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Comrade Owei Lakemfa.
By Owei Lakemfa
The President and Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, Muhammadu Buhari, thinks Nigerian youths are lazy and want to be spoon-fed like babies. Some other arms of the country’s wrinkled leadership believe that the youths are hooked on Big Brother Naija and other inanities. So it came as a shock when the youths rose 12 days ago to demand an end to impunity by insisting that the Special Anti-Robbery Squad, SARS, be scrapped for degenerating into an extortionist agency and a killer squad.
Not many took notice of the protests that took off on a small scale. Within days, like a wild Australian dry season fire, it had become a wildfire raging out of control. Misreading the issues, the Buhari government thought all it needed to do was to announce the disbandment of SARS and the establishment of a supposedly new outfit called the Special Weapons and Tactics Team, SWAT. It was poor comedy. What special weapons are to be deployed or used differently from those of SARS? What new tactics different from those of SARS? Structures, especially national ones, are not conjured; they take some planning and execution, so when the Inspector General of Police, IGP, announced the scrapping of SARS and simultaneously, the birth of SWAT, it only meant that SWAT was existing side by side with SARS. Otherwise, it was a renaming ceremony of the SARS; a rebottling of old wine with the liquid content remaining the same.
It is incredible that the Buhari government could not read the youths. That it did not know the open truth that ‘EndSARS’ was actually a demand for an end to impunity, unimaginative governance and reckless increases in fuel and electricity prices. How can a government fail so abysmally to understand that ‘EndSARS’ was symbolic; a mere rallying cry for a youth movement that is alive, creative and smart? Nine days before the EndSARS protests began, the Nigeria Labour Congress, NLC and the Trade Union Congress, TUC, had aborted national strikes and protests against the suffocating cost of living. At that time, the Buhari government must have congratulated itself for scuttling the protests. But if it is critical in thinking and reflects, it would have wished the trade union-led protests went on because they had an identifiable leadership it can talk and negotiate with.
The EndSARS protest also show that the trade unions do not have a franchise for street protests and that whenever a vacuum occurs, others will fill it. This is not new in our contemporary politics. In the critical days of July and August 1993 after the military had annulled the June 12 presidential elections, a deadly war raged between the rabid generals that wanted to continue military rule, and the Nigerian people who wanted democracy. The leadership of the trade unions under Comrade Paschal Bafyau not only refused to side with the people, but openly supported continued military dictatorship. Pro-people civil society organisations and patriots led by the Campaign for Democracy, CD, moved in to play the vanguard role. It succeeded in mobilising millions of Nigerians in street protests, surpassed in our history only by the January 2012 strikes and protests. In those days, only the National Union of Bank, Insurance and Financial Institution Employees, NUBIFIE, openly called out its members to fight on the side of the people.
When military misrule continued under the Abacha regime and that gang refused to de-annul the presidential election, the National Union of Petroleum and Natural Gas Workers, NUPENG, and the Petroleum and Natural Gas Senior Staff Association of Nigeria, PENGASSAN, in July 1994, broke ranks with the Trade Union Movement to call spectacular strikes against the military dictators.
The Buhari government became quite desperate last week to stop the EndSARS protests. It sought to negotiate with the leadership, but the protests and their leadership, like fuel price, are de-regulated. It then called an advertised meeting with some official civil society leaders who, despite a communiqué, could not stop what they did not start. Then in desperation, it turned to music star, Davido, presenting him as the protest leader they could negotiate with. It was a disaster particularly for Davido who merely rambled and read a five-point demand by the protesters which was a waste of time. This is because the demands were well known and variously published. Even the IGP he read it to must have had several copies of the demand before Davido met him. I felt sorry for Davido, an otherwise talented young man who did not put on his thinking cap.
I knew Davido’s grandfather, Comrade Ayodele Adeleke. He was Secretary of the National Association of Nigerian Nurses and Midwives. On the eve of the country’s independence, the trade unions were split into two acrimonious centres: the radical All Nigeria Trade Union Federation, ANTUF and the conservative National Council of Trade Unions of Nigeria, NCTUN. The two centres on March 7, 1959 at the Dayspring Hotel, Enugu met to see if they could sort out their differences. Davido’s grandfather chaired the meeting and applied so much wisdom that both centres agreed to dissolve themselves and establish a single centre, the Trade Union Congress of Nigeria, TUC. Comrade Adeleke, who in the Second Republic became a Senator, applied a lot of wisdom in helping to resolve the labour crisis; it is that wisdom Davido lacked when he agreed to stop a national protest he merely bumped into; how was he to talk to the demonstrators in the streets when he does not even know them?
These strategies having failed, last Tuesday, government sent the army to stop the protesters who were singing and dancing on their way to the National Assembly. The soldiers brutalised the protesters but could not break them. Next day, armed thugs were assembled and unleashed on the protesters in Abuja. Then last Thursday, thugs armed with machetes, guns, knives and sticks were driven in beautiful buses to the Alausa protest ground in Lagos, and unleashed on peaceful protesters. Armed thugs were similarly let loose in Kano where the youths were protesting against insecurity.
Then the Nigeria Army which tagged the peaceful protesters “subversive elements and trouble-makers” threatened to further brutalise them. Somehow, the leadership of the army still manages to live in the inglorious past of military misrule with its warped logic that the army’s loyalty is to whoever is the President and not to the Nigerian people.
The Buhari government also banned protests in Abuja; where did it derive such unconstitutional powers?
These protests may just be the beginning. Bob Marley in ‘Natural Mystic’ sang: “There’s a natural mystic blowing through the air. If you listen carefully now you will hear. This could be the first trumpet, might as well be the last”.