Opinion

Before We Return To Business As Usual, By Pat Utomi

“Before we regress into business as usual we need assure ourselves that not only the 5 by 5 agenda of the #EndSARS protesters but comprehensive reforms of a fundamental nature on the constitution and public value systems have to be put on the front burner with clear time lines”

On October 20, 2020 at the Lekki Toll Gate, we crossed the Rubicon. As battle trained elite Army troops opened fire with live bullets and ammunition at young citizens whose demeanor were far from provocative and whose only shield were the green white green flutter of our national banner which they held up as they sang the national anthem, we stretched the elastic beyond its limit. 

The historic moral equivalence of the Lekki shooting include quelling of the Colliery protests in Enugu and the Aba Women’s riots protesting what the historian Adiele Afigbo calls the pretentious warrant Chife system in 1929 by the colonial Administration. They both were watermarks in Nigerian history as this one has to be.

Yet something in National character suggests that public authorities in Nigeria, in time of crisis, cannot wait to return to business as usual, with nothing learnt, or changed. This is why our nation building effort has come to be known as a recursive enterprise in spasms of two steps forward, four steps backwards, reign.

And the evidence of this tardiness is there in the statistics that compare us with Asian peers of yesterday, and the quality of life in Nigeria today compared to yesterday. So now that we have stretched past the elastic limit the Quo Vadis question must arise.

Now that business as usual or return from beyond the elastic limit is as likely as the wishful thinking of the six year old who wants to hang on to his lovely pyjamas whose waist band has gone limp from too many trips to Laundry. 

Which way should we turn? Peter. and even Paul.  in Rome, 2000 years ago, may, in the absence of a google map, have turned to heaven and asked Quo Vadis Domino, and our music icon of recent past, Sony Okosuns, sang it loud – which way Nigeria…I want to know., we in the Fourth Industrial Revolution with Blockchain technology and Artificial intelligence should do better. 

Surely we should have enough exposure not to experiment with the ridiculous path of trying out business as usual jig after a point of no return watershed has been crossed. The path forward is to first understand what #EndSARS Now really was.

For most thinking people #EndSARS Now was metaphor for ending the Nigeria we know today, now now now, and allowing a new one arise from its ashes, like a phoenix.

The Nigeria we know is one in which the state is separated from the people and is typically captured by a few people, for legal plunder, and vainglorious self aggrandizement. This institutionalized social distancing creates emotional convenience for brutalizing the people with state apparatus. 

A natural flow from that is an entitlement orientation of public authoritiy figures to imagine the satiating of their appetites higher priority than broader social or common good issues. This jumps at you in the cost of governance and morally criminal perquisites, pensions and proclivities of public life in Nigeria. Such abuse amount to a moral equivalence of violence against the people. 

Yet, in this notion that violence begets violence, when the dispossessed go on ‘search for palliatives’ rampage in a trail of destruction, the powerful manage to be shocked and return with more verbal violence calling them hoodlums and miscreants, establishing a viscous cycle that paved roads to places like Somalia where such vicious cycles took root because smart people kept quiet to protect their comfort zones.

These dispositions are so deep and have seared the conscience such that these so called people at the top look at people who point to such wrong as troublesome muckrakers living in a utopian world. It’s so bad they cannot see their peers in nearby Ghana act differently.

Such is the gulf between power and the people that the uniform as an instrument of authority is the symbol of terror for the citizen and for the person who wears it an instrumentation for bullying. 

Even at my level, few things are more disconcerting than the sound of the siren. Each time I am in traffic and hear the siren I almost get into a panic attack and begin to yell at my driver to get out of the way because these mad people are coming again. 

I know that the instinct of most citizens of Nigeria is to pray for grace never to encounter anybody in uniform. The fear of public authority, whether it be the LASTMA traffic person or Local Government official checking for your Radio License, is the beginning of wisdom. Yet the great paradox is that these agencies were set up to serve the people. When people fear their servants something is terribly wrong. 

If we are to save Nigeria  we must now invest massively into humanizing public authority and educating people about their rights and duties.This engineering of culture is so important because the values lost in these misunderstanding of roles is significantly why progress eludes us on almost all fronts. One critical part of this culture is our penchant for avoiding speaking truth to power and to each other. 

Let me illustrate. There is hardly a conversation I have about how things are going with either a minister or a head of a parastatal that does not end up as lamentation about the nuisance’ of the National Assembly.

If it is not about how NASS members try to extort money from them on account of oversight, or use their budgets for budget padding, it will be about how their work is disrupted by reckless invitations to appear before one committee or the other because the menbers are trying to get more allowances from showing up at several committee meetings.

But these people never go public with this huge burden. That not withstanding, public consciousness on the trouble with the legislative branch is now so high that as I wrote recently it presents us with the ultimate irony of the branch of the Federal government designed to be the most deeply rooted in the people.The National Assembly has come to symbolize, for every day people what is not working with our democracy.

Competing with and related to distance between those who govern and those that are governed is the phobia for the expression of a different point of view. Power in Nigeria resent an alternative viewpoint. This point is particularly confounding because competing ideas give definition to democracy as the arena of rational public conversation in which the market place of ideas produces superior options for public choice. But the typical Nigerian fears that power will harass him with security agents, threaten his business interests and isolate him, TA was u raw e Es for daring to hold a different point of view.

It is no surprise that few speak truth to power and many in power suffer the fate of that King people are terrified to speak to and so when his robe was soiled by nightsoil none had the courage to tell him until he got to the marketplace and was an object of mockery as people covered their nostrils to be safe from the stench of the fesses on the King’s robe.

Before we regress into business as usual we need assure ourselves that not only the 5 by 5 agenda of the #EndSARS protesters but comprehensive reforms of a fundamental nature on the constitution and public value systems have to be put on the front burner with clear time lines. A laundry list of domains of reform are flying around. I can list a few, but constitutional shifts decentralizing decision making are critical, as are reforming political parties for internal democracy.

The division along geography for and against #EndSARS proves the point of restructuring. The priorities vary by region. The work down this track should start now before the streets boil over again.

Patrick Okedinachi Utomi, Political Economist and Professor of Entrepreneurship is Founder of the CVL and Co Chair of NCFront, Nigeria

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