By Ahmad Musa Hussain
One unique strength of the #EndSARS protest is the lack of any central leadership, which means government cannot compromise, intimidate or arrest its key leaders in order to suppress the protests.
However, in that strength lies its major weakness. Leaderless protests lack significant staying power. They fizzle out after some weeks and there’s no leadership or any platform to engage the government on the concessions achieved even after the protest has ended.
And because the protests lack leadership, they risk being hijacked by people at the extreme who might see an opportunity to smuggle other agendas beyond the original demands of the protests. I believe we are beginning to see this with the #EndSARS protests as their demands keep changing from #EndSARS to an endless stream of hashtags.
People would like to point at the Black Lives Matter protest and other youth-driven protests across the world as to how leaderless protests are becoming the norm, but the BLM protests achieved no tangible reform until Trump sent in the Feds to forcefully disband the protests and bolster his law and order image. The reality is after making your demands and the other party accepting them, you give implementation a chance by moving from the protest ground to the negotiating table.
Therefore, leaderless protests are an indictment at how divided and disparate the protest goals are and their inability to forge some semblance of organizational unity and trust, thus creating a vacuum that will be filled by extremist elements who have a different agenda than the widely subscribed fight against police brutality. We have seen that in the last elections where all the so-called ‘youth’ presidential candidates failed to come under one platform to challenge the status quo.
In Nigeria today, you are either pro-government or anti-government (with each side ranking on a scale of 1 – 10). We all belong to either of the two groups no matter how we pretend to be indifferent. Your mere opposition to one side automatically makes you a supporter of the other.
Today, all the initial demands by the #Endsars movement have been accepted by the Federal Government. Granted that protesters have every reason to doubt the government’s sincerity about those commitments considering other failed commitments in the past, but real reforms cannot be implemented while protestors are still on the streets.
And that’s where the protests need leadership despite the inherent risks therein. It is the leadership that will engage the government through confidence-building on both sides that will see the gradual withdrawal of the protest as more conditions are met. That also provides an opportunity to isolate the extremists among protesters who would accept nothing short of confrontation with the government. Without leadership, they are merely an extension of the social cancel culture to the political scene, where protests become more of tools for venting anger and demonstrating nonconformism than achieving any real social and political change
Protests are a powerful tool of forcing reforms on social, political and economic issues affecting a society and have been behind great historical causes. But seeking to change a government through protests is an invitation to chaos and will set a dangerous precedent that will set the country on a vicious cycle of protests and counter-protests. More so when we have a democracy that despite its many shortcomings, have proved capable of bringing an opposition to power at both state and federal levels.
Already, some people are getting excited at the idea of a revolution in Nigeria. But revolution is also a political phenomenon. And inasmuch as the idea may sound exciting, it is a wrong and cowardly way of doing politics (in a place where political participation is not restricted) by trying to take through the streets what you cannot take via the ballot box. What is more interesting is that were the government to fall today, it is the dominant opposition group (PDP) and not the protestors that will be in a position to fill the existing vacuum due to the latter’s lack of leadership and organizational platform. We have seen that across the world from Egypt to Libya, Ukraine to Bolivia and recently Sudan.
Therefore, protesters need to separate hype from reality and accept the concessions government has granted them. Also, they need to form some semblance of leadership to engage the government and other credible stakeholders to safeguard the successes recorded during the protests and even beyond. Failure to do that will set them on a dangerous path of confrontation with the government and its supporters as the government gradually builds its case against the protests.
On its part, the government needs to be smarter in dealing with protesters’ demands and resist the temptation to use force to quell the protests. You cannot just move from SARS to SWAT in search of a people-friendly policing brand. Also, there’s the need for an organization-wide restructuring of the entire police force and not just SARS in order to ensure the reform permeates all segments of our law enforcement architecture.
There is no doubt that the government is still struggling to recover from the shock served on it by young Nigerians on the streets. To their credit, the protests have remained largely peaceful despite occasional provocations. The peaceful nature of the protests deprived the government of any alibi to use force. But as government becomes desperate and protesters grow more recalcitrant even after their demands are being accepted, that entente is going to change and it is going to change badly.