At the time of writing this, Nigeria’s youth are out in streets across the country, rallied under the banner of #EndSARS in what has been called a movement but is, in reality, large-scale civil disobedience. The protests are sparked by the routine harassment and extrajudicial killings of citizens by the Special Anti-Armed Robbery Squad (SARS) and the entire policing establishment, perceived to be brutal, corrupt, extortionate and ineffective. Civil disobedience on such a massive scale, by such a critical demographic—our “youth bulge”—is a matter of grave concern to Nigerians and Nigeria-watchers alike. This demography consists well over 60% of the population. In the course of #EndSARS, a five-point agenda has been articulated: the release of detained protesters, justice and compensation for all victims of police brutality, an independent body to oversee investigations and prosecutions of all reports of police misconduct (within 10 days), psychological evaluation and retraining of former SARS officers before being redeployed, and an increase police salaries. In response, the president released a video statement speaking directly to these demands. The police Inspector General, a few days into the protests, disbanded the SARS unit.
Practically, detained protesters have routinely been released following the basic legal steps, with the pro-bono support of the Nigerian Bar Association and its members. The IG of Police has also announced a psycho-evaluative regime for the new SWAT unit to take over the security-related mandate of the former SARS. The posturing, and statements, by various government functionaries in the last two weeks has fleshed out the State’s response to these demands, highlighting portions of the new Police Act which preceded the protests, for example, as well as a Police Welfare Fund amongst others. Limitations, the fact that the Police is a force and not a service, which go to the heart of the issue of “increased salaries” are subsumed under a need for wide scale reform of policing in Nigeria. Still, protesters remain on the streets; counter-protests, likely paid for by State-related functionaries and beneficiaries have been staged; violence has broken out between both sets of youth, as well as from confrontations with law enforcement. Still the young people are out on the streets, still the tweets whipping further civil disobedience come in. Still, major roads continue to be blocked. Still the rhetoric that the protest is a “movement” which has no leaders is repeated. In all this, I am struck by how similar the #EndSARS protest is to the State, as represented by the Government of Nigeria. They might as well be twins in the matter of strategy.
A few years ago, I was sitting in Ibadan with a Professor friend and he made a argument about the Science/Art binary in Nigerian education, the either-or way parents and policy makers alike see fields of study. He said, “The opposite of Arts is not Science. The opposite of Science is magic, whereas the opposite of Arts is ignorance upon crudeness. He who has a mind, let him open.” Strategy is both a systemic way of thinking and a organizational practice. What stands it out about it is its ability to gather information, set goals, allocate resources and monitor and evaluate the achievement of these goals, which then feeds new information into the strategy system-of-thinking. At the centre of all strategy and strategic thinking is the leadership function. The difference between strategy and ad-hockery lies in the leadership function, which determines efficient information flow, goal-setting, resource allocation and monitoring and evaluation. Without it, all the four functions mentioned above will fail and day-to-day operations will be organized by ad-hoc arrangements. Without leadership, what operates is ad-hockery. The problem with operating a system based on ad-hockery is that it is inevitably based on whims and exigencies, not actions and goals.
Government of Nigeria’s failures at strategy implementation are copious. At the heart of our problems is leadership, by this I mean an elite—business, political, administrative, academic, what-have-you—who in fact act out of ignorance, crudeness and a belief in magic. The average Nigerian official, and this is an extremely wide mean distribution including permanent secretaries and all types of prefixed “generals”, is largely unable to situate themselves within a historical moment of causes and effects, from the petty kingdoms we are “proud” of, to the administrative machinery of Britain which saw a handful of priests, administrators and few kids with guns pacify a million square kilometres of the territory that became Nigeria. And, because our present elite do not understand the colonial strategic thinking at play, one which efficiently extracted resources from Nigeria, one which “gave” us independence sixty years ago, one which bequeathed a system in which administrative offices and roles exist which these officials now fill, they, these elite officials, cannot understand, nor can it be explained to them, how their own causes lead to effects. These officials have been elected or appointed to offices and have proceeded to re-act only, draw pay, subvert regulations, reject accountability, and not-understand even their own mandates. Consequently, as we’ve seen in the last days, the elite officials who animate the Government of Nigeria do not realize or recognize how the youth in the streets are a direct effect of their own failures of strategy over the last sixty years.
