It was Tunisian Mohammed Bouazizi’s suicide that precipitated the famous Arab spring seven years ago. For months, the corridors of power in the Arab world shook to its very foundations as regime after regime was toppled in unbelievable succession. The world watched in awe as a brutal reality show played before our very eyes. The Arab spring meanwhile, had a very Nigerian beginning. But the resolution and conviction that followed is what is abundantly lacking in my country.
At 26, Mohammed Bouazizi, a graduate, was not only jobless, but also hopeless. He had a widowed mother and six siblings to cater for. To make ends meet, he resorted to selling fruits in a wooden cart. But there was a constant nuisance: law enforcement agents. They were always there to collect taxes and levies and fees and permits, that often left him shortchanged. One day, he felt he’d had enough. A policewoman accosted his mobile shop and asked for his permit to sell. He had none, so she proceeded to seize his luggage. He refused to comply,and she promptly slapped him. At that point, Mohammed felt he’d had more than enough, so he walked to the front of a government building, and set himself on fire! All that, while passers-by were capturing the whole episode on camera. The videos were shared on social media, and a revolution was born.
As you can see, there was nothing Mohammed endured before his death that is not common in Nigeria. From harassment by security agencies to huge burdens by revenue agencies and joblessness on an unprecedented scale. Its not uncommon these days to see even First-Class graduates practically begging for jobs on social media. When Tunisians watched the gory pictures of Mohammed’s suicide, and got to know the cause, they couldn’t sit still. It was too much to bear. Kudos to them, Mohammed never died in vain. The government paid a huge price for his death, as the Arab spring his death ignited swept it away. The only difference between the 2010 Tunisia and the present day Nigeria is that tales of agonies by citizens often elicit nothing more than retweets on Twitter. We read of horribly bad things Nigerians are going through at the hands of security agents, and merely sigh, and move on.
Since Segun Awosanya decided to do something about the excesses of the notorious Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) by opening a petition to the national assembly, a momentum was set. Many Nigerians, numbering thousands, decided to lend their voice to the movement. And in few days, hundreds of people had come forward with horrendous tales of the barbarity and callousness of the SARS unit. So horrific were some of the tales that they actually seemed unbelievable. But they were true. In fact, many of them supported their stories with audio and video evidences. These were tales of extortion, brutality and murder. SARS somehow chose to transform itself from an anti-robbery unit, to an actual robbery gang with special focus on the so called “Yahoo boys”. The only problem is that every young Nigerian man is a Yahoo boy in the eye of SARS. Especially if you drive a car. The summary of the agitations was that Nigerians were fed up being harrased daily my a set of people that should actually be protecting them. There was hardly any youth in Nigeria who hadn’t been exposed to the brutality of SARS directly or indirectly.
As expected, the Police initially ignored the online protests, but when the momentum soared, they quickly claimed they will “reorganize” the unit. Whatever that means. Nigerians were meanwhile unequivocally clear. A unit that doesn’t fight armed robbers but behave LIKE one has no need existing in the first place. And if the request won’t be addressed, Nigerians would protest on the streets this time. Or, so we claimed.
Never had we had such a reason to make our voices heard. Never have we been so collectively maltreated by agents of government. In the weeks of online protests, not once did the presidency deem it fit to respond to hundreds of allegations of abuse by its operatives. The 2019 elections is all that occupy their minds as all their moves, statements and body language speak of nothing but election campaign. While many hardworking Nigerians languished under the yoke of SARS day and night, our government could not care less. Such a shame.
The police itself claims the SARS is actually a professional unit that has a majority of good officers and only few bad ones, as is the case anywhere. The only problem is, the so called majority good officers are never on duty. The police can claim all day that SARS is necessary, and it won’t make a difference. The Nigerian Police, recently declared the “worst in the world” doesn’t really have to prove anything to anyone. Our police is a textbook definition of corruption in its entirety. Everyone knows that. What we need to know is how much longer we would endure such oppression.
At the mass rally that held to put pressure on government to end the dreaded SARS, as expected, attendance was quite poor. Buy there was a problem. A counter rally, codenamed “Support SARS” was actually holding simultaneously in Abuja and Port Harcourt with some impressive numbers. However, a simple investigation revealed it was mostly a rented crowd, many of whom did not even know what they were meant to protest for or against. The worse part of the story is that they were all youths, the major target of SARS. How could any young person want to support a unit that keeps hounding down its folk. How could a rally to support SARS ever attract young people in their hundreds? There can only be one answer: money.
Because of poverty and joblessness, Nigerian youths would do anything. That’s why the most of them often end up as special assistants to money bags. Gone are the days when youths are considered for leadership. Now, they help shape fraudulent narratives on social media. They help mobilize youths for unfortunate rallies just to counter narratives. They know that once youths are given cash, they suspend reasoning. That’s why there’s a “Buhari Media Center”, or BMC for short, populated by young people who have the job of “painting people black” and shaping narratives. All at government’s expense. Some for as low as N30,000 a month, and others for as much as N350,000. It is not entirely their fault though. As a man must be well fed first before he can think properly.
So it is to government’s advantage to keep us poor, and jobless. So that while some rascally ones are beginning to start a fire of resolute revolutions, some millions of naira can be released to mobilize more youths to counter the narrative. That’s why I know we can’t have our own Arab spring soon.
But I know this won’t continue forever. Very soon, the scales would fall off, the prodigal son would regain his senses, and ask the correct questions. Like: “for how long would I depend on godfathers to feed myself”? And then, the spark may turn into a fire. Until then, let the youths enjoy making a fool of themselves.