#EndSARS Protest and the Divisive North – South Politics in Nigeria, By Salihu Moh. Lukman



It will appear that truth is permanently the casualty of politics. In fact, convenient denial of truth seems to be the lifelong currency for public recognition as any response to our national challenges. Most times our challenges get politicised based on North – South divide simply because it is the cheapest way to gain political recognition and damage any national campaign, no matter its significance. This is not just emerging; it has been the case over the years. The ongoing EndSARS protest has become another instance of attempts to apply cheap narrative of North – South divide to end the protest, which can at best only succeed temporarily, either with reference to the demands of the protesters or response of government to the demands. This is largely because foul cries of the protest being hijacked by hoodlums and political opportunists dominate virtually all the diagnostic of the protest. Legitimate as such narrative would appear, especially given that the Federal Government has announced the disbandment of SARS, which is the main demand, any response based on North – South divide will be solo performance – monologue – based mostly on the single story of how a section of the country is promoting the protest, and therefore recommendations based on such narrative can hardly resolve the problem that trigger the protest.

A correct diagnostic of the protest should highlight the fact that it is true there are organisers of the protest and they have succeeded in mobilising Nigerian youth across all divides to support the protest. These are young Nigerians who are biologically our sons and daughters – including children of high-profile political leaders in the country. They are courageous young Nigerians that in many respects are able to engage us as parents on these matters with justifications of why government should respond to the demand of the #EndSARS protest. Unfortunately, their engagement with us as their parents are not able to influence our public policy choices in matters that affect them as young people. We should also recognise that part of the connection between our children and the protest may not necessarily be informed by direct experiences of police brutality based on the activities of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad of the Nigeria Police but simply informed by peer group solidarity partly on account of relationship with friends and relations that are affected by the frustration of being unable to access jobs, income earning opportunities and even access to education.

These challenges coupled with the realities of this particular time, which has condemned our children to be confined to some rigid patterns of life for the past 6 – 8 months, imposed in order to control the spread of Covid-19, the protest appear to have provided some exciting outlets for our children. Further catalysed by unfortunate activities of Academic Staff Union of Nigerian Universities (ASUU), which has been on strike on matters that are outside the scope of employment contracts and therefore not within the jurisdictional purview of collective bargaining items, here we are as a nation having to contain with highly unoccupied young people. The effort to mobilise musicians and entertainers could suggest that the organisers of the #EndSARS protest are conscious of this reality and ingeniously organise exciting activities around the protest to meet the expectations of our young people. This may just be a coincidence. The reality is that the level of organisation and sophistication of the #EndSARS protest movement is highly exaggerated. Its knowledge-base and vision is very narrow. Without any fear of sounding dismissive, the capacity of the #EndSARS protest to pose a threat to government based on any potential for ‘regime change’ is weak and remote. Such threat could only be possibly arising from bad management, often characterised by refusal of political leaders to engage the protesters, which could lead to anarchy.

Whichever way one look at the protest, there is hardly any strong evidence to suggest superior organisation that could lead any systematic disruption of government and political activities in the country resulting in possible takeover of political power by anyone. Similarly, the leaders or organisers of the protest failed to take any step to engage government to ensure that efforts by government to meet the demands address the problems that led to the protest. Some of the explanation is that the protest organisers are not making themselves public so as not to be exposed to potential actions by government that would compromise them. Yet, when government announced the disbandment of SARS, the leaders were very quick to dismiss it because according to them they don’t trust government. They argued that they want to see concrete actions being taken to be able to trust government.

The cold response of leaders of the #EndSARS protest to government, has made many public-spirited persons to argue that the protest has been hijacked. As part of the hijack theory, the old analogy of North – South divide featured prominently in some interesting dimensions, which include issues of internal sabotage within the APC on account of scheming for 2023. This is partly because the last internal contestation in APC has been presented in such a way that criminalised anybody with so-called ambition to succeed President Buhari in 2023. Why should anyone aspiring to succeed President Buhari in 2023 consider the protest as any viable platform for the actualisation of such ambition? Has President Buhari indicated in anyway his support or opposition to anybody’s aspiration? If in 2013 and 2014, when President Buhari is himself an aspirant, he did not block anyone from aspiring with all his influence within the party, why should anyone imagine that he will be interested in blocking anyone now so much that some potential aspirants will conspire with the protest leaders to undermine his government?

