Popular sovereignty and stress-testing of democratic governance…

Ropo Sekoni


Far from de-stabilizing democracy, protest has been instrumental in forcing the introduction of most of the freedoms that now exist in liberal democracies. Direct action, mostly nonviolent, played a major role in the ending of slavery, extension of the franchise, curtailing ruthless aspects of the exploitation of labour, and extending rights to women and minorities—Brian Martin in “Protest in a Liberal Democracy.”


IF the protest of the last few days had happened in a full-blown military dictatorship of Nigeria of the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, it would not have received the attention it now receives from across the globe. It would have been taken as normal for the kind of governance ethos of the time. Taking place in the 21st century and in the same year that Black Lives Matter protests spread like California fire from a one-time modern world’s capital of democratic governance to all continents, it should startle politicians who have for long taken their citizens for granted and alarm multitudes of a-political citizens in various parts of the federation. But there is no sufficient cause for alarm, as actions and reactions of many institutions have implied. In confident democratic societies, the call for an end to Special Anti-Robbery Squads would be viewed as necessary stress tests for democratic governance, and not as the beginning of any revolution, revolt, or subversion.

Just as the title of today’s piece suggests, there are more advantages to protests in a democracy than government leaders and a-political citizens are ready to acknowledge. After two decades of post-military governance or election-induced governments, it is salutary that those fondly referred to as leaders of tomorrow show new interest in the periodic enactment of their popular sovereignty, apart from participating in voting to choose leaders every four years. Citizens’ readiness to exercise their freedom of speech, association, and assembly are crucial in countries that choose the democratic mode of governance. While the first two elements are part of the staple diet in a democracy, protests as a form of freedom of assembly is akin to a special desert in most serious-minded democracies. The choice of nonviolent protest by the country’s youths across geography, culture, and language need not to be inflamed by political and military leaders, as such inflammation can overheat the polity unnecessarily. The ongoing protest calls for readiness on all parts of the polity to think together about what type of future we want for our country at the hands of police officers that see danger in young people carrying laptops or just bags that are associated all over the world with laptops.

It is also a welcome development that the Buhari government has not failed to order an end to SARS, in response to persistent demand by the country’s youth for an end to a fertile ground for police brutality directed at young professionals in many parts of the country. There is no better way for the government to respond to the end of SARS than to depart from the recalcitrance to end SARS since 2017 when citizens first called for abrogation of a police formation that served as a laboratory for perfecting police brutality against citizens.

Invoking the principle of popular sovereignty through nonviolent protests is traditionally a friendly stress-test for democratic governance. And it is in order that the Buhari government has read the riot act, though rather mildly, to a police force that citizens have perceived for decades as impervious to calls for change by all branches of a division or separation of powers polity. It is also commendable that young men and women who have not participated in any form of power politics have acted with restraint, by avoiding any form of violence in their efforts to call for an end to a police unit that has for many years served as an instrument of extra-judicial killings, distortion, illegal incarceration of citizens, and the kind of negative profiling of innocent people possible only in a racist ethos.

Having taken the right action, leaders of government at all levels ought to resist any temptation to prevent them from seeing the importance of stress-testing of the democratic system that the ongoing #EndStars struggle denotes and connotes. Like a physiological stress test, the #EndSARS exercise is to indicate to rulers and citizens signs the extent of functioning of the country’s political arteries and prevent any minor arterial blockage from developing into full-blown cardiac problems. This is a good time for the government to discourage any display of professional praise-singing and the syndrome of the president-is-always-right panegyrics. This is a moment for combination of critical and creative thinking about a law enforcement culture that can demoralize citizens. This is not the right time for any branch of government to harass or issue threats to leaders of tomorrow who call for policies that can improve the culture of democracy in a country that is only 18 years into a post-military political reality and in a world that is more than ever experiencing threats to democracy in many parts of the world.

There are so many actions that the governments should consider carefully as they plan to respond to the demands of protesters and others that the federal government should avoid. This is not a right moment for any group of politicians or friends of politicians to push for flexing of political muscles. More appropriately, this is the season for suasion on the part of democrats of conviction. Suasion and compromise are inevitable features of democratic rule.

One wrong step that had been taken is the immediate creation of Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) to replace Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) that citizens have found wanting and dangerous to the growth of democracy in the country. The kind of statecraft needed now is the one that requires full reflection on full-fledged reform of the Nigeria Police Force, that is both technically and ideologically a colonial carry-over designed ‘to tame the natives and make them succumb to colonialist rule.’ The current situation calls on the federal legislature to think with the executive towards creation of a modern democratic police system, not one to rush into new structures that could not have been thought through within a few days of the call for an end to SARS. What a good opportunity for the 36 governors who are also members of the 40-member Nigeria Police Council to engage with their constituents at the subnational level to look for a final solution to the search for a more modern and more democratic policing that the one we inherited 60 years ago from colonizers.

It is appropriate for the executive and the legislature to re-examine the philosophy, design, and practice of law enforcement holistically, by accepting that security of life and property involves political considerations and the possibility of geopolitical awareness. For example, the recent announcement by the Chairman of the Northern Governors Forum that the northern sections of the country need SARS draws attention to the geopolitical character of law enforcement in the country, despite ample evidence of participation of young citizens in the northern part of the country in the demand for an end to SARS. Leaders should have the opportunity to restrict SARS or SWAT to northern states just as many states had been allowed to have Sharia while others choose not to do so. And it is crucial for state actors to freely negotiate this issue, rather than for any group to rule that what is good for the north is automatically good for the south. Such matter would have been easy to resolve in a Referendum Democracy, which is currently absent in the country.

In addition, it is not wise for the military to start beating its chest about its readiness to defend the integrity of the country, as if nonviolent protesters carry guns. Our military should reserve such energy for Boko Haram terrorists and allow leaders of civil rule to negotiate freely how to create a law enforcement system that all parties in our federation can be comfortable with. There was a time when petroleum subsidy was considered inevitable by rulers. Political rulers should be given the freedom to determine if the culture of police brutality should not continue in the country, two decades beyond military dictatorship.

While congratulating young people for acting with more discipline and restraint in their pro-democracy activities than most politicians have done in electoral politics, they too need to be warned against falling for any temptation that is capable of making them betray their mission: democratizing law enforcement in the federation.




Before you Run (1)

“Whatever political level you have laced up to run for: presidential, governorship, senatorial, house, local government, or ward, before you run, hear now what you are coming in to run or govern.”


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