Each time I reflect on the #EndSARS protest and its aftermath, the twin subject of despair and futility comes to mind. And I remember once again Albert Camus’s The Myth of Sisyphus, a Greek legend used by Camus to theorize the meaninglessness of human existence in a hostile and orderless world.
In Greek mythology, Sisyphus was condemned for his trickery by the gods to repeatedly roll a boulder up a hill only to have it roll down again once he got to the top. He would repeat the same process over and over again for eternity.
Sisyphus’s condition is an apt metaphor for the human condition in contemporary Nigeria, where everything undesirable in life has become routine; where the worthlessness of existence is dramatized on a daily basis; and where the same mistakes are made over and over again. Which is why advertised change hardly happens. And if change happens at all, it is often for the worse. So it is with the fight against corruption. So it is with the security of lives and property. And so it is with the economy as Nigeria slips into the worst recession in 36 years, according to the World Bank.
The government borrows and then borrows more to pay back previous loans. Some government officials steal and steal and steal again, and then hand the baton to the next set of officials,who do the same thing. The more the government seeks to alleviate poverty, the more the poor population increases. The more tokens the government throws out as employment opportunities, the longer the unemployment and underemployment lines grow.
Infrastructure is crumbling. Public waterworks have been reduced to private boreholes and deep wells. The government breaks its promises, denies reality, and then goes on to chastise critics. Yet, we know that different results cannot be expected from making the same mistakes over and over again.
The #EndSARS protest, organized largely by youths, sought to bring an end to one major cycle of hostility and suffering, namely, police brutality, especially as perpetrated by the Special Anti-Robbery Squad. Disbelieving that change would come from the same Inspector General of Police, who had broken an earlier promise to end the SARS, the youths increased their list of demands but remained focused on police reform. The announcement by the IG within 48 hours of an alternative police unit further confounded the youths’ disbelief and contributed to their persistence.
Then hoodlums infiltrated the Nigeria-flag-carrying protesters. And the Army came in. An otherwise peaceful protest ended violently, opening the door to more violence in the form of massive looting and destruction of lives and property. And the nation is back not just to Square One, but almost to Ground Zero, as the government scrambles to heal self-inflicted wounds.
The #EndSARS protest thus becomes a metaphor of the Nigerian condition. The protesters and the looters reflect the hopelessness of the Nigerian condition. The bungled intervention by the government, which set up the orgy of violence, is itself a metaphor of failed governance in the country.
At federal and state levels, most new administrations start out with lofty ideas and ideals but fail to deliver. This is particularly true of the present federal government, which campaigned on change and promised to be for all people. Today, the government is perceived as being largely for a section of the country.
After five years in government, more aspects of our national life have changed for the worse than for the better. It was the lack of change in one sector that initially led to the #EndSARS protest. The change that followed the protest was for the worst show of violent looting. The deepening recession can only make it much more difficult for the government to dig the nation out of the hole into which it has been plunged.
Of particular significance is the juxtaposition of peace and violence, which marked the two ends of the protest. The protest’s peaceful outlook suddenly became eclipsed by violent looting and destruction. These contradictory tendencies are typical of the dualities of existence in Nigeria.
On the political plane, political campaigns often start out peacefully. As election approaches, thugs are released on opponents, maiming some and killing others. Hence the need for so-called peace agreements between opposing candidates, an unnecessary step in a normal democracy.
On the social plane, the opulence of the few is juxtaposed with the poverty and squalour of the many. While the few are holding lavish parties, where food and wine are served into the middle of the night, many are scavenging for food and livelihood. The cycle of hopelessness gets wider and wider in circumference.
The handling of the #EndSARS protest by the administration of President Muhammadu Buhari is also a metaphor of his governance approach: Sit back and watch matters get out hand before intervening. In the case of the recent protest, the youths were confused by the inchoate signals. Such an approach ushered in the Buhari administration in 2015, which led to undesirable leadership election outcome in the National Assembly. We saw it in the herdsmen-farmers clashes, in kidnapping for ransom, and now in banditry in the North.
The administration’s contradictory signals are also part of the dualities that typify Buhari’s governance style: Yes, to the protesters’ demands. But forcefully stop the protest, arrest their leaders, and freeze their accounts. Typically, this government arrests suspects in order to fish for evidence, instead of piling up evidence before going on to arrest. This arm-twisting approach by the government only illustrates the failure of the nation’s intelligence architecture.
If it was alive to its duty, the Department of State Services should have been tracking the donations organized largely by the newly formed (July 2020) Feminist Coalition, using various verifiable platforms. At the end of the protest, the Coalition published the total donations collected (N147,855,788.28), how much was spent (N60,403,235.00), and how much was leftover (N87,452,553.28)
So long as the government’s futile governance style persists, Nigerians will keep groping for order in an orderless and hopeless world. This should never have been our plight. That was the message of the young protesters last October. If we learned anything at all from them, it was their cry for change. Arresting and harassing them is not the best way to respond to their cry.