Narrative of internal conspiracy would appear to have made one of our leaders to make open public denial about funding the protest and call on the #EndSARS protest to end. As much as the appeal for the #EndSARS protest is very much welcome, the denial of funding is unnecessary. Every rational thinking Nigerian knows that any attempt to associate any political leader in the country with the #EndSARS protest must be substantiated beyond the narrow appeal to cheap political sentiments of North – South divide. In fact, what is required at the moment is that our APC leaders to take steps to strengthen the capacity of APC Federal Government to resolve the problems around that trigger the #EndSARS protest. The only thing that can justify any North – South divide is the manifestation of ability of the #EndSARS protest to be organised across every part of the country. The organisation of the protest in every part of the country will be as effective as how the challenges confronting our youth have manfested. It has always been a challenge that critical national problems become prejudiced with North – South divide narratives often based on deliberately imposed wrong expectation of uniformed responses of mobilisation to campaign for solution across all parts of the country. As a party of change, APC leaders need to rise above these prejudiced North – South narratives. There can never be uniform response to mobilisation for any campaign to resolve any national challenge.

Part of the reality is that the #EndSARS protest has grown beyond the capacity of the initial leaders that started it. Right now, it is on auto pilot with unregulated leadership and as many demands as the different clusters of leaders that have emerged. In fact, no one group can end the protest. It is only government through its actions that can end it. The difficulty in recommending government action lie in the predicament of defining the objective of government response to the demands around the #EndSARS protest. Is government going to intervene to address the legitimate problems of young Nigerians whose participation in the protest has given credibility to the protest? Or, will government be intervening to just get our youth out of the streets by all means irrespective of whether the problem is resolved or not? The narrative of North – South divide driving the protest would appear to have the later as the main objective. This will only produce pyrrhic victory for government as in few months, we could end with another round of protests, which may not be #EndSARS.

Without any hesitation, government should focus on resolving the legitimate problems of young Nigerians through appropriate painstaking engagement. Governmental structures are so comprehensive and spacious enough to permit all the required engagement with all the categories of our young people. Those taking advantage of the problems of young Nigerians can at best be working to frustrate every initiative of government to resolve the problem. The responsibility of government and every patriotic Nigerian interested in strengthening the hands of government to resolve our challenges is to support government to resolve the matter through engagement.

Failure to succeed through engaging our youth is what will lead to anarchy. Anarchy is a possibility at two levels. The first level could be as a result of desperation by some the protest leaders to force government to accede to their demands through crude methods, which can only produce violence. Already, in Benin City, Abuja and Lagos since Monday, October 19, 2020, these violent methods are characterising the protest resulting in jail break, attacks on police stations, personnel and innocent citizens. This has made Edo and Lagos States governments to impose 24-hour curfew in Benin City and Lagos. In Ekiti, Ondo and many states, fear of violent outbreaks as a result of the protest has made the state governments to officially close down schools.

Leadership of a successful protest should be able to ensure that the protest demands are consistent and uniform across all the protest centres. It will also have the capacity and courage to call off the protest when the demands are met, or the need arises for stopping or suspending the protest. In the particular case of the #EndSARS protest, the capacity of the leaders to ensure uniform demands appears to be weakened if not lost given that other extraneous and superfluous demands beyond issues of police brutality as symbolised by activities of SARS are all over the place. Combined with the refusal of the leaders to accept government pronouncement coming from both the Inspector General of Police and President Muhammadu Buhari, allegations of political motives and the protest being hijacked by political opponents are stronger.

