Opinion (19/10/2020): The Raft – By Sam Omatseye

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It is a story of stories, a raft of anecdotes. It is the small stories that rise, wave after wave, volume after volume, before we see the flood, the crowd as they surge. But this is a crowd like nothing we have seen before. Not during the June 12 imbroglio, or even the famous Ali mungo. Those crowds had a menace of the exterior. They pre-announced their purpose as warriors of conscience, a sort of judgmental ferocity about them. The authorities felt a sense of righteous revenge to deploy soldiers, to distort and minimise their moral authority, to condemn them and quell their onslaught.

This time they disarm with the small stories. The fellow who was frog-marched to death by crackpots called cops, the virgin who was cracked and popped in a hotel, the mother who saw her son die, the father who was asked to pay to see his son in a parade of corpses, the laptop seized, the ATM heist, a certain officer Nwafor who was impatient to play god, money and victims parted ways, families parted ways between life and death. The bullets unleashed, the insolence of bravado, the finger trembling on a trigger. The settings, like the acts, were arbitrary: in the car, in the home, at hotels, before your family, at the barracks, mosque, church, at the beach. SARS was like the air: ubiquitous. It became, like the air, a presumptuous necessity. The authorities said it was our oxygen for safety. But the air was poisoned. And many people, like the Chenobyl disaster in Russia decades ago, inhaled and died. SARS started as adhoc but morphed into a pseudo-institution.

The internet sprung up with a vengeance, like we saw with the Arab Spring, the French Yellow Vests, in Lebanon, in Belarus, Kyrgyzstan, Thailand, et al. The young came forth. They started as though a soap bubble. But the lather outlasts anyone’s thought. Were they not the type the President derided as lazy, the bunch that did no good. They were defiant, able-bodied, insistent. They said they wanted one thing: they wanted SARS to go. Once this essayist witnessed the crowd, and even watched them close, I knew this was a different kettle of fish. These people were not Ali Mungo, or June 12. They were young men and women who had been bearing their anguish for a long a time. They were the young who wanted to eat, but begged although they could work. They applied for jobs but the jobs went to their age mates who were children of the well-feathered class. They had their degrees in UK and landed a job in Shell or became SA to a minister without experience. They were the whiz kid with brilliant ideas who watched their mother die because they could not afford a surgery. The boy who saw a girl get a job because he was not a girl. Or a girl of virtue who did not get a job because some starry-eyed fellow wanted to make a virtue out of her.

It is the class divide. The young man who is the victim of SARS is not likely to be the son of a senator or governor or minister or commissioner or permanent secretary or a CEO, because he will be in the UK or the USA, or some posh environment immune to the impunity of the SARS men. #ENDSARS is their demand, but it is not their goal. Sorosoke that means speak up, does not mean the young have small ears. They are saying “address the injustice in the land.” Police are often the face of injustice among the people. When the police misbehave, they see the larger bastardry of the elite.

So, it is about #EndSARS but it is about unemployement. Obasanjo warned not long ago that the army of the jobless could foment a revolution. Are we there? Those who say we should reopen the universities as distractions are mistaken. Schools are more potent engines of revolt. They have organised themselves in a way many have not. Ali Mungo had leaders. June 12 had rallying points. This is an amorphous, amoebic rage on the streets. Replacing SARS with SWAT was like swatting a housefly. It was called a naming ceremony, and a miserable one without food or drinks or a newborn. The boys who were eating and drinking on the streets, dancing and swinging were not part of the sacrament. They were having fun at the government’s expense. They loved to party. “Bliss it was in that dawn to be alive,” crooned Poet William Wordsworth on the French Revolution. “To be young was very heaven.” They loved to protest, and who is going to stop them without consequences?

Many of them come from seedy homes like the one painted in Festus Iyayi’s Violence, or the home drawn of a lodging home in Balzac’s Old Goriot about condition during the French Revolution. Some struggle for food, or board. Others are what Balzac described as “joyous youth condemned to drudgery.” Some had parents and elders that the French writer saw as “old age lying down to die.” Such persons will be happy to remain there day after day. It is an alternative party, the sort Odia Ofeimun invited the masses to in one of his poems.

But in spite of the ideal of this movement, some have called for the protest to stop, for the youth to pick a committee, and sit at table for a talk on their demands. They have said they do not trust the government. They have seen governments come and go, and promises come and go, and they are not ready for popcorns too pretty to be sweet. They have seen promises in the recent past. They were promised the NDDC scandal would be resolved, but it is going into silence. Recently, billions of Naira for school feeding was found in private pockets. No dice after promise. They have reasons to doubt.

The youth don’t want assurances. They want example. They are at a crossroads, though. They are at their ideal stage. They have to bring everything to reality. That is the critical point. Movements and revolutions are beautiful until they create what political philosophers call the revolutionary elite. We saw that with Robespierre, Danton, Abbe Sieyes and how the joy turned into turbulence. The English conservative Edmund Burke predicted that it was going to end in the hand of a strong man. He was right, and Napoleon arose to emblematise what Sieyes called for: “Power from above: confidence from below.” We saw that, too, in the Arab Spring. Egypt now crawls under a tyrant. Revolutions often die in the hands of its leaders.

But it is not enough for the government to say they have met their demands. We need the president to address them. The BOS of Lagos, Governor Babajide Sanwo-Olu, ever a quintessential leader, played shuttle messenger from youth to president. He became a charioteer of the people’s dream. Others followed. Wike prosecuted an about-face, and joined. Taraba, Osun. Makinde did a false equivalence giving a million to victims’ families and N100 million to rebuild a feudal monument.

It is not just for the president to say he has met their demand. He needs to stoop with empathy, and speak with them and not to them, and in their language. He has youths around him. He should couch the tone and diction, and address them and meet with them. That is the call of the moment. It is not about policy. This is the politics of the real polity. It will be nice for the president to visit a victim’s family in the way Governor Sanwo-Olu did.

The youth have energy, but they need the soothing conciliator in the president. It is then he will understand that they don’t want just SARS to go, but inequality, ethnic favours, malignant hypocrisies, electoral lies, jobless hemorrhage. They were already convening the national conference that the old have not been able to hold in their gilded halls in flamboyant brocades with palates sweetened with cakes and tea. Theirs is already advancing without rancour on the streets of Enugu and Lekki.

This moment for the young, as for the nation, resembles J.P. Clark’s brilliant but maligned play, The Raft. Will the young fall over and drown, or will they survive the fog ahead? They have to navigate the crossroads, and my heart is with them.

– Omatseye is a respected journalist with The Nation

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