Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, give I unto you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.
- John 14:27 KJV
Nigerians, like the rest of the world, have had to battle the threat of COVID-19 since the beginning of the year 2020. Not only were Nigerians fretting for being consumed by the deadly virus, we have also had to battle for the right to live and not be killed by national security operatives who swore to protect lives and properties with young people as the main victims.
Black Tuesday—20 October 2020—is the latest in a long history of police and military campaigns in Nigeria against the civilian population. For half of the republic’s 60-year history and for the century of colonial rule before independence, there have been quasi-military police forces and outright military police charged with repressing dissent from the civilian population. The history of Nigeria's police abuses helps us see the continuities in the misuse of state power against citizens. But it also shows that, through it all, Nigerians have resisted the negation of their basic humanity. The Special Anti-Robbery Squad was created to combat crimes but in the reverse, they rather commit crimes, subjecting innocent civilians to inhumane treatments and extra-judicious killing. And this has birthed a number of agitations by the public for either a reform or a disband of the said unit. It is quite unfortunate that, despite the reforms, the government claims to have done almost four times now, the unit becomes more ferocious day by day. There are loads of reports of killings upon the victims’ refusals to accept bribes. The team is identified with unjust arrests, kidnapping, illegal detentions, framing, extortion, illegal transactions, and killings.
Precisely on 8 October, exoduses of Nigerian youths took to the streets to decry and protest against the incessant brutality, assaults and killings by the rogue police unit, Special Anti-Robbery Squad. These demonstrations, which soon flew across the southern and the middle belt of the country and then across the world, gained national acceptance and global solidarity. They were a response to videos posted online of a police assault around August, where members of the security operatives were seen subjecting an innocent youth to torture, eventually killing him and taking his car away. The peaceful demonstrations against police brutality were cracked down with an aggressive response and shootings unleashed by the same security officials accused of heavy-handedness. Worthy of note is the killing that took place at Lekki Toll-Gate, Lagos leaving scores dead. The event seemed to be a well-calculated one arising from the reports that earlier, the closed-circuit televisions and street lights mounted at the site were switched off. In spite of the available and viral video footage which showed men of the Nigerian Army uniform assembling and shooting, the force has denied involvement and arguments have ensued as to who ordered them. Nigerians became more aggrieved and embittered that, in the midst all the tragedies, President Muhammadu Buhari, shows no political will and courage to remedy the problems, and that has caused more stir in the polity. The events that trailed the Lekki shooting were unwelcome as the angry youths again took to looting and vandalizing public and private properties. Also in the heat of the protests, the social media was full of news, both false and true, throwing the masses into confusion of what to believe. Many people’s mental health was affected as a result of the fear of the unknown.
However, Nigerians need to understand the place of peace in volatile situations such as this because without peace, nobody rests and the livelihood of the contending parties is at stake. All the popular triadic religions in Nigeria—Christianity, Islam and African traditional religion—lay specific emphasis on the indispensability of embracing peace. Incontestably, the 16th Sustainable Development Goal - Peace, Justice and Stronger Institutions is the spine of a calm society. To rebuild Nigeria, everyone—the government, religious institutions, youth, the media, women—has a role to play.
The protests have brought the government to consciousness of the fact that the citizenry especially young people has borne maltreatment enough to an unbearable state and are gradually waking up to responsibility. With this in place and the reactions that have followed, one can obviously see that the battles are getting won, the government has harkened to the voices of the people and is yielding to their demands. The government has come up with a number of policies that are responsive to the concerns of young people in the country. An evident example is the ongoing renegotiation the Academic Staff Union of Universities. The union has been on strike for over 5 months, shutting universities down, and students have been wandering the streets. The singular action put the academic reputation of the nation in shambles. The Nigerian government is now putting efforts together to draft the lecturers back to school, by willing to pay as much as 40 billion Naira. That’s a tip of the many other reforms promised in the past days. High-level government officials including the president, vice president, governors, deputy governors, and speakers of houses (both state and federal) were forced to come out publicly to appeal to the protesters and suddenly realized that young people have been truly been left behind. Some have even gone to the extent of apologizing to the youth. Not only that—the leaders have realized that everyone, regardless of race, religion, culture or educational background, is an equal stakeholder in nation building.
In addition, the government committed itself to show transparency, responsibility and most important, follow the “5-for-5” demands of the youth:
Immediate release of all arrested protesters;
Justice for all the deceased victims of police brutality and appropriate compensation for their families;
Setting up an independent body to oversee the investigation and prosecution of all reports of police misconduct (within 10 days);
In line with the new Police Act, psychological evaluation and retraining (to be confirmed by an independent body) of all disbanded Special Anti-Robbery Squad officers before they can be redeployed;
Increase police salaries so that they are adequately compensated for protecting lives and property of citizens.