Why were the leaders of the protest unable to control the protest and ensure that the demands are the same across all the protest centres? Why were the leaders unable to prevent the growing incidences of violence, attacks of police station and personnel and the jail break in Benin City? Are these incidences confirmation that the protest has been hijacked and new leadership has emerged outside the original leaders that started the protest? Could the new leadership have taken advantage of the amorphous nature of the protest and therefore successfully impose itself and direct the protest to achieve some predetermined political agenda? Who is that new leadership and how politically oriented are they?

There is hardly any strong evidence about the colouration or mission of those who organised the protest, whether at the beginning or now that it is taking a violent turn. But so many factors would have contributed to making the protest register its character. A major contributory factor is the virtual infrastructure, which made communication especially among young people very easy. This has enabled the leaders to mobilise funding democratically using modern strategy of crowdfunding. Secondly, our democracy is fast growing such that freedom of association and assembly can be observed without the familiar rat race and hide and seek between citizens and law enforcement officials during protests. The third factor is the reality of possible gaps in mobilisational activities of organised groups such as civil society and labour in terms of representing the interest of young people. For some reasons, most Nigerians especially young people are contemptuous of these organised groups, which is partly why the current protest leaders would have opted for the current amorphous strategy around the #EndSARS protest.

Those of us that grew out of the protest movement in Nigeria should be able to look back with sense of pride that our children are able to reap the benefits of our struggles. The fact that our young people participated in the protest across the country for more than a week having street carnivals around the demands against government with rarely any incident of teargas or attempts to forcefully disperse them, at least up to Monday, October 19, 2020 demonstrate that the inalienable rights of citizens to protest as provided in the 1999 constitution are functionally guaranteed.

It is worrisome that the uneasy North – South divide is defining the #EndSARS protest considerably. This monologue has frustrated our politics and is responsible for the failure of many patriotic struggles in the country. Both leaders and citizens, are always quick to invoke the binary of North – South divide to evaluate national struggles around legitimate political demands. The consequence is that important national challenges get sacrificed based on wrongly diagnosed citizens’ responses simply because it is also very convenient for leaders to adopt the contrived North – South analysis in order to support actions or inactions by government around the demand. The reality also is that, across all the country, both North and South, leaders and citizens are equally liable.

Our experiences in 1993 under the Campaign for Democracy (CD) may well illustrate this point. Although the June 12, 1993 election was one of the best elections in the history of Nigeria, which unite the country, following the annulment of the election by the administration of President Ibrahim Babangida, it was also the election, probably more than any election in the history of Nigeria that threatened the unity of the country. Both the political class, including the party that supposedly won the 1993 election and its leaders – Social Democratic Party (SDP), leaders of prodemocracy movement, CD, National Coalition for Democracy (NADECO), trade unions under the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC), etc. all became captives of the false binary of North – South divide imposed by the administration of Gen. Babangida and later Gen. Sani Abacha.

The most painful experience for many of us was our experiences in CD for instance, when our colleagues in the South accused many of us in the North for compromising the struggle because we were not able to register the kind of mobilisational successes in achieving compliance to sit-at-home campaign called by the CD. No one was ready to listen to any explanation of why mobilising rebellion around a political demand such as June 12 outside the South West was so difficult. Not even the fact that many of us got arrested in all parts of the country, including the North could convince our colleagues in the leadership of CD to have a rational consideration to assess challenges across the country. Many committed activists simply had to contend with vicious attacks by government and security operatives, allegations of promoting southern agenda by Northern leaders and gullible citizens, including close associates and relations and hostile ‘comrades’, leaders and members of the prodemocracy movement. It was such a traumatic experience that has pushed many leading activists to collapse into the primordial belief, which made them to embrace ethnic and religious politics.

