If you chase two rats at the same time, you risk missing both— African proverb
In the first few days of these protests, I was particularly struck by tweets warning protesters not to allow politicians and celebrities, and prominent people space to be visible and relevant (in the language of the uprising, it is put as “don’t give the mike”).
It brought home one of the most pronounced characters of the protest: it was exclusively about young alienated Nigerians, a generation defined by a profound idea that it stands alone as the abandoned generation with scores to settle not just with leadership, but with all preceding generations and all manners and shades of establishment and influence.
You got the distinct impression that the nation was about to witness an uprising of the young, for the young, by the young. It had all the assets needed to fuel it: deep anger, a sense of righteousness of its cause, and technology that had been tried and tested elsewhere as effective mobilizers.
A young generation began the march against a state that was more visible when brutalizing citizens than providing opportunities for its young to grow into productive adults. It had a fairly familiar target: a police outfit that had acquired notoriety over the years for crossing lines and advertising impunity.
#EndSARS became a clarion call for all manner of grievances against the state. It also broke new grounds in the apparently spontaneous response by thousands of other young people in many towns and cities. It was difficult to fault a campaign against a largely discredited police outfit and demands for accountability and justice.
As it gathered momentum, it was joined by additional numbers of the young, as well as other interests that had been nibbling at the edges of a country bursting with problems and paralyzed by leadership that is too isolated from its actual state. By the end of its first week, it had become a new phenomenon.
It was not going to be OccupyNigeria or other previous popular expressions anchored by civil society, labor unions, political grievances or other campaigns that fizzled out after engagement with a notoriously corrupting political process.
The uprising confronted the state with a major dilemma. It could not be ignored owing to the appeal of its cause, and its popularity among an aggrieved citizenry. Acknowledgment of its legitimacy as a peaceful protest around a genuine cause made it necessary to make concessions.
Like all protests that start with single causes, however, concessions invited more demands because they exposed a state that was on a weaker footing. More interests registered behind the uprising, making resolution difficult because not all agenda is exposed. The state’s room for maneuver was being gradually limited. If it leaned too hard on protesters, it risked more anger and more determined resistance. If it gave too much space, opportunistic interests exploit them. A stand-off meant both sides were losing.
In most conflicts, there are good moments to cash in on advantages, and there are bad moments for submitting to a resolution. In reality, it is extremely difficult to know the best moments and worst moments, or when strategies should be modified, amended, or entirely jettisoned.
Parties involved in conflicts benefit from strategies, quality of leadership, and the manner factors that are central to success or failure influence outcomes. It would appear to be the case that when these protests started, they were really about bringing a complete end to a police unit that had been notoriously difficult to reform or scrapped.
The government’s response was faulty on two grounds. First, it delayed a decision that will suit the nature of the grievance, and unwittingly, perhaps, played into the hands of those who wanted more. Second, the decision to replace SARS with SWAT was made under the damaging impression that the administration was allowing the police to reform itself.
It was naïve to expect that the protesters and the public with a deep distrust of the police will accept that this was a sufficient response to get people off the streets.
The uprising followed with five demands. The government, now weakened and beginning to panic, accepted all five without equivocation. By this time, the uprising was basking in widening support and virtual immunity from the strong arms of the state. The more intelligent sections of the crowds were celebrating its absence of leadership which could sell it out at negotiations or be muzzled by the state into capitulation.
In reality, while it had no discernible leadership, it had strong, well-supplied, and articulate influence behind it and within it, asserting itself. Its “decentralized” structure was a façade. It had people in major cities who did its thinking, directed activities of multitudes through elaborate social media, mobilized and arm-twisted celebrities into becoming its faces, and began to look more like Tahrir Square spread over the country.
The major issue for the uprising laid in ambiguities regarding an exit strategy. In general terms, it said there would be no cessation of the protests until the administration “did the needful”.
The needful here stretched from improvements in policing institutions which had begun with the rejected SWAT, to improved qualities of governance and ended with the resignation of President Buhari.
Without leadership that was to articulate and process wide-ranging demands, how were these demands to be discussed, negotiated, and processed into hard victory? A common thread in the uprisings during the Arab Spring and in places like Sudan and Lebanon was the huge amount of time and energy that was spent in convincing protesters to discuss with the state towards a resolution.
The manner those efforts at identifying representatives of protesters and engaging the state were handled exposed the wide variety of interests, many of them hostile to each other, and in most instances weakened the representations by major compromises that had to be made.
The uprising was always going to deal with three strategic challenges. One was time. How much time would it have to keep the government under pressure and extract concessions before it loses steam or the initiative? The second was keeping its focus and control over its core goals so that other interests do not supplant its struggles.
The third was to resist outright subversion and sustain momentum and wider support. As things stand, the protests are paying a major price for a number of strategic and tactical errors. The absence of a visible, popular leadership at a time the protests were at its zenith means that articulation and representation have been so democratized that interests ranging from political, civil society, and criminal have all taken positions in the protests.
Poor strategic design owing principally to the spontaneous and rather chaotic emergence of the protests has made exiting with substantive goals achieved problematic. Marching and clashing with thugs opposing the protests is a poor option. Submitting to other shadowy interests will destroy the credibility of the protests, and may even threaten the goals that had been already achieved.
The absence of effective control and leadership has resulted in major divisions regarding goals and strategy. The protests began to reflect the nation’s perennial fault lines and dissipated much energy and unity around champions of regional agenda and political divisions. It is also obvious that protesters have little or no control over people with criminal and less than honorable designs.
Voices of the uprising against injustice and impunity are now being drowned by outrage over criminal activities and a public that is being made to pay a price it believes is too high.
The next few days will show if the uprising will cash in on its considerable achievements or lose much of it to a state that will find comfort in fighting back because the original cause itself had been lost. This should not be allowed to happen.
Nigerian youth have raised the bar in courage to demand a country that works for them, and leadership that is accountable. This should be a major turning point in our history, not a stopover on our way down.