It is normal to posit that every Nigerian wants a better country even when we differ about the route to that destination. It is time to find a common ground and build peace on the basis of justice. The pursuit of hegemony has not helped this country. It is time to build from the ruins of the on-going unrest. It is time to stop the violence. I say this to civilians, police officers, and soldiers. I say this to all communities and sections that are seething with anger. Anger has a lot of energy; and it is useful to stir a protest…useful to resist the obduracies of power and power-mongers. It can raise the plane into the air but it cannot land it. Unrest can call attention to a raging problem; but it takes stability to resolve every issue.
All those who have died so far are Nigerians. Bystanders and passers-by. Peaceful protesters. Thugs. Police officers. Soldiers. They are all Nigerians. All the properties lost are ours. As the persona in JP Clark’s poem says, “we are all casualties.” Bereavement and loss can force people to seek revenge. It will worsen the situation. No more violent revenge…retaliation…reprisal. We have to unleash the angels of forgiveness without ignoring the angels of accountability. We can seek redress through investigation and prosecution. Many are inclined towards choosing that option. In that case, all deaths and arsons and vandalisations can be investigated. Everything must be in the open…including the incident at Lekki Tollgate on 20th October, 2020. In that case, we can consider setting up truly independent bodies to handle the matters. We cannot trust partisan law enforcement to treat the death of a protester as it will treat that of a uniformed officer. We cannot trust the police or the army to properly investigate the incidents because they are involved. If we choose prosecution, only truth, proper indictments, and compensations can heal the nation. We must pay compensations to the hurt…as we determine the losses. Begin the process right now…and quieten the voices of doom. Many are stoking fear and hate. Many are spinning partisan rubbish…APC this and PDP that. Many are weaving ethnic tension: Niger Delta, Hausa-Fulani, Middle Belt, Yoruba, Igbo, etc. Stop it. Stop it NOW. Nigerians have suffered enough. If you cannot give them succour, leave them alone to nurse their grief. Do not add to their sorrow.
This “wahala” started as a protest against police brutality; that is a fact. A relevant fact about a general problem. The police establishment is a cesspit. It needs reform. Its operation is unfair and unjust to Nigerians. They have killed, maimed, raped, and robbed many of us. The Special Anti-Robbery Squad (aka SARS) is not alone. Think about the anti-cultism units, anti-kidnapping units, Eagle Crack units, etc. All of them have added to the problems they are established to solve. Yet, we cannot do without the police. It will be terrible to run a country without a police organisation. The cure must not be worse than the disease. Let us add that the welfare of the police has been abandoned by the state. But that does not justify or excuse the criminality of the police. Why did the police not have the courage to ask for the improvement of its welfare? The system? Its corrupt and predatory superior officers? Thank providence: the same “demonized” protesters have asked for a new package on behalf of the police. We need to save the police. Not kill police officers or burn their stations. The police organization needs to serve us. Not kill us with impunity. So where do we go from here? Let us start from the beginning.
This is to the government: END POLICE BRUTALITY. END SARS. Do not rechristen it as SWAT. Do not be hasty to start something new without building confidence amongst the citizenry. The citizens are already traumatized. They are afraid that you are merely renaming police evil just to hoodwink the public. This is not the first time you have declared that you have banned “this or that.” And the “thing” remained virulent. Please, understand that you have a credibility problem. People cannot easily trust you. They will be foolish to trust you until you can truly earn their trust. Look, even as the protest against police brutality has been going on, police officers have not shown any kind of restraint. They have been murderous, brutal, and abusive: the very ills that have brought people to the streets. Reform the police. Do not allow the police to go back to its old ways. Old habits die hard. Be vigilant. You have oversight over the police and you have allowed it to fester for ages. Now, solve the problem. Save the police. By no way is the police defeated. It has the chance to be better.
This is to the government: you cannot win the people through more acts of brutality. Stop the clampdown. Stop the terrors of the state. You will bruise and break the people. But the discontent will wait for the country and ambush it in the future. Give fairness and justice to the people. Not threats. Not arrests. Not bullets. Do not flex your muscles against your own citizens. They already know you are powerful. That is why they are begging you to stop combing their hair with your iron-teeth. Do you understand them now?
