PHOTO: PHILIP OJISUA
The unpredictability of life has always been a daunting experience for humanity. We are supposed to expect good things to happen, yet the unexpected things that throw us off balance happen all the time. That is how it is with this expiring year that has been nothing but a shocking, unwelcome package of woes for the world at large.
The usual ecstatic chants of ‘Happy New Year’ and wishes with plans for a better year quickly turned into nightmare at the dawn of 2020 when a malevolent pestilence called COVID-19 turned the world upside down. Nations, governments, institutions and individuals are still reeling from the multi-pronged disrupting effects of the epidemic as the year ebbs to an end.
In Nigeria, we have had our own share of the epidemic disruptions. The economy has taken a huge hit, with dwindling oil revenues, budget deficit, collapse of businesses and loss of jobs, all with attendant varied complications. But as Nigeria is yet to recover from the damages of the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS-CoV-2 or COVID-19), it got engulfed by another destabilising crisis with a similar acronym SARS.
The disbanded Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) of the Nigeria Police became an insufferable social pestilence that provoked the nationwide #EndSARS protests of the past weeks. Sadly, the peaceful #EndSARS protests unwittingly yielded another deadly social epidemic that can also be tagged as SARS, meaning ‘Sons of Anarchy Reign Supreme’ which refers to hoodlums who under cover of protests unleashed lawlessness on society.
Now, the speed with which the effective #EndSARS protests against police impunity and brutality swiftly turned into anarchy was perplexing. In the past week, the sons of anarchy, who are variously called hoodlums, miscreants, or mob in news reports, simply took advantage of the anti-police brutality dissent to commit the most heinous crimes known to civilized society. They left in their trails blood and destruction, looting and rape, rampage and arson that set Nigeria’s foremost city, Lagos, and other cities on fire. Many public and private properties worth billions of Naira have been razed. Banks, shopping malls and diverse businesses were looted. Several police stations were destroyed. And many lives, including those of the police officers, were wasted. All these necessitated the declarations of curfews by several state governors.
But how did we, as a society, arrive at this junction of egregious anarchy? Where do these anarchists who took on the forms of wild animals or barbarians to wreak such havoc come from? It was as if the sons of anarchy had been in a massive underground cage and were suddenly set free and let loose on society. However, this development should not be a total surprise to any observer. Similar mob activities occurred during the anti-xenophobia protests in 2019 when Nigerians protested the unwarranted profiling and killings of Nigerians in South Africa.
What all these anarchic incidents point to is this: Nigeria is a highly inflammable society where inflamed passions explode at the slightest provocation. Criminal tendencies apart, the existential conditions that make ours a combustible society include pervasive poverty, joblessness, social inequality and bad governance. Poverty predisposes people to hunger and anger. Joblessness causes idleness, which is the devil’s crucible. Social inequality breeds deprivations and frustration for the have-nots. And of course, bad governance means that there is a lack of enabling environment for citizens to realize their pursuits of the good life.
Therefore, as long as the foregoing unwholesome conditions exist in a society like ours, the stage is set for social eruption at any time. All that is needed for society to erupt is an incident to serve as fuel and another incident to strike the matchstick. In the case of #EndSARS crisis, the excesses of the defunct SARS provided the fuel and the massive protest gave the match stick that the sons of anarchy exploited to literally set society on fire. As the hoodlums burned down facilities, they also looted and carted away valuables and foodstuffs that they could not normally afford. Thus, poverty, joblessness and social inequality goaded the hoodlums to uncontrollable heights of savagery. This does not excuse deliberate criminality or malicious intentions of some of the destructive hoodlums. There will always be criminal elements in society, even when poverty and predisposing factors are reduced to the barest minimum.
Now, the dust of the unleashed anarchy is yet to fully settle as cases of looting of COVID-19 palliatives in warehouses across the country are still reported. This tense time compels a repetition of calls for the government to urgently address the issue of rampant poverty and youth unemployment in society. Nigeria being rated as world poverty capital, where more than 82 million Nigerians live on less than $1 a day, according to the National Bureau of Statistics, is an invitation to sustained anarchy. The Buhari government should go beyond brandishing token social empowerment handouts to cultivating the right economic strategies to generate employment opportunities that could help reduce poverty. We cannot afford such a large population of idle and deprived youth in Nigeria. Their youthful energies need to be productively harnessed, or they channel them towards criminality.
In all, it is also advisable for civil society, human rights activists and agitators in Nigeria to rethink street protest as the only vehicle of expressing grievances against unjust issues. Since there is the tendency for hoodlums and anarchists to hijack genuine, lawful and peaceful protests, organizers of mass protests should plan future street protests, if absolutely necessary, to last for only a few days and stop. Anything protest that is longer than a week would give a signal to criminals to join the fray and turn things upside down. For instance, if the #EndSARS protesters had suspended the protests after the IGP announced the disbandment of SARS and the FG approved other demands, the situation might not have degenerated to the scale of destructive violence, fatal shootings by uniformed men and attendant waste of lives. Protesters should, for now, call off further protests and let the Federal Government implement the promised reforms of the police. The point against police brutality has been strongly made, and the authorities are bound to enforce real reforms to avert a recurrence of the recent anarchy.
Onifade is a communication practitioner and public affairs analyst.