State House correspondent, LEON USIGBE, interrogates President Muhammadu Buhari’s intervention in the EndSARS protests.
P ERHAPS, nothing in the life of his administration has tested President MuhammaduBuhari’s will than the EndSARS nationwide protests. When they broke, many expected him to roll out tanks to quell the audacity of the determined youth. On the contrary, he has been persuasive and conciliatory but has had little success because of an apparent trust deficit.
Several times in the past, his administration had promised to check the flagrant police brutality of young Nigerians allegedly perpetrated, chiefly, by the Special Anti-Robbery (SARS) unit of the Nigerian Police. Reforms of the dreaded branch were touted but never materialized. Gory tales continued to surface of their atrocities on innocent youth over offenses such as having good phones, laptops, tattoos on their bodies, spotting dreadlocks or generally looking prosperous.
On numerous occasions, they were allegations of victims being raped, “wasted,” in the personnel’s parlance of extrajudicial murders, while they allegedly appropriate the victims’ possessions to themselves. The hapless families are left to mourn and hardly was any police officer held accountable for the dastardly impunities. Government’s perceived lack of resolve to rein in the rogue cops did not go unnoticed by the digital Nigerian generation and their sympathetic twittering collectives. The EndSARS hashtag was born and the mobilization began in earnest with government still unable to decipher the handwriting on the wall.
The movement in its organic complexity is giving Buhari something to ponder. Even when he has signaled his intention for engagement with the protesters, government cannot pinpoint any leaders of the groups that are obviously digitally maneuvered. Observers believe that the angry but faceless and well-coordinated youth have weaponized the social media and government is yet to fathom what to do about the condition. Young Nigerians are raising money to fund protests just as notable sympathizers, home and abroad, continue to supply vital needs to encourage them to sustain the pressure. Most people appear to be nonplussed as much as the government concerning the metamorphosis of the agitation.
Some popular Nigerian entertainment stars and their foreign counterparts have openly identified with the movement and lent their voices the agitation. Afro pop fans favorite, David Adeleke, better known as Davido, presented the agitators original five-point demand to government. These include: Immediate release of all arrested protesters; Justice for all deceased victims of police brutality and appropriate compensation for their families; Setting up an independent body to oversee the investigation and prosecution of all reports of police misconduct (within 10 days); In line with the new police act, psychological evaluation and retraining (to be confirmed by an independent body) of all disbanded SARS before they can be redeployed, and Increase police salary so that they are adequately compensated for protecting lives and property of citizens. Buhari immediately acceded to these demands.
A forum convened by the Inspector General of Police (IGP), Mohammed Adamu, on the directives of the president,agreed that the demand of the protesters are genuine concerns and will be addressed by the government. A communique from the meeting affirmed that the need for stakeholder engagement to build trust and restore public confidence in law enforcement. It stated: “The Forum collectively: welcomed the dissolution of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) by the IGP; reaffirmed the constitutional rights of Nigerians to peaceful assembly and protest; further affirmed the sanctity of life of every Nigerian and the role of the Police in protecting this right; affirms that the five-point demands of the protesters and the EndSARS movement are genuine concerns and will be addressed by the government.’’
The forum noted that the dissolution of SARS presents an opportunity to embark on comprehensive reforms aimed at repositioning the Nigeria Police as a modern, responsive and citizens-centred law enforcement organisation. What is to be expected: “Following the dissolution of SARS, the forum calls for the following immediate steps to be taken in restoring public confidence and trust in the Police: an order by the Inspector General of Police to all State Commands to halt the use of force against protesters; unconditional release of arrested protesters and citizens; open communication and outreach to citizens to establish trust and confidence and a roadmap for the implementation of the White Paper of the Presidential Panel on the Reform of the SARS.
“The forum welcomed the proposal to set up an Independent Investigation Panel to look into the violations of human rights by the defunct SARS and other segments of the Nigerian Police. The forum agrees to the setting up of this Independent Panel by the National Human Rights Commission within the next one week. An open call for Memoranda from members of the public whose rights have been violated by the defunct SARS and other segments of the Police will be released by the Commission within one week.
“The forum recommends the psychological evaluation, training and retraining of disbanded SARS officials prior to re-deployment. The Forum resolves to set up the following Technical Sub-Committees to design an implementation roadmap and work plan for the implementation of the White Paper: Training, Capacity and Re-orientation; Logistics: Infrastructure, Communications and Technology; Arrest, Detention, and Investigations; Regulations, Oversight and Accountability and Financing and Partnerships.’’
Flowing from the acceptance of the demands, government expected the protests to end to give room for the implementation of the agreement. This has not happened. Cynics attribute the continued protests to several things including, the trust deficit, the speedy replacement of SARS with an equally suspicious Special Weapon and Tactical (SWAT) team perceived as a mere change in SARS nomenclature, the EndSARS had become a generic name for all that is wrong with the country: police brutality, mismanaged economy, corruption, youth unemployment, galloping inflation, poor infrastructure, lack of opportunities, among others. For President Buhari though, the disbandment of SARS is only the first step in the comprehensive reforms in the works for the police.
