If last Thursday’s broadcast by the President failed to fully capture the mood of the nation, the outcome of the National Economic Council (NEC) of two days ago seemed to be closer to a problem-solving approach.
It is, therefore, more constructive to read the NEC statement as a useful complement to the President’s speech.
Apart from the conspicuous omission in the broadcast of what happened at Lekki in Lagos State on that Black Tuesday, there was the gross disappointment caused those who had expected a rousing speech imbued with sufficient empathy to appeal to the collective humanity of the people. The addendum that came from the presidency days later stating that the result of investigation into the incident was being awaited could not be said to be timely.
Those calling on the President Muhammadu Buhari to make a speech in the face of a festering social sore were not enamoured of the talks of Trader Moni and similar stuffs in his policy catalogue.
The ferment for democratic expressions generated by the actions of the #EndSARS movement was probably being officially misread.
This moment should be properly interpreted.
Specifically, a tinge of nostalgia for authoritarianism was apparent when the President said: “Sadly, the promptness with which we have acted seemed to have been misconstrued as a sign of weakness and twisted by some for their selfish unpatriotic interests.”
Now, a government that is responsive to the popular demands of the people is far from being weak; to listen to the voices of the people is rather a measure of democratic strength. And that’s the real strength.
Upholding the people’s will would show that a government wants to be in good standing with the people as a proof of genuine strength. To turn a deaf ear to popular demands in order to prove that government is strong would only amount to arrogance of power with all its untoward consequences.
Talking about weakness or strength, the people’s power is ultimately superior as demonstrated by the lessons of history.
While the President’s speech was still being analysed from various perspectives, the NEC came up on Monday with some ideas to answer the questions posed by the poor condition of the youth. Established by the constitution, the NEC, chaired by the Vice President, comprises the state governors and governor of Central Bank of Nigeria. It is the body that meets periodically to have a panoramic view of the economy and the direction of development. If the council is well run, it could be a veritable instrument for economic management and national planning.
In continuation of the response of government at the federal and state levels to the momentum generated by the #EndSARS movement, the economic council sought to address the “deeper reasons behind the #EndSARS protests and its fallouts.”
A committee was set up to engage the youths, civil society organisations, religious bodies and traditional rulers. The focus of this proposed engagement, which not a few have advocated, would be “employment, social safety net programmes, national unity among key issues.” With Vice President Yemi Osinbajo as the chairman, other members of the committee are Governors Ifeanyi Okowa (Delta), Babagana Zulum (Borno), Muhammed Bello (Niger), Rotimi Akeredolu (SAN) (Ondo), Dave Umahi (Ebonyi), and Aminu Tambuwal (Sokoto).
It is important that job-creation is topmost on the agenda of the committee. To put an end to the hopelessness of the millions of jobless youths, the scourge of unemployment and underemployment should be squarely tackled. To paraphrase someone in another context , if the committee is to recommend three solutions to the resolve the crisis, the three things should be grouped as jobs, jobs and jobs.
What this crisis has partly manifested is also that establishing “social safety nets” should go beyond tokenism which politicians at all levels of government in Nigeria call “empowerment.” To empower the people sustainably, social protection policy steps should be better structured and, indeed, institutionalised. This is necessary for the vulnerable members of the society to have access to the benefits of the somewhat cumbersome schemes.
Cash transfers could prove handy as transitional measures. But a bank of the poor would be a more strategic thing to think about in the context of the Nigerian condition. Social security should be taken more seriously at the policy level.
The political economy approach of the NEC should be encouraged. The Nigerian crisis of underdevelopment is multi-dimensional; it is social, economic and political. It is remarkable that the NEC has on its agenda the question of insecurity and the threats to national unity.
The last review of the nation’s defence policy drew an organic link between social security and physical security. Lack of social security and the worsening of physical insecurity are bitter fruits of the poisoned tree of an unjust, selfish and inhumane system. They are the features of a system that permits obscene affluence to float mindlessly in a sea of mass poverty and misery. If any neo-liberal technocrat thought this was a mere ideological ranting, the laboratory to test the thesis has been amply provided in the streets in the last few days.
Significantly, the committee is also to look into the ways to enhance national unity. The threats to national unity cannot be ignored by any government that is sincere about advancing progress and development of Nigeria. National development plans would be better executed if the country is united on the basis of equity and justice despite its complexity and diversity. It has been suggested from many quarters that the report of the 2014 Conference among others could be useful in finding solutions to this aspect of the problem. The conference convened by President Goodluck Jonathan attracted the participation of eminent and patriotic Nigerians. Its vast recommendations on different departments of national life have been a matter of constant reference in the last six years. So this committee may not need to set up another committee for that purpose, as it is the political and administrative culture in Nigeria.
