience needed to respond appropriately to the protests and violence. It is expected that all the relevant players in the EndSARS brouhaha will reflect on their methods and responses in order to create a better and more peaceful country where the rule of law prevails, and to respond far better and more professionally to future outbreaks. But it is hard to see them effecting the desired changes without a wholesale restructuring of the country.
EndSARS protests: malaise much deeper* October 11, 2020
…In all probability, SARS will be somewhat restructured, renamed, retrained and to some extent retooled. But there will be no fundamental change in policing in Nigeria, for the environment in which the police operate, not to say the culture inculcated in them decades ago, remain essentially ossified. The protesters will achieve a measure of success, and be even better informed about their rights and the boundaries of the police and all other law enforcement agencies. But the disused and anarchic overall framework of policing will remain fundamentally unchanged, indeed unaffected by public protests and official responses…
The EndSARS protests are a bold initiative inspired by youths. The country must applaud their tenacity and courage, especially in the face of many timid governors, some of whom, in so-called progressive states, made curious efforts to undermine any kind of protests. However, the problem of policing Nigeria is so deep and fundamental that it is inextricably woven into the distorted and unworkable structure of the country. The bare truth is that the federal government simply does not have the administrative depth, funds, sensitivity, and flexibility to manage a unified police structure. Indeed, without state financial help, most, if not all, police commands would have collapsed. This dysfunctional unitary structure hamstrings the law enforcement agencies, and affects every other thing…
It is not only the Buhari presidency that has stubbornly stuck to a worn-out structure. Past administrations also had a notorious and romantic notion of the value of a unified police structure, one grandly controlled from Abuja but with inadequate funding and tools, one in which every self-important rascal feels entitled to a police orderly while staffing of the Force is dangerously rendered lean and policemen are compromised…The country must discontinue years of tinkering with the police; it is time to embrace fundamental restructuring in order to tackle the problems from the roots. After all, the problem transcends malfeasant officers, as the president erroneously imagines. The problem indeed touches gravely on the structure of the police as well as the structure of the country.
First published on this page on October 11, 2020. Excerpted for its relevance