Protests have occurred across the country. Few saw this coming except with the aid of hindsight. However, the protests are here and we must be cognizant of the reasons why. Every society, every nation has its imperfections and challenges. Some of them are of high consequence while some of them minor in scope. No nation escapes this reality. The mark of a great nation is not that it does not have challenges and flaws, the mark of a great and hopefully compassionate nation lies in how it resolves its inconsistencies and social tensions.
Nigeria is a democratic republic established to ensure its people enjoy the benefits of good governance and the quiet enjoyment of their lives through the observation and protection of their fundamental human rights, including the rights to exist and to move about the nation freely as long as one moves about peacefully.
This is the ideal to which we as a nation and to which this government both strive. Yet, the protests show that we have not achieved this ideal. It is now painfully apparent that something undermining this noble goal was taking place and was taking a harsh toll on our people, especially our youth. The youth endured indignities, ranging from petty harassment, extortion, to beatings and killings at the hands of those who had been given a commission to protect them from such brutal criminality. That which was meant to protect you was distorted in too many instances to torment you. Once a good and functional ideal, SARS became a burden on the people.
Here, I must say that a few SARS officers are good, decent police officers trying their best in often challenging conditions. I say this not to cover or condone the wrongs done. I say this that we not unduly taint all for the bad acts of some. However, I also am not attempting to downplay the severity of the misconduct or to give some false solace or consolation to those who have suffered unduly. The activities of the bad SARS officers had violently undermined the reputation and function of the squad. This is a national disgrace turned into unfortunate tragedy by the harsh mistreatment of innocent youth and other Nigerians.
Police brutality is neither a hallmark of democracy nor is it the stamp of this administration. Yet, something went wrong. Your courage and commitment to organize and then carry out peaceful protests brought this grave issue to the attention of the highest levels of this government.
Your protests made the government focus on your concerns. Once government investigated the matter and understood the gravity and veracity of the protest claims, government moved with dispatch and resolved to abolish SARS. Government has also moved with sincerity, committing itself to working on several other important demands raised by the protests. Here it is important to continue to act based on the premise that we all want the best for Nigeria and that the other person is motivated by good faith.
During this situation, some people have lambasted the protesters as troublemakers intent on bringing down the government. This was unhelpful. We cannot move forward if we taint everything as fundamentally motivated by partisan political coloration. A few things transcend political bickering. Also, those claiming that government was harsh and intolerant were wrong. Like any committed government, this administration does not want see innocent citizens brutalized by the police. There is no good that can come from such a policy as such a stance is morally and political bankrupt and counterproductive. The President and his government care for the people.
While we may have policy disagreements with others and have a different political perspective, no one should question the good faith of this administration and its commitment to the Nigerian people. It is an unfair and unfounded assertion to allege that we care not for the people and want to see them harshly treated. Such allegations are not born of sincerity but come from those seeking to gain political capital from the current situation.
Yet, all in all, the youth-led protests have done the nation and its people a service. Good police action helps all of us but police misconduct adversely touches Nigerians of every demographic. By demonstrating for an end to brutality you have enhanced the liberties and freedoms of all Nigerians.
Thus, I salute the courage of the Nigerian youth for finding their voice, for mobilizing, for staying on message by keeping the peace during your protests that we may have even more peace. Your demands for action, and deep-rooted reforms, including adequate funding of our Police, show that you are seeking pragmatic solutions to real problems. In essence you had the fruitful insight to seek aid for the very Police that have inflicted hardship on you because you realize that only an improved police will better serve you. In essence, you seek not to destroy but to build better than before.
Government is nothing but a public service. Leadership must respond to the agitations and valid yearnings of society. In this case, this Government is doing that. The demands are being met as swiftly and practicably as possible. SARS has been dissolved, and will not come back. A multi stakeholder committee to address youth demands and relevant issues is already in place.
Shortly after the protests began, President Muhammadu Buhari issued a public broadcast vowing that police reforms have started with the dissolution of SARS.
Beyond dissolution of SARS, the police as an institution will undergo a reform process intended to promote community-police cooperation and to weed out unqualified and bad officers. Our youth, who constitute over 60 percent of the population and are often wrongly profiled, harassed and brutalized for no justifiable reason at all and this must stop.
Institutional change and reform are coming and government will fulfill this solemn promise. Yet, we must also realize that the changes and reform will take more than one day to effectuate. We are talking about changing the behavior and ideals of an institution that have been operating in a certain way for decades.
This episode is a dual lesson to us all. First, it instructs us on how law enforcement is not to act. Second, it also shows on how citizens can peacefully relay their grievances to government that it may take curative action. In this vein, the right to protest is part of the fabric of a responsive democratic setting. Protests are one of the legitimate ways people can lay their petition before government. Thus, the people have a right and duty to protest peacefully in order to raise serious grievance or call for important government action. And in the face of sustained protests, government has the duty to listen and the responsibility to respond to and resolve legitimate issues to the extent possible.
The people should never be afraid to protest as long as their cause is just and government should never be frightened by such protests but should accept that the protests are peaceful call by the people for government to help them create a better society and a better life. For protest to make any sense the protests implies and the protesters must believe government has the requisite good faith to listen and to act.
