In October, 2020, Nigerian youths stormed the streets of some of Nigeria’s major cities in massive protests against police brutality and gross human rights abuses. In what became known as the #EndSARS protests, Nigerian youths made five-point demands that collectively centered on the need for a massive overhaul of the country’s subsisting system of policing.
Unfortunately, what was initially a very peaceful protest escalated into a major national crisis when some misguided elements hijacked it and introduced a violent dimension, resulting in the mass destruction of public and private property and the killing of civilians and security operatives.
Following the cessation of the protests, government immediately commenced efforts to address the issues raised by the protesters, by directing the state governments to establish judicial panels of inquiry into past acts of police highhandedness and make recommendations for redress, where necessary, alongside other attempts at palliative reforms of the force, such as proscription of the infamous Special Anti-Robbery Sqauad (SARS), promotion of some police personnel and general improvement of the welfare packages of members of the force.
However, the ongoing efforts to reform the police force has not precluded the need to put measures in place to prevent future peaceful demonstrations from turning violent, as 2021 has shown some ominous signs of more nationwide protests, consequent to the multiple security, economic, political and other visceral challenges pummeling the country on all fronts. The recent attempts to recommence the EndSARS protests, alongside other calls on Nigerians by activists to take to the streets in protests against bad governance, which were unfortunately quelled with force by the authorities, are early warning signs of what might be lying ahead.
This piece suggests a holistic approach the Nigerian government could leverage on to prevent a reoccurrence of the inferno of violence that engulfed the country in the later days of the EndSARS protests.
First and foremost, the Nigerian Government must be proactive in engaging with agitators during future protests. The avoidance approach, which has become the penchant of Nigerian authorities, should be completely jettisoned for a more diplomatic, interactive approach that would give agitators room to extensively express and discuss their grievances with the government.
Closely related to the aforesaid is the need for government to make deliberate efforts towards implementing the terms of agreement between its negotiators and those of protesters. Making pronouncements, without backing them up with practical efforts could send out the wrong signals, which could further escalate tensions. It is advisable to establish a crisis management team in the Presidency, consisting of seasoned negotiators, charged with the mandate of directly engaging with agitators on thorny issues of national significance and making recommendations on the way forward.
Another glaring issue that made it easy for misguided elements to hijack the #EndSARS Protests was the absence of security operatives at most of the protest venues to prevent a breakdown of law and order. Henceforth, well drilled security operatives should be deployed early to protest venues with clearly spelt out rules of engagement, which is to keep the peace.
Apart from making it difficult for miscreants to hijack future protests, as was the case during the EndSARS protests, the presence of well drilled security operatives at protest venue will also reduce the incidences of trigger-happy security operatives opening fire at peaceful demonstrators. Operatives chosen for such operations must have gone through psychological evaluation and must have also performed similar roles in the past.
Again, thought should be given to the protection of critical public and private assets, such as historical monuments, prisons, schools, businesses et al. Towards this end, security operatives should be deployed at the early stages of protests to protect/secure critical national and private assets, unlike what happened in the later stages of the EndSARS protests when some disgruntled elements ran amok across the country attacking and destroying critical public and private assets, which could have been avoided if advanced deployment of security operatives had been done.
Again, there is need for an open line of communication between the incumbent President and the people during national protests, which must be maintained at all times to prevent worst case scenarios as happened during the EndSARS imbroglio. A situation whereby it took President Muhammadu Buhari weeks to respond to raucous public calls to address the nation on the efforts being made to address the grievances of the protesters, especially when tensions were very high, should not be allowed to repeat itself. Had the President addressed the nation earlier, the carnage visited on the country would have been avoided. Intermittently addressing the nation during crisis situations can act as confidence boosters that would help douse tensions and assure the people that the authorities are in charge.
Again, government must avoid resorting to threats and the use of force to quell legitimate, peaceful protests which might escalate tensions, drive the agitators underground where they would become a threat to the country. The use of force as a conflicts handling style is untenable in a democratic setting as it creates the impression that the authorities are not interested in listening to the complaints of protesters.
The tradition of government clampdowns on peaceful protesters can be blamed for the violent scenarios that were witnessed during past protests in the country. There is need for a paradigm shift by the authorities in the handling of future protests.
According to a popular maxim “prevention is better than cure”, while another says “there is no smoke without fire”. Protests don’t happen in a vacuum; they occur when there is a sense of injustice. So, the panacea to protests is for the operators of the machinery of governance to ensure that the greatest good is distributed to the greatest number of people in any political society; to ensure a sense of justice. If the rulers of Nigeria can engender a system of justice in the country, protests will become unfashionable.
God save Nigeria!