By Olabisi Deji-Folutile
The Yoruba have a saying that could literally be interpreted thus: “When a child is confronted with something bigger than him, he frets.” This probably captures the response of Nigerian leaders to the ongoing #ENDSARS protests across the country.
This is perhaps the first time in a long while that Nigeria is witnessing a spontaneous protest orchestrated by the youths across the nation. It’s little wonder then that our governors, lawmakers and literally everyone that matters in power have become jittery. Now, all of them are telling us that the right to protest is guaranteed in Nigeria’s constitution. They are all trying to be politically correct. Nobody wants to be accused of further straining a frayed nerve. When, for example, Nyemson Wike, Rivers State governor, realised that nobody was going to obey his order of “no protest” in the state, he quickly aligned himself with the protesters.
As for Lagos State Governor Babajide Sanwo-Olu, he has been too eager for things to return to normalcy in the state of excellence. He met with the protesters twice in two days. He ran to Abuja to meet President Muhammadu Buhari. Presenting the demands of the protesters officially to the President, the governor said, “They (protesters) said we should release all the protesters and we have released them. They said we should set up a Trust Fund to pay compensation to the families of those who have died. I have set up my own Trust Fund today and I have announced it. “The third one, they said we should set up like a small enquiry for people that are bitter. So, tomorrow the IGP is coming to Governors’ Forum and he is going to ask each one of us to set up a five-man team…..”
Surprisingly too, the President, who many Nigerians would describe as being elusive, has come out to speak to the protesters. On two occasions in two days, the President actually spoke to these youths and addressed their demands. Incredible! Yet these protesters have refused to leave the streets. Rather, they are waxing stronger every day as they enjoy endorsement from prominent personalities home and abroad, including Twitter CEO, Jack Dorsey. Curiously also, in all of these, I have yet to see a single statement credited to any of the President’s spokespersons lambasting or chiding the youths as they are wont to do anytime government or its policies are criticised.
Now, Nigeria’s Inspector-General of Police, Mohammed Adamu, has set up a new Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) team to replace the disbanded Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS). Personnel of the defunct SARS have been asked to report at the Force Headquarters for debriefing, psychological and medical examination as requested by the protesters. Not only that; police authorities have assured Nigerians that the new SWAT team would undergo psychological and medical examination to ascertain their fitness and eligibility for their new assignment. But these protesters are still saying that government only conducted a renaming ceremony. To them, there is not going to be much difference between SARS and SWAT. I also really don’t know the difference between the two and I don’t know why government must be in a hurry to create a replacement for SARS.
Anyway, the most interesting part of this drama for me is the speed at which government is trying to end its eight-month face-off with the Academic Staff Union of Universities. Two times in two days, the senate leadership, led by its President, Ahmad Lawan, met with ASUU representatives and government officials directly involved in the negotiation with the union. The aim of the meeting was to find a quick solution to the FG-ASUU impasse. In Lawan’s words, “The strike by ASUU is an ill-wind that does no one any good. Our children are at home, whereas they should be in school.
He continued: “We cannot watch the situation deteriorate. This is beyond education as it bothers on security as well, and the future of this country is going to be affected adversely as it is.” But the question a curious mind like mine would ask is where has the Senate been all this while? Why did the Senate have to wait till the nation is engulfed in youth protest before realising its love for ‘our children’ and the need for them to be in school?
After all, we have all been enjoying the company of ‘our children’ for these past eight months that they have been playing at home. Why are we suddenly getting tired of seeing them around us? You see, a Biblical passage says a wise man for-sees evil and flees but the foolish waits for it. Some of us spoke about the danger of keeping an army of youths idle. We called on the government and ASUU to consider the interest of these students and work out an agreement that will end the strike. But, as usual, our counsel was ignored. Now that the thing is getting out of hand, they are now running helter-skelter to make amends. One can only wish them the best.
Imagine the Labour Minister, Chris Ngige, who once told us that there was no going back on IPPIS, the government Integrated Payroll and Personnel Information System, now telling us that the Federal Government is considering adopting ASUU’s University Transparency Account System (UTAS). He has even described the ASUU alternative payment platform as home grown and something worthy of thorough assessment test. This is the same government that had on October 8, given university lecturers an ultimatum to comply with its directive to enlist on the IPPIS or be removed from its payroll.
As far back as August, ASUU had demonstrated its UTAS software to Nigeria’s education minister, Adamu Adamu, and other senior management staff of the ministry, including the Executive Secretary of the National Universities Commission (NUC). But nothing was heard from government until these protests began. Something tells me that at the end of the day, the singular factor that will determine the end of the eight-month (as of now) strike in our public universities will be either the adoption of this UTAS or suspension of IPPIS in paying lecturers. But for crying out loud, why subject students to such an agonising experience over an issue that could have been resolved in hours?
Now, our leaders have seen what an army of energetic youths can do. Give it to these #ENDSARS protesters; they have conducted themselves with so much decorum. They have shown all of us that they know what they want and they have been extremely focused in their engagement with government. These are very intelligent people and nobody can accuse them of being miscreants. There are many undergrads among them, many unemployed graduates and even hi tech professionals in well-paid jobs. They just want to redeem their future. And that to me is a good way of getting things right in this country.
At this stage, it should be obvious to our leaders that things are fast falling apart and the centre may not likely hold again. Governor Makinde of Oyo State tried to capture the ongoing problem aptly. To him, the protest across the country is a wake-up call for Nigerian leaders to put things in order. Likewise, his counterpart in Ogun State, Dapo Abiodun, said Nigerian leaders had taken the youth for granted for too long. They are both right!
Unless governments at all levels begin to address the challenges facing the youth, these protests would continue. Anyone that thinks this #ENDSARS protest is just about seeking reforms in the Nigeria police must be living in a fool’s paradise. This protest is simply a manifestation of pent-up anger. And our leaders should better be prepared for more of it!
I hinted in my article on August 20 this year that there is a limit to which the government can keep students at home. At that time, the National Association of University Students (NAUS), National Association of Polytechnic Students (NAPS) and the National Association of Nigerian Colleges of Education (NANCE) had threatened to shut down the economy if the government refused to reopen their institutions. I noted then that when students began to show signs of tiredness and restiveness, government should be smart enough to do something.
The world is now a global village. These youth see what happens in saner environments and they are tired of being at the receiving end of government’s bad policies. It is not for fun that developed countries across the world devote huge resources to taking care of their citizens. Unfortunately here, we prefer to spend a whopping N13bn to feed imaginary children during COVID-19 lockdown and billions of naira on palliatives for households only known to government and perhaps their cronies.
Honestly, whichever way government chooses to end its crisis with ASUU is no longer relevant at this point. The Federal Government has already missed a golden chance of proving its interest in Nigerian students. So, for now, let’s celebrate our youths for speaking up. Let’s hope that the fire that this #ENDSARS protest has kindled across the nation never goes off again; let us believe that our leaders will continue to be attentive to our complaints and be prompt in responding to them as they have been doing in the past few days. This is indeed the beginning of a new dawn for us as a nation. These youths have made a statement. I commend their audacity!