This is to the government: there are other reforms that are necessary. Restructure the polity. Reform electoral practice. Stabilise the universities without eroding their autonomies. Check corruption amongst your own officials. Retool your civil service. Reduce the cost of governance (your citizens believe you are overpaid for the poor service you are noted for). Listen. Listen. The complaints are many. Listen. The country’s history is loud but the officers of state are deaf. Listen. You cannot govern people without their consent…you cannot do that forever. The issues we do not resolve today will wait for our children. The issues might exact more than a tithe of blood from our children. The polity is dysfunctional. The components believe they are held at gunpoint. Listen. Listen. And reform. Start earnest and honest dialogue now. Reform or hegemony will be the death of this country. Reform… restructure.
This is to the people: take advantage of the spotlight on you. You do not have to like your governors or the president. You do not have to like the last broadcast from the president. Until 2023, you have to work with the present officers of state to resolve some of or all of the issues you have raised. A country does not “change for good” because of a burst of protest. It requires consistent commitment to protest…to keep protesting against wrongs. It requires constant acts of vigilance to gain progress through incremental but sometimes painful processes. It requires tenacity, intelligence, and tactics to keep insisting that good governance is not a bus-stop but a tireless journey. Do I mean that you must stay on the road forever? No. I mean that you must know when to leave the road, without feeling broken or defeated by your wounds and losses. You must know when to press your advantage on negotiation tables…and return to the road if need be. You must know when to cash your cheque…if that metaphor helps. You have earned that cheque through your blood and you must make the most of it. By no means are the protesters defeated in this matter. Deaths…yes. Injuries…yes. Losses…yes. But defeat? Not at all. The government has pronounced concessions. Now is the time to translate those words to reality. How do we achieve that? Let us move from roadblocks and temper to securing the gains of the protest. We cannot be taking more bullets on the roads when the commissions of enquiry are sitting across the states.
This is to the people: begin with the hearings in your states. Your governors have commissions in place to redress a history of police brutality. Make sure it counts. Churches, mosques, civil society groups, media, traditional rulers, local government areas: get involved. Mobilise your people to approach the commissions. Give testimonies without fear or favour. Purge the society of all the losses, humiliations, pains, and traumas that citizens have suffered. Many stories/testimonies have been circulated via the internet in the cause of the protest. Look out for the victims. Many of them will be too poor or broken or ashamed to tell their stories in public. Create a support system for victims; help them to get justice. This opportunity has come at the cost of blood; we cannot fail to make maximum gain from it. It will be unfortunate if we cannot demonstrate to the various panels that our cry against police brutality is true. As you seek redress, know that the police organisation is wily. And also the politicians that run your states. Some of the murderous and abusive police officers have done favours to the politicians. There are shared secrets between the police and the politicians. The politicians will protect many culprits given that the commissions are at the behest of your politicians. Be vigilant. Plan your engagement against the system. Get justice.
This is to the people: remember what I have said before. Good governance is not a bus-stop. It is every citizen’s duty to keep shaping his/her country in pursuit of happiness. It is a lifelong duty to incrementally create a better country. It will not come on a platter of ease or from one event. Power loves its status quo. It concedes nothing unless it is confronted. Know that this protest, in spite of its decibel, will not solve all the problems. Resolve to be as stubborn as the problems that are holding your country down. If your resilience is tougher than the problems, you stand a chance to build the country of your dream. Strategise Build capacity and take power. Another election is on the way… 2023 is not far away. You can gain one state at a time. Put your trusted advocates in parliament. Take power. They will not give it to you. Make plans to take power. If you fail, try again. Keep trying. Do not give up. Keep fighting for your country.
This is to the people: where are those who are fed up with the country? You want to break it up? You do not need to start a war. You do not need a militia. You do not have to attack or kill the “strangers” who live in your own ethnic nationality. Begin by asking your legislators to move a motion for a referendum. It does not matter how few your legislators are, let them force the conversation on all Nigerians. It does not matter if the motion succeeds, let them keep raising it to keep the conversation alive. Begin with the state governors in your region. Let them raise the issue at the council of state. Let them raise it at every meeting of the council of state. Just as we do not need bloodshed to go our separate ways, we do not need to keep a country together by bloodshed.
This is to the country: I tell you the truth. Nigeria can be beautiful if we allow its beauty to be revealed. A few days to 1st October, 2020, I wrote a dirge entitled “A Country Defined.” I shared it with friends. Premium Times published it on 29th September, 2020. To borrow from the last stanza of the poem, I salute “those who know that every sunrise calls us to rise and every nightfall calls us to stand.”
-Obari Gomba (PhD) is a two-time Winner of ANA Poetry Prize and Winner of ANA Drama Prize. He teaches in the University of Port Harcourt.