A belief is not just an acceptance that something exists or is true, with or without proof. It is much more than that. We all believe in things that defy logic or that are contrary to evidence, which is why the term may be viewed as a decision that could be just or unjust. It could also be a position or attitude about things engendered by experience, intuition, tradition, conviction, scientific research, education or a combination of these. Beliefs are our self-created truths and realities that help us to make sense of our environments. They are the reinforcements for our attitudes to what we consider to be the truth in a given situation. There is, therefore, no formula to categorise beliefs as positive and negative. They govern our societies, our day-to-day and inner lives, our thoughts, hopes, plans, and relationships. That is why psychologists see beliefs as powerful and necessary things for the individual and for society. An individual is largely the sum total of his beliefs. That may explain why individuals are very protective of their beliefs – viewed as that part of themselves that relates with the world. The respect they demand from others for their beliefs is respect for their persons. But ‘belief’ and ‘rationality’ are not synonyms. No education can create a herd immunity against the influences of irrational beliefs.
A byproduct of belief is truthiness. We frequently make our judgments based on our intuition, gut feeling, opinions and perceptions rather than factual evidence, logic or scientific or intellectual examination. We are mostly tools of our emotions. We process information to feed our emotions. Other expressions of beliefs are motivated perceptions and reasonings. We not only see what we want to see, we believe what we want to believe. In both instances, evidence does not matter. That is why it is mostly fruitless to try to win arguments – social or political. As the social psychologist, Ziva Kunda, observes, there is always that ‘tendency to find arguments in favour of conclusions we want to believe to be stronger than arguments for conclusions we do not want to believe.’ In today’s world of opinionated individuals, it is common for people to form and cling to what the American Attorney, Ann O’Leary, calls ‘false beliefs despite substantial evidence to the contrary. The desired outcome acts as a filter that affects evaluation of scientific evidence and of other people.’Lawyers can easily relate to how motivated reasoning is similar to confirmation bias where evidence that confirms a belief – which may be a logical rather than an emotional belief – is either sought after more or given more credibility than evidence that disconfirms a belief. It stands in contrast to critical thinking where beliefs are approached in a skeptical and unbiased fashion.
This brings me to the issues in the protests that escalated to riots. No historian can record for tomorrow’s generation a noncontroversial version of the #EndSARS protests instigated by the abuse of power, excessive use of force and brutalisation of young Nigerians by the Special Anti-Robbery Squad of the Nigerian Police Force. Justifiably, the protests received broad national and international support. Though uncoordinated and not centralized, they gained sufficient traction and attention. The young people who sacrificed their time and put out themselves to push for resilience and steadfastness among the protesters became instant heroes. Impunity among public officials, particularly in the Nigerian Police Force, has long become a way of life. The youth, who constitute the most critical component of the country’s population, were for a long time indifferent and apathetic to the culture of impunity in the public place. It was, therefore, pleasing to many to see them in the streets demanding the needful.
As time wore on, it became evident that people with opposite motives would hijack and hide under the cover of the protests to pursue their goals. As the protesting crowds swelled up and the protests took different – uncontrolled – dimensions, state governments became jittery, fearful that the situation would deteriorate into chaos and anarchy. Some of them responded by imposing curfews. In Edo State, where the maximum prison was attacked and it was reported that1,993 prisoners were freed, the Governor, Godwin Obaseki, explained that the curfew he imposed on Monday, 19 October 2020 became necessary ‘because of the very disturbing incidents of vandalism and attacks on private individuals and institutions by hoodlums in the guise of the #EndSARS protests.’ The next day, 20 October 2020, Governor Babajide Sanwo-Olu of Lagos State imposed a 24-hour curfew, stating that he had
watched with shock how what began as a peaceful #EndSARS protest has degenerated into a monster that is threatening the wellbeing of our society. Lives and limbs have been lost as criminals and miscreants are now hiding under the umbrella of these protests to unleash mayhem on our state… and …as a government that is alive to its responsibility and has shown a commitment to #Endsars movement, we will not watch and allow anarchy in our state.
The face and backbone of the protest was the camp at the Lekki Tollgate. The protest at the tollgate did not only draw global attention because of its peaceful and organised nature or because of the calibre of celebrities and personalities it was attracting, but also because the tollgate was on the path to Lekki and its surroundings where a growing number of middl-eclass Lagosians reside. Cutting the Lekki axis off from the rest of Lagos was bound to draw attention. The tollgate protesters defied the curfew order and stayed put beyond the 4:00 pm deadline. Soldiers arrived at the venue at about 6 pm and, though the aftermath was bloody, people displayed different understandings of what actually happened. The media has so many versions of the incident that one is tempted to believe there were several tollgate incidents on that day. Many will indeed go to their graves with their own versions of the incident at the Lekki Tollgate.
Some versions of the incident, unfortunately, precipitated unprecedented mayhem bothering on anarchy and Hobbesian brutish state, exposing the underbelly of the state security architecture. But that is not the focus of this discussion. Mine is a call to all of us to show understanding and restraint in responding to positions of others in every aspect of our lives – including politics, religion and social interactions. It is imperative for the Government to be proactive and anticipatory of actions and decisions that may seem unrealistic or stupid. Individual’s versions of events may be as real to them as they are to those who believe otherwise. Predisposed beliefs, seated interests, fears, prejudices and biases can motivate us to see what we want to see and believe what we want to believe.
It may be outrightly stupid to believe that Asiwaju Bola Tinubu owns every building or hotel, every road, every infrastructure or business in Lagos, but it is a belief for which some will kill or die. Beliefs are not about facts or evidence. When Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they are doing,’ he was simply enjoining us to know that other people could truly be seeing things differently from us. We can hardly empathise with others without understanding how they feel.