However, the government also announced the disbanding of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad unit, replacing it with a SWAT (Special Weapons and Tactics) unit, an action that appeared to the populace like a political game, and attracted immediate rejection. One cannot say outrightly that the government meant what it said. It is therefore envisaged that if the government does not relent in its effort, the country will be restored to normalcy.
Role of religious institutions
The visibility of religious leaders—especially church leaders—in the protests remains legendary since many of them use their pulpits and platforms to encourage youths to keep up the protests. Some even supported the protests logistically. Many theologians have argued that it look like an indirect way for churches to also voice their frustrations about the situation of things in the country. Some observers also have strong feelings that this a way to show solidarity to the perceived maltreatment of the most senior Christians in government. Government is already accusing the church of bias and one can only look forward to more draconian laws against the church in the coming days or months.
Religious leaders on the other hand need to continue to preach peace and promote patriotism in their sermons. I was personally aggrieved that religious leaders could not help the protesters draw an exit strategy since some of the demands are already receiving serious attention from the government. The lack of exit strategy later led to massive killings and eventual hijacking of the process by hoodlums and other interested parties.
Impact of fake news
Since the protesters are mainly young people with huge support from social media influencers, music, movies and comedy stars, fake news was easily employ to drive emotions and media traffic for the movement especially with regards to the shooting at Lekki which eventually led to massive destruction of properties including killings of police officers, especially in Lagos. The media serves as the mouthpiece of the government and an intermediary between the people and the government but in this case traditional media outlets could not match the power of social media and the spread of fake news. No doubt, social media remains a good platform for information sharing and must be used effectively in releasing news that will not ignite violence. With the existence of many unsolicited blogs that release fake news into the public, the board of media directors should put regulations in place to curb the indiscriminate posts. This will unarguably bring about some sanity and decorum in the media space, and drastically reduce the level of disinformation and misinformation. On the other hand, there should not be extreme censorship.
Amongst the many ways the New Nigeria yearned for can be created is the readiness of the youth folk to play active roles in elections and political decisions. From accounts, the youth who make a chunk of the population do not vote. They are rather persuaded by political parties with a token to sell their votes, employed by hungry politicians who pay them to cause electoral violence, snatch ballot boxes and disrupt electoral processes. It is no news that the next general election is in 2023 and fortunately, the protests just successfully ushered Nigerians into an “era of consciousness and enlightenment.” The youth have to begin a revival first by ensuring that they are documented with the electoral body, the Independent National Electoral Commission and obtain their Permanent Voter's Card. The card serves as their passport for participation. Their utmost participation in the choice will go a long way in empowering them to be able to hold the government accountable on the promised reforms to the Nigerian police including following up with budget allocations in their localities. Since young people have now decided to demand good governance and accountability, they need to be responsible in creating it. There’s enough time to define their course, and make informed choices by getting registered. The youth could come up with a new political party, register it, and present their trustworthy candidate, whom they can hold accountable rather than going by the same cycle the country has been following since it began to operate on the democratic system of government.
The truth remains that no battle is ever won by force. In every similar struggle, there are times to take breaks to evaluate, review strategies and opt for dialogue. When dialogue is out of place, abuse of intention is unavoidable. The war Nigerians are fighting is more than the Special Anti-Robbery Squad, and having gained the attention of the government and seeing that they are gradually minding the request of the youth, it is expedient to have some recess to rework strategies—especially so as not to lose focus in this special liberation moment that has been built during the protests almost across the country. The WAR ahead, of bad governance, nepotism, unemployment, fund misappropriation by government officials, maladministration and institutional corruption that have brought us to this point must be carefully mapped out. This is indeed a Kairos moment for Nigerian youths. Nigerians at this point in time need to retreat for a while from the protest, and back down to wait to see the promise of reforms made by the government and the 5-for-5 demands met.
Here’s an appeal to the Nigerian youth to embrace peace lest the planned continuous protest degenerates into a free-for-all as earlier witnessed. As sponsored youths, business owners, and career politicians will vehemently resist, then crime, robbery, molestation, rape and harassment and their attendant woes will join the endemic hunger, bad infrastructure, epileptic power supply, high rates of commodities and unemployment that the country is still grappling with in this post-COVID-19 era.
Usually, when force is applied, the aftermath is always unpalatable.
All the concerned individuals must brace up to build a new Nigeria again. The youth should not jeopardize this newfound liberation but consolidate the fruits to work the future out. Stop the protest, retreat to re-strategize!
Peace upon Nigeria.
Deacon Adebayo Anthony Kehinde is the ecumenical officer of the Church of the Lord Worldwide.