Creeping primordial considerations in our capacity to analyse unfolding development in the country during the struggles for June 12 under CD made internal debates to take unhealthy turn. Those of us outside the South West, especially from the North were derogatorily described as mere contacts. Such mindset and stereotype drove virtually all internal debates, which result in hardline disrespect for truth. Unfortunately, the military high command was able to take advantage of this to consolidate themselves and completely weaken our moral credibility. This manifested sharply when the leadership of CD in Lagos met with Gen. Oladipo Diya and endorsed the plan for Gen. Abacha to overthrow Chief Ernest Shonekan. Many of us who questioned our leadership during meetings of CD were basically dismissed and sometime told that our leader who hosted the meeting, has impeccable credentials coming from illustrious family. This led to the sharp division in CD in the February 1994 Convention, leading to the breakaway in CD and the emergence of Democratic Alternative (DA) under the leadership of late Chief Alao Aka Bashorun.

Th reality is that the Nigerian prodemocracy movement never recover from the crisis that reduced the June 12 struggle to practically a South West struggle. This has substantially contributed to situations whereby almost every political challenge in the country is reduced to issues of North – South divide, falsely contrived to either weaken or promote a political agenda. Even under the current democratic dispensation, the struggle of the Save Nigeria Group (SNG) during the campaign against the poor management of President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua’s sickness and the challenge of activating the constitutional provision to get former President Jonathan to emerge as Acting President in 2010 also experienced the problem of applying the North – South divisive narrative. Most of the public account today around the SNG experiences hardly emphasise the details of how the divisive North – South narrative was contained by the leadership of SNG.

In fact, even the 2013 merger negotiation of opposition parties to form the APC had its own variant of the manifestation of the divisive North – South narrative. What protected the merger negotiation was that divisive North – South narrative was more sponsored by PDP propaganda as part of the strategy to either create problem and ensure that the merger didn’t succeed or create strong political legitimacy problems and ensure that the political influence of the merger is weakened. It is to the credit of our leaders in APC at all levels that they are able to work as a united front to make the merger succeed as well as result in the landmark electoral victory of 2015.

Therefore, coming back to our diagnostic of the current #EndSARS protest, there is nothing strange in the way the divisive North – South narrative is being developed. The only strange thing is that while at the beginning of the #EndSARS protest, the conspiracy theory based on political motives was more stronger around the possibility of the PDP taking advantage of the protest to discredit the APC and President Buhari, increasingly the conspiracy theory now include the so-called internal sabotage based on 2023 succession strategy to ensure that some APC leaders force their way to succeed President Buhari. False as it is, our leaders seem to be making efforts to clarify their positions and even convince the gullible public. This is not informed by a clear strategy to strengthen the capacity of government to honestly and sincerely respond to the demands of the #EndSARS protest, which made our young people to take to the streets. Responding to the demands of #EndSARS is a challenge that require that our leaders present a united front.

Unfortunately, given that as a party, APC is yet to come out of the problems of disunity arising from the last internal leadership crisis in the party, which led to the dissolution of the Comrade Adams Oshiomhole-led National Working Committee (NWC), the cloud of divisive narrative is influencing assessments of actions or inactions of our leaders. Part of the bigger problem which will continue to hunt all our leaders and all of us in the party is the inability to work with the truth. Every situation in the party is being reduced to so-called 2023 Presidential ambitions of leaders. It has become the new currency, which any leader suspected to be in possession get blackmailed. And every attempt to respond to any challenge in the country, internally within the party or at wider national level will have a 2023 price tag.

This is the only explanation why the #EndSARS protest is unfortunately being reduced to the age-old divisive North – South narrative, which is now presenting internal the sabotage conspiracy theory within the APC. Our leaders and the Federal Government are being pushed into engaging the #EndSARS protest based on the internal sabotage narrative that can take away consideration of objective recommendations to respond to the demands of the #EndSARS protest, which may be capable of focusing the government to consider initiatives to engage the true leaders of the #EndSARS protest to resolve the broader problems of our young people. Yet, resolving the problems of our young people present a wonderful opportunity to strengthen the APC and make it very attractive for our younger generation. We need to appeal to our leaders in APC to rise above the divisive narrative of North – South. Like in past when divisive considerations smashed popular national campaigns because of gullibility of leaders, the prospect for democratic development is weakened. Are we about to experience another situation of a national democratic campaign being shattered because genuine national problems were substituted by divisive factors?

