The political awakening of Nigeria’s youth

The political awakening of Nigeria’s youth
#EndSARS protesters. Source: Tobi Oshinnaike via Unsplash

On the 1st of October 2020, Nigeria marked 60 years of independence from British colonial rule. But rather than a day of national celebration, it turned out to be a day for Nigeria’s millennials to reflect on the trouble with the country. This tweet by investigative journalist Fisayo Soyombo captured the mood of the day; ‘Today, Nigeria’s 60th Independence Day, I am sad, spent, drained, despondent, crest-fallen. And I am angry. Everything…’

Older Nigerians tend to reminisce about our ‘good old days’; when our institutions of learning competed on global standards. Graduates with a first school leaving certificate could get jobs that provided for their families, the purchasing power of the naira was as strong as the British pound and Nigerian citizens could travel without their passports raising red flags. Nigeria’s millennials have never known this Nigeria. 

Despite the oil boom of the 1970s where the problem with Nigeria was ‘not money but how to spend it’, the quality of our decision making was abysmal. As a result, Nigeria’s young population inherited nothing but socio-economic decline and a dwindling international reputation. 

However, on the 8th of October, some young protesters—amidst this atmosphere of discontent—staged a demonstration at the Lagos State Government Secretariat. This protest was not to demand the usual list of national deficiencies like jobs, electricity or education. 

It was a demand for the most basic of all civil liberties; the right to life. 

Specifically, it was a demand for the permanent disbandment of the Special Anti Robbery Squad (SARS), a rogue unit of the Nigerian police force responsible for at least 82 confirmed cases of extrajudicial torture and killings within the last three years alone, and possibly thousands more. 

Visuals of the young protesters confronting the government officials sent to placate them and their refusal to leave the government secretariat—despite police harassment and intimidation—made the rounds on social media. The images of defiance emboldened others, and thus, began a re-kindling of the movement.
The following day, they came out en masse, as waves of independently organised protests sprang up at various locations across Lagos State. The #EndSARS protests would eventually domino first into a nationwide call, then an international one—with demonstrations held in the UK, USA, Canada and other nations.

For powerless Nigerians, this has not just been a movement; it has been the movement. It is arguably Nigeria’s most significant mass movement since the pro-democracy rallies of the mid to late 90s. These protests might prove to be the political epiphany for a generation of young Nigerians who have never been seen nor heard but have now made it clear that the government will no longer ignore them.


A quiet storm brews

Though the effectiveness of the protests have stemmed largely from the fact that they are decentralised yet united, the ability of young Nigerians to organise and mobilise towards a common cause should not surprise those who have paid attention to the social trends in the last few years. Without realising it, young people have been preparing for this kind of ‘guerilla mass movement’ for a while. 

In the last few years, Nigerian feminists, who are now at the heart and centre of #EndSARS, have efficiently organised various movements and protests to draw attention to inequality, abuse and gender-based violence. 

The Yaba Market March, an organised protest against the harassment of women in open markets, as well as the Nigeria #churchtoo movement against sexual violence in churches, are good examples. The experience amassed by these movement’s facilitators over the years has been instrumental to the success of #EndSARS. 

The rise of social media micro-influencers has also contributed to how quickly and effectively the #EndSARS message has spread. Many of these social influencers are industry pioneers and thought leaders who are leveraging the credibility and goodwill with millennials to raise money, disseminate information and create global awareness for #EndSARS. A movement of this scale fuelled online might have been impossible five years ago, but with the evolution of virtual networking and social capital, it has become a reality.

We cannot disregard the adverse effects of COVID19 while accounting for why the movement has been so successful. Youth unemployment in Nigeria jumped from 55% in Q3’2018 to an all-time high of 63% in Q2’2020. Working-class professionals who might have been preoccupied with their jobs this time last year now have more time to join the protests. Many of those who managed to keep their jobs no longer have to resume work at physical locations, thanks to the work-from-home policy adopted to deal with the COVID19 pandemic. Some take intermittent breaks from protesting to attend to work calls and meetings, then promptly resume their protests.


A new culture

A key part of the rising popularity of the #EndSARS protests has also been its transparency. There is a publicly accessible daily summary of accounts which shows the breakdown of money received through donations, money disbursed to support protests, and the end-of-day balances in each currency. Recipients of the funds have used the money to provide private security for protesters, cater to their food and drink, cover mobile data costs, settle hospital bills for the injured and provide legal representation for those arrested. This level of accountability is a far cry from the sorry example of the Nigerian government who still cannot account for the disbursement of COVID19 palliatives.

Several moving stories from the protest grounds have also emerged. In Abuja,  armed hoodlums disrupted peaceful protests. Identification of their sponsors are yet to be conclusive. After the protesters managed to overpower and incapacitate them, they provided first aid treatment to their attackers and sent them to the hospital in ambulances for further medical assistance.

Another story shared by Lawyer, Victor Daniel, also shows that the youth have no grouse with the grossly underpaid rank and file of the police force. Rather, their issues are with the corrupt leadership system within the force, which enables rogue officers to extort, maim and kill innocent civilians with impunity. According to Victor; ‘the protesters approached a traffic warden and he was trying to run. They stopped him, commended his work and offered food and drinks. After they left, the warden bent down and shed some tears.  

Young people are simply building the new Nigeria they want to see. One in which transparency, empathy and mutual respect are the order of the day. There is anger, but there is also humanity.


A leaderless protest

Since the demonstrations began, there has been a huge emphasis on the fact that the movement - though it has distinguishable organisers and facilitators - has no leaders. The insistence on a ‘leaderless’ movement is a preemptive measure, designed to avoid the mistakes of earlier campaigns, such as the #occupynigeria protest of 2012. Analysts say #occupynigeria was hijacked by a group of people claiming to be its leaders, who eventually used their influential positions for private gain.

However, recent reports from the protest grounds are showing that even an organic protest is vulnerable to hijack. There have been disturbing, though isolated incidents of violence, vandalism and extortion from the protest grounds.  

This video shared by Culture Custodian on Twitter has been described as police vans being attacked by an angry mob in Yaba, Lagos State. Even more worryingly, Governor Adegboyega Oyetola of Osun State was addressing protesters in Osogbo after marching with them, when a group of people armed with guns and machetes within the crowd opened fire. As the Governor was being whisked to safety, stones and sticks were hurled at his convoy.

Because the protests are decentralised, it is easy for mischievous elements to infiltrate their ranks and cause confusion. Even if the vandals are among the protesters, no one person can call them to order since there are no leaders.


Playing the long game

There is a general feeling that the Nigerian youth have just begun to appreciate the fact that there are constitutionally sanctioned avenues through which their grievances can be effectively expressed. 

In the words of the late social activist and music legend, Fela Anikulapo Kuti; ‘Trouble sleep, Yanga wake am’. The latent discontent of the youth has been activated by the obstinate tone-deafness of the ruling elite. With over 56% of Nigeria’s population aged under 25 years, young people constitute the largest demographic in the country and now they know that their voices should be among the loudest.

Some have already realised that the #EndSARS movement goes beyond disbanding a rogue police unit. This is a struggle for the very soul of the nation and for the future of generations to come. It is a challenge of the old political order that has squandered the commonwealth of the people for decades. The stakes have never been higher.  

Nigeria owes its young people a lot, and they are no longer asking politely; they are demanding what they are owed. Despite several cases of continued police brutality and at least ten recorded deaths during the protests, the youth are undeterred. 

They continue to fight unbowed for their rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.


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Chukwudi Ukonne

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