On this column, I have written severally on the learned helplessness in administrative Nigeria, I have written about the need for a new way of holistic strategy management, dwelled on how essential rethinking strategic communications is and brought attention to the threat of apathy to the social contract. I have done this, from my vantage, because in balancing the 21st century threat profile Nigeria faces—Boko Haram, translational drug, weapons and human trafficking, de-nationalization etc—against the quality of the current, degenerating Nigerian elite, the alarms bells of state stability have been ringing loud in my ears up to this very minute. An elite that is wholesale incapable of understanding strategy as ours is draws the inevitable parallel of the Siad Barre regime in early 1977 as it prepared to invade Ogaden. Only, in Nigeria, we are not faced with executing or facing external aggression. The enemy is self-contained, within our borders—the various easily- or already armed non-state actors who employ a nimble, cell-like organization, such as seen in the low-intensity conflict in the northeast. The current instability, ranging from kidnappings, clashes between farmers and herdsmen, the killing of young people extra-judicially by SARS which fuels this present protest, the justified anxiety of parents over the increasingly poor quality of public education, lack of jobs, opportunity and dwindling upward social mobility, rampant impunity, and so much else, degrade state stability. It also frays the social contract on which the very idea of the modern state is based. A state is stable and its citizens safe if its strategic thinking is virile and nimble, able to anticipate, plan and deliver.
How has the #EndSARS protest mirrored the larger Nigerian reality of strategic failure? Conceptually, “the ‘movement’ has no leadership” is an irony which is as sad as it is ridiculous, even as it speaks to both the angst of the aggrieved youth and, tellingly, the quality of non-leaders the protest has thrown up. Consequently, the first function of strategy—gathering information—about SARS impunity and police brutality generally, was either assumed or done on-the-go. There is no data. What lies at the heart of the #EndSARS protest is understandable desperation and angst, but desperation and angst do not a strategy make. Next issue, allocation of resources—there is no leadership, so there can be no allocation of resources and, possibly, there is in fact no recognition of any resource existing beyond youth desperation and angst already mentioned. Third, setting of goals—in this, we have seen five demands which can be worked with, as the government of Nigeria has tried, reactively, to. But the lack of leadership of the protests has seen to various parallel or subsidiary demands and threats, regardless of pleas of “focus” from within the protest, which makes dealing with the protesters as confusing and frustrating as dealing with government of Nigeria doubtless is to any foreign donor agency or cooperative foreign partner. Because there is no leadership, in an amorphous group that share only ageism between them, it is easy for all sorts of criminal elements and as well as government and opposition partisan groups to hijack aspects of both actions and perceptions of the #EndSARS protests, as we have seen. Lastly, monitoring and evaluation; things becomes glaring here. As there is no leadership and no allocation of resources function, there is no way the protesters can monitor and evaluate their demands, talk less the various subsidiary and parallel demands. It is near impossible to know what the protests has achieved, and to what extent. It is, equally, impossible to know whether and when the protests have achieved its aims. In the failure of strategic thinking in the #EndSARS protests, we see how the protest in fact mirrors the same government-of-Nigeria syndrome which created the problems—impunity, incompetence, corruption etc—that fuel the ongoing protest.
Now, putting it all together.
It is impossible to solve problems with the same mind set that created them and it is important that young people know this. The wicked problem that is Nigeria was caused by and is nourished by an elite leadership system of organization based on ad-hockery, not strategy. A youth-led solution to this problem cannot succeed if it has no leadership. It cannot succeed where it is equally based on ad-hockery, not strategy. What is more, Nigeria is a typical “wicked problem” scenario as its problem-sets are contradictory or counterintuitive, there is no reliable data on anything, inequality persists, and all our problem sets are interconnected, are in fact “problems with problems”.
The way to address a “wicked problem” is to deliberately refuse to think from within it; it is to come up with an entire new paradigm which affects the root causes of a wicked-type situation and creates a new set of problems which can then be managed by superior, dynamic strategy. The present Nigerian state of play is the effect of six decades of an incompetent elite in business, politics, public administration, academia, and more, superintending over our local, national and international affairs. If the #EndSARS protest is to have any lasting achievement, it must begin to adopt a strategic-thinking mind set and the first step is to get a leadership function which can intelligently undertake the process of strategy. I speak as one who is sympathetic. I speak as one who was a part of the failed 2012 anti-fuel subsidy removal protests aka #OccupyNigeria, who is thus invested in today’s youth’ success.
Lastly, relatedly, in bringing about an ideal Nigeria, young thinkers must recognize that there is a profound poverty in electoral choices made from the ward level to the state and national levels. These poor choices is closely tied to a voter quality problem of the country. This quality problem, where the few who vote routinely vote against their rational best interests, is closely tied a lack of leadership that can articulate those best interests to the masses and expound the options clearly. This is where the paradigm must be shifted and it remains my hope that new groupings like the Youth Party and similar rise up to this challenge. The next century, and whether Nigeria will be in it, is hinged on this.
Richard Ali was called to the Nigerian Bar in 2010 and has worked in private legal practice, consulted in a policy-shaping role at the Ministry of Interior (2015 to 2017) and has run a preventing and countering violent extremism (PCVE) programme. His expertise is in soft approaches to PCVE. He is an alumnus of the US National Defence University’s Africa Centre for Strategic Studies (ACSS) and of the State Department’s International Visitor’s Leadership Programme (IVLP). He is also a novelist and a poet. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org