By Adeolu Ojo
There once was a doctor,
By name Mungo Park
Who was sent by Niger Company
To see the source of the Niger
But died at Bussa.
This is a nursery rhyme we used to sing when I was in primary school, and that was my first indicator as to the fact that rivers have sources. Before then, I’d always seen rivers as endless; no beginning or end. Anyway, nothing comes from nothing, and so there is no river that doesn’t have a source, just like there is nothing that did not start from somewhere, nor is there any human being that does not have a background. So, lets look at the beginnings of unrest and public protests in Nigeria (from my perspective). On Monday, April 17, 1978, there began a boycott of lectures by students in all tertiary institutions in Nigeria whose campus unions were affiliated to the then National Union of Nigerian Students (NUNS), now known as the National Association of Nigerian Students (NANS). Campuses of Universities of Lagos, Ibadan, Ife, Benin, Calabar, Jos and Maiduguri as well as Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, University of Nigeria, Nsukka and Bayero University, Kano successfully enforced the lectures boycott over increase in school fees. The then Federal Secretary (MMinister) of Education was one Alli, and that protest was dubbed “Alli Must Go”. The second day, when students of Unilag planned to march out and deliver a protest letter incorporating their demands to General Obasanjo in Dodan Barracks, his headquarters, they woke up to see the main gate of their institution blocked by a large contingent of armed police officers. Confrontations broke out between students and the armed forces, with casualties, starting with Unilag, Unical and then Ahmadu Bello University (ABU), Zaria, where massacres were carried out not by the police, but by armed soldiers. The soldiers were not trying to prevent students from moving out of the campus; rather, they were trying to force themselves into the campus – to put down an insurrection which did not exist! By the time the shooting stopped five students of the University were dead.
At that time, my eldest brother was rounding up his course of study at the Ahmadu Bello University (ABU), Zaria. My parents were in dismay, worrying about the safety of their son, my eldest brother. Although I was just a small primary school boy then, I remember the various efforts my parents made to track him (no telephones to call). I remember my dad calling an aunt in Jos, Plateau State that time, to check if my brother had found his way there. And then one night, while on the phone to the Jos people, my brother walked in, and I still remember that all the woman on the other end could say was: “Inu mi ma dun oooo” (I’m so happy!). She must have said it 10 times, and it became a joke among us at that time.
Anyway, lets leave that aside. Fast forward to 1989, and I was an undergraduate at the University of Ibadan. I wasn’t a unionist, but I joined the students to protest the Structural Adjustment Program (SAP) of the Babangida regime. We had a very well coordinated protest and actually successfully kept the police out of our campus, having “seceded” from Nigeria, establishing the Federal Republic of UI, and severing all diplomatic relationships with Federal Republic of Nigeria. During that period, the main gate was blocked by parking a bus across it, one of the buses belonging to the Internal Transport Service (ITS), which later became UI Ventures (we derisively called them UI Vultures those days, because they immediately increased the cost of taking a bus from the gate to Faculty of Agric from 10k to 20k). So, in later days, when people derisively refer to the ruthless defensive efficiency of Jose Mourinho (One time Chelsea coach) as “parking the bus”, I know exactly how effective that can be But, we eventually, we capitulated. Police and the military somehow managed to breach our defences and entered the campus to enforce the closure order of the military government. Some students lost their lives in the ensuing scuffle, and schools were closed for 6 months.
In 1993, the likes of Frank Kokori, Attahiru Jegga, and a host of others mounted a nationwide protest to insist on the actualization of the June 12 elections. It was a most ruthlessly coordinated protest that effectively shut down the entire nation and those protests and demonstrations ran for years, up till 1995 or so. Even banks under the aegis of the NUBIFE, joined the strike. Eventually, we capitulated, and the result is that students of tertiary institutions lost a whole academic year (those who should have graduated in 1992/93 eventually formed the 1993/94 graduates), and we remained under the iron fist of Abacha, until death came calling and we eventually had Obasanjo foisted on us yet again in 1999 (don’t forget that he was responsible for the “Alli Must Go” saga of 1978 described above).
So, historically, you cannot sustain a protest and lockdown for too long, without going to the negotiation table and trying to solve the problems with a combination of tact, diplomacy and ruthless negotiations. Typically also, when a protest lasts for long enough, miscreants key into it, to cause mayhem, and loot and pilage, like we had during the #EndSARS protest, recently. There can be no future without some reference to the past (if only as an indicator of how we DO NOT want things to be). This is why the Yorubas say: Odo to ba gbagbe orison e, o ma gbe ni. A river that forgets its source will dry up.
The #EndSARS protesters have done a Yeoman’s job. They have sounded a strident note of warning to the elite, the ruling class: We are watching you, and we have your measure. However, they need to learn lessons from history; make reference to their “source”. You must take cognizance of the past, so that you can avoid the pitfalls of the past. There have been much talk about getting a leadership for the protest, but the “youths” insist they do not want to have leaders, so they won’t be bribed. So, who does the government discuss with? Besides, how different is this from previous protests? Didn’t some people collect money from the Oyo State Government last week? And, doesn’t this represent the beginning of cracks in the wall, chinks in the armour? Look, honestly, the best way forward is to start from the very beginning, see where previous efforts went off tangent, and plan to avoid such issues, going forward. Apply the wisdom of age, because like the Yorubas say: ohun ti agba ma ri ni ijoko, omode o le rib o gun ori igi. What an adult will see, sitting down, a child may not see it, even if he climbs a tree. The youths must apply the Yoruba maxim of knowing when to fight and when to retreat, and strategize, to avoid the kind of issues that ended the #EndSARS protest. It is not possible to completely divorce the current struggle from the past, if only for the purpose of determining how things will not be. A river that forgets its source will dry up.
By Adeolu Ojo
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I am done, I’m gone, I’m ghost.