Buhari’s personal involvement
In a space of a few days, he delved into the crisis twice, once, using the opportunity of his launch of the Presidential Youth Empowerment Scheme (P-YES to personally address the matter. Digressing from the launch, he said: ‘’I will like to use this opportunity to say a word on the recent genuine concerns and agitations by Nigerians about the excessive use of force and in some cases extra-judicial killings and wrongful conduct of the men of the Nigerian Police Force. The disbanding of SARS is only the first step in our commitment to extensive police reforms in order to ensure that the primary duty of the police and other law enforcement agencies remains the protection of lives and livelihood of our people. We will also ensure that all those responsible for misconduct or wrongful acts are brought to justice. We deeply regret the loss of life of the young man in Oyo State during the recent demonstrations. I have directed that the circumstances of his death should be thoroughly investigated. Meanwhile, it is important to recognize that the vast majority of men and women of the police force are hardworking and diligent in performing their duties. The few bad eggs should not be allowed to tarnish the image and reputation of the force.’’
Vice President Yemi Osinbajo also weighed in, acknowledging, and offering profuse apologies for, government’s perceived snail speed in providing solutions to the nation’s numerous ills. He said in a statement he personally signed October 16, 2020: “Dear Nigerians, I know that many of you are angry, and understandably so. We could’ve moved faster and for this we are sorry. I fully understand how many young people feel. Many feel that we have been too silent and have simply not done enough. These feelings of frustration are justified. There are far too many people who have been brutalised at the hands of the police and this is unacceptable. We must take responsibility for protecting young people, even sometimes from those who are paid to protect them.
“Over the past week, we have been following the protests, and I have had a number of discussions with key people in the administration that you deserve to be informed about. Transparency, after all, is a key tenet of government. Several meetings have been held with: the Senate President Ahmad Ibrahim Lawan, Speaker of the House Representatives, Femi Gbajabiamila, the Chief of Staff to President Muhammadu Buhari, Chairman of the Police Service Commission, the IG of the Nigerian Police (IGP), the Executive Secretary of National Human Rights Commission Nigeria, and governors.
We understand that you want to see action from us and I’m here to tell you that work is ongoing. I chaired a meeting of 36 state governors and the Minister of the FCT (NEC), where we resolved to set up judicial panels of inquiry so we can see justice served, and fast. The reason being that only state governors, by law, can set up judicial inquiries in their states. The hearings will be public. With Mr. President’s approval, SARS has been completely disestablished, and none of its former members will feature in any police tactical units. I am sending my deepest condolences to the families of Jimoh Isiaq, and all those who have lost their lives at the hands of wayward police officers. To those injured, I wish a full and speedy recovery.
“We have proposed that each state government sets up a Victims’ Support Fund, which the Nigerian government will support. This is the least that we can do to compensate for the injustice suffered at the hands of errant officers. We also understand that the issues that you’re raising are bigger than just SARS. They’re deep and systemic and we’re undertaking comprehensive measures that will revamp the police by addressing issues of welfare, service conditions and training. On Monday, Mr. President also reiterated his commitment to these extensive police reforms. We will continue to update and engage with you all on these action steps and the ones to come, in the spirit of transparency, so that you can hold us accountable. We are, after all, here to serve you and we owe you a duty to win back your trust. Keep safe. God bless you.”The National Economic Council (NEC) headed by the vice-president has now formalised the setting up of the panels of inquiry by the states at its recent meeting.
Also, in their bid to diffuse tension, Senate President, Ahmad Lawan and Speaker, House of Representatives, Femi Gbajabiamila, have intensified their visits to the presidential villa since the commencement of the protests to work with Buhari on the timely implementation of the demands and put a quick end to the crisis. In one of such visits, Lawan affirmed that they had resolved with the President to expeditiously implement the demands. “The essence of coming to meet Mr. President is to review the situation and see the role the two arms of government should play in ensuring that the five-point demand are properly addressed. Where legislative intervention is required, we are ready to move in and deal with such expeditiously to ensure that we don’t waste any time so that we address the concern of our youth. Where the executive is expected, I am sure the executive will also expedite action. We will be watching to ensure that such demands are properly met.” He said that since the youth had made their point and the government had accepted the issues raised, it was time for the protests to end to give room for implementation.
On his part, Gbajabiamila admonished the youth to end the protest or risk losing the plot. He said they can return to the streets in two weeks if their demands are not meant. “So, let us tarry a little while. Let us sit back. We’ve got what we wanted, what we started out with. Let us wait and see what happens. Now, if you like, you begin your protest again if nothing happens in two weeks. But let us not continue this thing and then, lose the plot. That is what I don’t want. I don’t want our youth to lose the plot. They’ve done so well in terms of expressing their grievances and it’s important you don’t get side-tracked,” Gbajabiamila stated.
Discrediting the EndSARS movement
Worrying for most Nigerians now is the dimension added to the protests by infiltrating hoodlums and other urchins allegedly opposed to the agitation, who have introduced violence. Some observers think that they were hired to discredit the EndSARS movement, whose activities have been largely peaceful, to create an excuse for a violent clampdown on the participants. However, the adamant youth say they are resolved to press on with the agitation for as long as it takes for things to go right in the country.
While President Buhari has enjoyed plaudits for his reassuring fatherly demeanour towards the protests, Nigerians and the watching world await an amicable resolution to the crisis.
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