Thus, amidst these considerations is another important one. Genuine protesters must be careful not to allow those with nefarious motives to hijack their protests and steer them into violence or into conduct that actually undermines constitutional democracy instead of enhancing it. The line between legitimate protests and improper attack against the democratic order may not be the broadest but it is there and relatively clear. Yet, it is possible to be taken across that line if you do not remain disciplined and focused. Always be mindful that others with agendas contrary to your altruism will infiltrate the protests and will seek to exploit your constructive efforts to stir conflict and tension that cannot be resolved except through even more conflicts. Protests to build and improve society. Yes. Protests to foster chaos and disorder to tear down society, No.
As Youth, you seek the path of a new more just Social and Political Order but that better order can never be born or emanate from disorder and chaos. Better to seek the path of reform that builds on the extant democratic foundation, that recognizes initiatives this administration has already commenced but will also not hesitate to push and urge government to move faster and further if you believe that will better serve the nation.
Thus, government and the youth must embrace dialogue.
This President and his administration will speak to you frankly and in good faith. There will be honest dialogue but no false promises on one hand or unfair suppression on the other.
The youth must be sufficiently fair minded to assess the facts and the situation. Do not swallow the ugly narratives peddled with malicious intensity by organizations that politically oppose the President. They seek to paint him as uncaring and hateful toward you. This is an unfair lie. The President cares deeply. He profits nothing when an innocent Youth or Nigerian is hurt, harassed or killed by those hired to protect them. He is personally insulted when the police act against safety and proper order. He is engaged in a dogged battle against vested interests that had literally hijacked the soul of the country over decades and are intent on avoiding accountability. This means, he is more than willing to dialogue with you because you both seek reform albeit sometimes in different ways with different priorities. As a father figure, the President has always maintained that his actions will ultimately prove that he always saw the youth as our greatest assets.
We must now be concerned that even protests can be subjected to the hurricane winds of manipulation to the extent that many would claim nothing is being done for the Nigerian youth. As the Minister responsible for this portfolio, I can say categorically that this is simply not true. For the first time in Nigeria’s history, a specific ring-fenced investment fund, the Nigerian Youth Investment Fund (NYIF) was approved by Government. The President’s belief is that we must make substantial and meaningful financial investment in our youth if we truly want them to become creators of wealth, employers of labor and architects of a better Nigeria.
When Youth Corpers lamented the inadequacy of their allowances, many raised the competing needs for resources as a reason why increments would not be possible. This President ensured increment from N19, 800 to N33, 000 naira monthly, even above the minimum wage. This pool is the single largest concentration of youth in the country annually.
The Social Investment Programme (SIP) of this government has won international acclaim. An enabling environment for youth-run Fintech companies to thrive has been created with a special license category created by the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN).
The Buhari administration continues to make massive investments in every facet of Nigeria’s life so the country can have the infrastructure it needs for rapid economic development.
Still in the youth spectrum, we have established a roster of youth-focused programs never seen before, under this administration. The N-Power Youth Empowerment Programme has benefited over five hundred thousand (500,000) youth and remains the largest such youth program in sub-Saharan Africa. And there are countless stories of impact. The next batch of four hundred thousand (400,000) youth will soon take advantage of this initiative. The Bank of Industry (BOI) oversees the $20 million fund for Youth Tech Innovators and Entrepreneurs (YTIE), Youth Entrepreneurship Support Program (YES-P) among others. There is the National Young Farmers Scheme under the National Agricultural Land Development Authority (NALDA) aimed at encouraging and supporting thousands of young farmers across the country. There is also the Graduate Internship Scheme (GIS) from which over 50,000 youth have benefited. Training in Mobile Device Repairs, Digital Skills Acquisition, Business Training and Support for SMEs are being undertaken by various Ministries, Departments and Agencies (MDAs) of Government.
As Minister of Youth and Sports Development, every youth-focused request I have made has been greeted with the undivided attention of President Buhari meeting his approval. It is clear that Government needs to do more and we and we know this. We are not finished. Thus, I urge you to join us and when needed to prod us to do even more and go even further.
We must however know when to pocket an achievement and we are at that point. Government is ready for greater engagement with youth. The protests have brought your grievances to the forefront and thus have fulfilled their stated objective. Now we must continue to discuss and work out solutions to these matters.
You have only one country and the President is positioning it for greatness through the institution of deep sometimes painful but needed reforms. Yet, he is ceaselessly assaulted by powerful vested interests who have skeletons to hide.
This is a country of youth in the century of the youth. These protests have earned the youth a well-deserved place at the table. So, take your seat in order to continue the progress and reform you have called for.
From the protest, it is time for the next phase – dialogue. Identify trusted leaders and have them come forward. Any movement without leaders becomes rudderless and susceptible to being hijacked by people with agendas inimical to the very reasons behind the protests. The youth have a unique opportunity to help write a new chapter in our journey to a more compassionate and benign society and a greater nation. Don’t let this historic chance pass through your hands. You deserve this moment, as does the nation we love.
We have a committed President who has the will power to get difficult things done. We have that in President Muhammadu Buhari. I urge you to have the confidence and fortitude to have this conversation with him. You will find in him a listening ear and a ready partner. I say to the youth – Your time has come. History now waits for you to turn protest into dialogue and grievance into solution.
-Sunday Dare is the Minister of Youth &Sports Development, Nigeria.