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On Public Protest and Why People in Power don’t like it

By Segun Ogunlade
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When on Tuesday news broke out that a protest was held in Katsina over the incessant banditry attacks and mindless killings going on across many states in Northern Nigeria, I was happy. According to reports, the protesters demanded an end to the persistent invasion and mass killings across the northern states especially in Katsina, Kaduna, Zamfara, Sokoto and Benue. When I read that the protest ended peacefully, I was hoping the government would do something about the message. At least, I thought to myself, the government now knows some people are beginning to get uncomfortable with how insecurity is being handed with kids’ gloves and felt the need to reiterate to the government what many of us have been saying that it has failed in its duty to protect lives and properties of the citizens it’s been charged with.

But barely forty-eight hours after news of the peaceful protest, it was reported that the leader of the Coalition of Northern Groups (CNG) that championed the protest in Katsina, Mr Nastura Sharif had been arrested and detained at the Force Headquarters in connection with the protest. According to a statement credited to the Group’s Director of Operations, Aminu Adam in This Day newspaper, the Katsina State Commissioner of Police, Mr Sanusi Buba, had invited him, Sharif, and four others to his office for an interaction during which he told them that the Inspector General of Police wanted to see Sharif. From that meeting, they were taken to Abuja where the arrest and detention was made.

That was the government’s usual manner of attacking the messenger but discarding his message with a wave of hand. For a long time, people in power in Nigeria have done that to any of their critics. They sought a way to shut down their critics and discard their criticisms as if they were as unimportant as the persons bearing them. They know the messages of the messenger are true but the ego that comes with the position they occupy wouldn’t let them listen to them. They have a deep resentment for anyone that dare point out their errors in the public because that’s what a public protest is all about most of the time. They are used to people singing their praises that they would do anything to clamp down on anyone and anything on whose lips their shortcomings is a sweet melody. So far, that method has proven to be successful.

People with power know how much people fear the loss of their freedom and would do anything to avoid it. To spread their fear, they go after the leader of any protest. When that is done, and the leader has been arrested and/or detained, other people would back down for fear of suffering the same fate. Jesus knew it a long time ago when he said when the shepherd is attacked, his flocks would scatter. It is a tactics that people in power often use to ensure that their administration escape any form of criticism. Arrest the leader and watch his followers dissipate. They exploit the people’s fear and use it to keep them silent. They that are on the wrong side would suddenly spin the situation to make it seem as if they were the victims and make the real victims look like the villains. They want to maintain their public image to the detriment of the people they are governing. However, the proclivity to clampdown on critics is not an exclusive feature of political officers. It is common anywhere power and influence are found.

When in 2018 Ojo Aderemi, a former Students Union President at the University of Ibadan was rusticated for four semesters by the university’s Students Disciplinary Committee in connection to a protest he led in 2017, it wasn’t so much about what the protest was about but it was much about what it does to the image of the people it was staged against. The protest which was held on the 29th of May, 2017 was to express the students’ dissatisfaction over paying for ID cards which they were not given. The protest seemed justified to all the students but the school management saw it as blasphemous. They treated the protest as an affront and outright disrespect for the school authority. As a result, the students were sent home for about six weeks.

But when the ID cards were later produced and none came with a chip that was promised, the students, many of whom had begged to resume from the strike, were afraid to question the authority. And when Ojo Aderemi and about four to five other students were rusticated for their role in the protest, none of the students had the courage to say or do anything. They just continued as if the rusticated students acted for their own good during the protest. That shows how the school management had turned the situation around. First, they sent the students home for demanding what they paid for but was not given to them. That was the first step toward silencing them. That silencing was completed with the rustication of Ojo Aderemi and others. Nobody wanted to be like them. Ironically, these happened in a higher institution of learning where people are supposed to be trained on how to question things and to accept harmless criticism as a form of correction.

Unfortunately, that is the way we have been conditioned to live in Nigeria. It is not true that we have the best adaptability skills in the world. It is because of the fear of what would happen to us when we decide to speak out. It started from when we were little and we were often shouted down by the elderly ones when they talking as an authority over a topic they knew little or nothing about. They beat us not because our opinions were wrong but because we dared express them the way we did. Once a person is given a numerical advantage in terms of age over others, then he feels the other person doesn’t have the right to correct him over anything because he believes his age has given him a higher level of clarity.

When we grow up and pride ourselves as survivors of political maladministration when we could have demanded for something better, we were simply following a pattern that started since we were young. It is our seeming ability to always ‘get used to it’ that has made us the type of people that grope under the burden of bad governance. We couldn’t challenge the people in authority when they acting in their own benefit. We fear the people that should fear us because at the end of the day, our silence and cowardice would be justified as merely a strong survival instinct. Now, we are like people that didn’t have a control over their necessary human experiences. When people with state powers throw anything we don’t like at us, we simply activate our adaptability skills whilst waiting for the next worse thing to come.

These days, it doesn’t even look like we are under a democratic government. The people in government loathe any form of peaceful protest as if it was an arrangement to dethrone them from their elevated seat. It is easy for them to do because political power in Nigeria seems to come with a high degree of absoluteness. Political leaders in Nigeria have enormous power to the detriment of all of us. Their powers often go unchecked. They could get away with anything without so much resistance from the people. They could steal money that is meant for public good and the people they stole it from would still celebrate them with chieftaincy titles.

With their unchecked power comes an unrestricted access to the treasury. In Nigeria, our leaders are allowed close control of the treasury that when they mismanaged it, none of us would know. In cases where we know, we were unable to do anything about it. The story of Nigerian politicians is like that of a hungry man that is left with an unguarded pot of stew with big chunks of meat. Any times he feels like eating, he goes to the pot and pick any meat that appeals to his taste. He continues picking meat from the pot until all the meats are gone. When the owner of the stew comes around, then she realises her failure in leaving her pot of stew with a hungry man unguarded. Of course we could say the hungry man has no right to pick anything from the pot. That would be like condemning like a thief for stealing something in your room when he met your door unlocked when you were not under any pressure to leave it open.

Where there is money and power, the person wielding both is susceptible to human frailties which include the abuse of both. When people abuse power and they know it would go unpunished, they grow more confident. That was why when Omoyele Sowore was detained by the DSS in 2019, it wasn’t so much because of the #RevolutionNow protest but because the government knew nothing would happen if Sowore was arrested and detained without trial or bail. As I have mentioned earlier, the people with power knew when the leader of their opposition is gone, very little is left of the followers.

The Black Lives Matter protest that tailed the killing of George Floyd should teach us one or two lessons. When Derek Chauvin was arrested and charged with third-degree murder and second degree manslaughter on the 29th of May, it was because the people condemned the government for leaving the matter for four days without an arrest or prosecution. When the people saw that the charge against Chauvin was third-degree murder and that the three officers that were with him were only fired but not charged, they continued to speak against it. Some days after, the charge against Chauvin was reviewed to second-degree murder. The three officers that were with him have now been charged with aiding and abetting murder. That is the power of speaking out.

Every abuse of power often starts with the abuser trying to make the people live with what they are not comfortable. When the people allow it to pass without question, then the abuse will continue. But if it was stopped the first time, then the abuser would know there is so little he could get away with. Unfortunately, we have allowed people that abuse power to our detriment get away with it for too long. But it is never too late to start demanding for better because we deserve better. We should rise above our differences and confront our abusers. If we don’t do so, we are giving them the strength to continue.