As a progressive party, why is it impossible for our leaders to rise above this divisive North – South factors in Nigerian politics? To rise above the divisive North – South factors in Nigerian politics in dealing with the #EndSARS protest require government to approach handling the protest at two levels. First, the original organisers of the protest should be identified and engaged properly. This is where our leaders should be able to discharge some leadership mentoring and coaching responsibility to the original protest leaders who are in fact genuinely concern and committed to resolving a national problem of police brutality. The second, is to take all the necessary step to contain all activities of lawless individuals who are taking advantages of the protest to instigate violence and other criminal conducts. In relation to this, government should be able to tell the organisers of the #EndSARS protest that the turn of events as from Monday, October 19 means that the demand for the release of those arrested during the protest will not be considered in relation to those arrested because of violent conducts.

Our APC leaders should be united to strengthen capacity of President Buhari to unite Nigerians based political initiatives that respond to national challenges irrespective of how they manifest themselves across the country. In fact, APC leaders should be able to exert some push influence on the President Buhari government to strongly work for the political unity of Nigeria. It will be impossible for APC leaders to achieve this when every challenge is wrongly interpreted based on a divisive North -South narrative that is conveniently tailored to block considerations of legitimate citizens’ demands by government. This can only weaken APC’s electoral advantages. APC leaders should assist President Buhari to produce a strong legacy of transforming the APC into a united political structure that is repulsive to all manifestations of North – South divisive narrative in Nigerian politics. This will go a long way in enriching the historic initiative of President Buhari to correct act of injustice by previous administrations, which have significantly contributed to entrench divisive politics of North – South in Nigerian politics. It will be recalled that in 2018, President Buhari declared June 12 and not May 29 as Nigeria’s Democracy Day. In addition, the President publicly apologised to the family of Chief M. K. O. Abiola, conferred the highest national honour of the Grand Commander of the Federal Republic as well as named the Abuja National Stadium after him.

These are significant political initiatives that should be followed by commensurate patriotic nationalist political conduct by all APC leaders. Sadly, it would appear that our leaders are still highly susceptible to reductionist approaches of interpreting national challenges based on North – South divide. Part of the challenge now is the criminasation of almost every political proposal or initiative in the APC on account of so-called 2023 ambitions. Why should it be criminal for any leader in APC to have ambition to succeed President Buhari. We need to appeal to our leaders to correct that misnomer of criminalising 2023 ambitions of party leaders to succeed President Buhari. It will be deceptive to imagine that any serious political party can successfully criminalise political ambitions of party leaders.

It was similarly the attempt to criminalise fellow party leaders who disagreed with Comrade Oshiomhole that weakened the capacity of the party to put Comrade Oshiomhole under check. Such check would have even saved the Comrade Oshiomhole-led NWC and possibly helped the party to win the Edo State 2020 Governorship election. Unfortunately, instead of undertaking honest and objective assessment of factors that led to the loss of the Edo State 2020 elections, we are still finding excuses around some phantom sabotage by so-called Governors with 2023 ambitions, which is unfounded. The current narrative of internal sabotage in APC based on 2023 ambition sponsoring the #EndSARS protest is only possible because the lies of 2023 influencing the campaign against Comrade Oshiomhole’s leadership was allowed to continue to wrongly dictate our assessments of allegations against Comrade Oshiomhole’s leadership and the loss of the Edo 2020 Governorship elections. The lies of 2023 ambitions of APC leaders, if allowed to continue to criminalise our party leaders may as well be the undoing of APC and may end up eroding both the capacity of APC leaders and governments to effectively produce needed responses to national challenges, as well as eroding the electoral advantages of the party as we move towards 2023. Any potentially successful political strategy capable of winning elections anywhere and at any given time will have to transcend divisive politics. A stitch in time save nine!

Salihu Moh. Lukman
Progressive Governors Forum
Abuja

This position does not represent the view of any APC Governor or the Progressive Governors Forum