It is noteworthy that the the attention of the Nigerian state in the last two weeks has been focussed on these primary socioeconomic and political issues by the action of an inchoate, but extremely heroic movement, #EndSARS.
Nothing in recent history has compelled the Nigerian state to respect the voices from the streets like that of #EndSARS. Maybe, that is why the tiger in the Buhari government had to proclaim its prowess: the one time military dictator and now an elected President has had cause to assert that his government is not weak.
Interwoven in the crisis, which has tragically claimed scores of lives, are socio-economic and political questions. These questions are worth pondering by the NEC committee that’s in search of solutions to the problem. You may say the solutions are out there in the public sphere as articulated by public-spirited individuals and organisations. There are reports of panels are commissions. Visions have been enunciated.
Police brutality, especially the atrocities of some members of the defunct Special Anti-Robbery Squad of the Force (SARS), was the focus of the #EndSARS campaigners. The protest was demonstrably peaceful. That’s why no one in good conscience could hold the popular democratic campaigners responsible for the violence that sadly followed.
But on Black Tuesday, October 20, soldiers fired shots at the assembly of protesters.
The truth of what actually happened is yet to be officially told. Calls have been made for a coroner’s inquest into the incident. The morning after the Lekki incident, violence erupted in Lagos and other cities. The orgy of destruction of public and private property has hardly abated as curfews still subsist in some states. Calabar was the epicentre of the massive destruction at the weekend. Imagine that happening in a city once reputed for serenity despite its fledgling economy.
As bodies are counted, material loses are being estimated all over the country That’s why no one in good conscience could hold the popular democratic campaigners responsible for the violence that sadly followed.
The storming of warehouses by people, who are in search of foodstuffs meant to be distributed as palliatives to cushion the effects of the disruption caused by coronavirus, is another phenomenon. The crowds overwhelming warehouses containing rice, beans, indomie, vegetable oil etc. have become the public barometer of hunger. The noxious mixture of anger and hunger is flowing almost uncontrollably in the land. The rhetorical talk about food insecurity is being dramatised in the streets. Hunger is certainly one the most poignant indices of gross inequality that defines the Nigerian society. That’s the real message of what is happening across the country.
The security agencies are responding to the break down of law and order in parts of the country within their limited capacity. Policemen and soldiers are among those killed in the violence.
It is appropriate that the federal and state governments are simultaneously responding to the ferment by #EndSARS at the policy level.
That is the energetic pull of popular democracy.
So, it may be apposite to ask in the circumstance: what are the prospects of popular democracy in Nigeria?
The prospects of popular democracy in a polity could be assessed by how a people make legitimate demands to widen the frontier of human progress and expand the coast of justice.
In the Nigerian context, popular democracy should be about the categorical expression of people’s will through direct action and unfettered debates. The popular-democratic activities should seek to promote genuine freedom, equity, free speech, civil rights, socio-economic justice, the dignity of the human person etc. For instance, the #EndSARS was originally specific on stopping police brutality as its objective.
At this critical moment of the nation’s history, the choice should not be limited to the one between anarchy or revolution.
By all means, anarchy should be avoided. For clarity, anarchy is not used here as a philosophical category of the political condition promoted by political activists who reject the legitimacy of any state power. Such a movement of anarchists is not visible in Nigeria. The anarchy that is a threat here is the vulgar one that glorifies social disorder with its bloody consequences. It would benefit no one. What is happening is also not a revolution. Neither is there any prospect of one. The objective situation on the streets may appear revolutionary. But the subjective factors to push a revolution through are lacking for now.
Meanwhile, there is a third option of popular democracy.
The #EndSARS movement has proved that a fertile ground exists for popular democracy in Nigeria. Given a philosophical articulation and improved organisational capacity, popular democratic struggles could be deepened. Efforts of movements, even with varying ideological contents, could coalesce to widen the political landscape of freedom, social justice and a humane social order.
The limitation of the Nigeria’s experiment with liberal democracy has become obvious. It is not serving the people and it is not inclusive.
While factions of the ruling class dominate the stunted liberal democratic institutions in a relay race for power, other social forces should develop popular -democratic structures to advance the people’s cause.
“The #EndSARS movement has proved that a fertile ground exists for popular democracy in Nigeria”