Prominent northern leaders, including top Federal Government officials, state governors, and political, traditional and religious leaders, gathered in Kaduna State recently to reflect on the state of the nation on the heels of the #EndSARS protests. In a communiqué read by the Governor of Plateau State and Chairman of the Northern Governors’ Forum, Simon Lalong, after the meeting, the gathering dismissively referred to the #EndSARS protests as “subversive actions” geared towards “regime change.” Inexplicably, they urged the security agencies to watch the Federal Capital Territory in order to “guard against unwarranted and destructive protests to safeguard critical assets of the nation.” The Special Anti-Robbery Squad had been linked to torture, unlawful imprisonment, extortion and murder before it was disbanded. Fulani Kwajafa, who established SARS in 1984, said, “I always tell my wife that I was sad [that] what I created with good purpose and direction has been turned into banditry.” Unfortunately, the other alarming issue that caught the attention of the attendees was the equally puerile “fake news” and “hate speech” fixation of the government.
Indeed, many things were wrong with the meeting and its communiqué. Protest is a democratic right in tandem with the fundamental rights to freedom of assembly and association as affirmed in many judicial pronouncements. Any call to trample upon these rights is unacceptable and anti-democratic. Protests hold virtually every day in the United States. Even the just concluded presidential election is witnessing protests and demonstrations from different groups. It is the duty of security agencies to protect peaceful protesters as done in every constitutional democracy.
The most insensitive part of the meeting was the attendance of top federal officials. Among the Federal Government officials whose presence and involvement at the purely sectional and regional meeting rankled many were the President of the Senate, Ahmed Lawan; the Chief of Staff to the President, Ibrahim Gambari, and the Inspector-General of Police, Mohammed Adamu. The presence of the trio at the meeting, who in their various official capacities embody national unity, is most unfortunate and rather unbecoming. They should have resisted the temptation of subjecting their offices to such blatant partisanship and sectional agenda. They have consequently exposed themselves to allegations of bias and parochialism at a time the nation sorely needs national institutions and public officials serving as a rallying point to all Nigerians irrespective of regional, religious or ethnic identity.
The #EndSARS protests, before their eventual hijack by some misguided elements, were universally acknowledged as a necessary citizen action against police brutality and a call for police reform and accountability. Therefore, the presence of the IG, for instance, cannot be defended. In fact, it is worrying that while one section of the country sees police brutality in the hands of the now disbanded SARS as a sad lived reality that should be ended, another section does not. This eloquently speaks to the need to restructure the Nigerian polity so that the police institution can be better managed to be responsive and accountable to the people. Ironically, the lone voice of the Governor of Kaduna State, Nasir el-Rufai, echoed: “Is it not time to make the establishment of state police a key part of policing reforms? Has the recent crisis not exposed again the inadequacy of numbers, training and unitary structure of the police of the federation?” Unfortunately, the communiqué was silent on these posers.
It is trite to say that if their counterparts from the South had taken a cue from them and attended a similar meeting where sentiments and views diametrically opposed to those of the other regions are openly canvassed and promoted, the basis of the “unity,” and “indivisibility, indissolubility and oneness of the nation,” which the Northern leaders “endorsed,” would have been questionable. As the Southern and Middle Belt Forum rightly asked, “Where would this country be heading to if we also decide to call our own meeting with our governors and top officials in the Federal Government?”
Aside from the fact that the resolutions of the Kaduna meeting curiously failed to outline strategic and pragmatic action plans towards addressing the more existential challenges of the region — endemic poverty, rural banditry, terrorist insurgency, malnutrition, almajirinci system and illiteracy — the leaders were, instead, preoccupied with urging the government to check the “devastating effect of the uncontrolled social media in spreading fake news.” They also demanded major control mechanisms and censorship of the social media in the country. Nothing can be more ludicrous. Coincidentally, this has been the battle cry of the regime of the President, Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.), in recent times with the Minister of Information and Culture, Lai Mohammed, as the arrowhead of the advocacy for excessive social media regulation. He believes, queerly, that, “The biggest challenge facing Nigeria today is fake news and misinformation… the next war will be fought without a shot being fired, but with the use of fake news.” To him, the looming war can only be averted through social media regulation, a position strongly canvassed by the Northern leaders at their Kaduna roundtable. “Unfortunately, we have no national policy on social media, and we need one. When we went to China, we could not get Google, Facebook and Instagram,” Mohammed said.
This is as absurd as the regime’s clampdown on social media and activists signals a descent into a police state. How social media regulation would solve the out-of-school children phenomenon, majority of the 13.5 million victims of which are found in the North, or caused the Boko Haram insurgency and intermittent killings that resulted in displacement of persons is unknown. Besides, using authoritarian, one-party state China as its model, exposes the dangerous repressive mindset of the regime. Nigeria should aspire to the best democratic traditions.
The dystopian police state the Buhari regime is working towards where ordinary Nigerians are denied the right to peaceful protest, to a free press, to a public airing of their many grievances should be resisted by all lawful means. Nigerian citizens paid heavily, many with their blood, to get this level of liberty and democratic government. If this regime cannot raise the bars, it should not take us back to the era of military dictatorship and censorship. The sectional meeting in Kaduna has reinforced the sad reality of Nigeria’s unworkable political system. And it is doubtful that real change will be brought about by the Buhari regime. It is left to the people to defend democratic values and check the forces bent on turning Nigeria into a rabid police state.