By Isa Aremu
With as many as 67 officially pronounced dead, looted properties, burnt assets, forced lockdowns, as a veteran activist of sundry campuses’ protests against apartheid, military dictatorship, 1989 SAP riots, June 12 validation, fuel price resistance and new minimum wages in the past 30 years, I bear witness that the current crisis is the most “wasteful”. Yet there is an opportunity in this singular “wasteful” crisis.
Two years ago, yours comradely did “a SWOT Analysis” reflection on the challenges of youth bulge. It was inspired by the controversy triggered by President Muhammadu Buhari’s remark according to which they (the youth) “sit and do nothing” whilst expecting “…housing, healthcare, education free”. President Muhammadu Buhari is certainly not given to “presidential correctness” on a number of state and even personal issues (remember the “other room” unquotable quote).
Presidential goof on the significance of youth in national development offered an opportunity we all missed to prevent today’s carnage. It was all about perception: are the youth assets (which they are!) or liabilities (which they are not!)? Of course the proverbial water had since passed under the presumed “official bridge of “idle youths”. In the last three weeks, the “Hashtag” generation has shown not just the resilience but resistance against police brutality and insistence on good governance in general. And that is the first strength of #EndSARS protests.
The hitherto peaceful protests against the backdrop of documented historic violent excesses of some members of the moribund Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) had for once again exposed the limitations of a nation-building project without the inclusion of the youth. Indeed, in the last few weeks, Nigeria had paid heavy price for Youth exclusion and criminalization of some of them at arbitrary checkpoints and illegal road blocks in particular. What with avoidable deaths of protesters, police and uniformed men and women alike? And sheer degeneration into anarchism?
If Nigeria were under external aggression, we would all right concede humiliation. Put positively: for once, the voices of the youths are being feverishly heard “loud and clear” fighting for inclusive development. President Buhari delivered 60th independence anniversary speech on October 1st. I searched in vain for a single reference to the role of youths in national development in a country in Africa with the largest population of youth in the world as many as some 40,000,000 despite the historic achievements of the youths in all spheres. Indeed it was the restless youthful civilian nationalists who lowered the Union Jack by fighting for independence.
No President is perhaps better positioned to mainstream youths in governance narratives than President Buhari whose electoral base was significantly youthful and remarkably fanatical too. Talking about youthful fanaticism for President Buhari, we all remember one Suleiman Hashimu! He enthusiastically walked 750km (460 miles) from Lagos to Abuja, “wore out six pairs of shoes over 18 days” in order to see the President-elect before his inauguration as Nigeria’s new president in 2015. Hashimu’s long trek captured public imagination. He was received by the President-elect with demands and expectations of the youths for the new administration.
Better late that in less than three weeks in recent times , President Buhari had for the umpteenth time “engaged” the restless youths with sundry feverish statements, the anti-climax being the last Thursday state of the nation (sorry, plight- of- the-youth!) address. “#EndSARS protests offer a timely opportunity for Nigerian governments at all levels to integrate the youths and citizens back into socio-economic development of the country. The first President of Kenya, Jomo Kenyatta put it better: the “vigor and quality of a nation depend on its capacity to renew itself each generation”.
The latest Digital/“4.0 protests” by the youths must task the complacency of our outworn reactive and indeed reactionary, medieval inflexible approach to governance. Of course, government has the singular responsibility to restore law and order undermined by criminals under the cover of legitimate peaceful protest, but that is only possible if we do not delegitimize the police men and women in uniforms. The police service must be resourced with more hands, more money and necessary inspiration and motivation.
Reforming the police should not be a passing fad to buy peace but an enduring commitment to development through sustained internal security. Even at that, Nigeria needs a Developmental State, not a Police State (however defined) if we must meet Sustainable Development Goals. Certainly for too long through youth mass open unemployment, (as high as 50 per cent) prolonged closures of universities due to ASSU strikes, collapse of industries, income poverty and Police criminalization, weaponization of poverty, Nigerian youths have been unacceptably pushed on the margins of the Society. The crisis at hand is nothing but the price for youth exclusion and in general crisis of governance by exclusion.
Recognition of this singular point would be a worthy take away from the current youth street explosion. The second strength of the “#EndSARS protests lies in the 5-point demand of protesters against police brutality, namely halting the use of force against protesters and unconditional release of arrested citizens, justice for the victims of police brutality, including payment of compensation, and the psychological evaluation of policemen, including increasing their salaries.
It was commendable that the presidential panel promptly acceded to the practical demands of the youths. The President had commendably also directed National Salaries, Income and Wages Commission “to expedite action on the finalization of the new salary structure of members of the Nigeria Police Force”, while the “emoluments of other paramilitary services are also being reviewed upwards”. Which then points to the fact that the youths could be and must be consciously cultivated as partners in development process.
When the history of the current police reform is written, no one can ignore the role of the youths in raising the noise level of the urgent need to adequately compensate the men and women in police uniforms. We can debate the strengths and weaknesses of the recent youth implosions, but as Bertolt Brecht puts it: “Who struggles can fail. Who doesn’t struggle has already failed”.
From the entrepreneurship, organization, solidarity as well as empathy we witnessed on all major streets of Lagos and Abuja before the protests were rudely hijacked by the lumpens, I bet that the Nigerian youths can be worthy partners in attainment of SDGs 2030 17 Goals dealing with industry and innovation, poverty, illiteracy and hunger eradication and environment among others. If (and only IF) they are seen as partners as envisaged by SDG goal 17 #EndSARS protest is certainly a metaphor for all the failings of the state that include poverty, unemployment, lack of access to quality education, armed conflicts, girl child discrimination, absence of constructive Youth participation in development processes in Africa, especially Nigeria.
It’s time for deliberate policy initiatives to eliminate the factors that prevent the youths from participating meaningfully in decision making and implementation, especially on matters that affect them, including the current challenges of police brutality. I agree with Nelson Mandela that “Young people are capable, when aroused of bringing down the towers of oppression and raising the banners of freedom”. Never again about the youth without the youths! There must be an urgent bi-partisan national committee to combat youth unemployment and underemployment.
The administration must also revisit the 2014 National conference report with respect to youth and Labour empowerment. There must be full implementation of the National Youth Policy and the Nigerian Youth Employment Action Plan (NYEAP) with Legal backing to be given to the documents to aid implementation. There should be a Creation of an Agency backed by law (against the background of the latest development) to be saddled with the responsibility of drawing up policy framework and work plan for Youth development as contained in the robust recommendations of that historic confab.