I’ve been wondering for several years, why Nigerians have continued to suffer in silence and when they will decide that they have had enough of the poor governance that has plagued the country for decades. I’ve always believed that there would come a time that the people would understand their power and take matters into their own hands, I just didn’t know when. These questions have been answered in the last couple of weeks, as young people began protesting against police brutality, online and on the streets of Lagos, Abuja and other parts of the country.
Over the last six years, this blog has grappled with the issues that face Nigeria and always came up short in the face of the seeming apathy and resignation prevalent across the society. The insidious corruption that blights every institution and every aspect of life has festered and flourished unchallenged, even as the living conditions of the average citizen deteriorate with each passing day. Yet, as I would offer my analysis and possible solutions, my readers and good people everywhere would respond with a collective, “What can we do?”
This acceptance of an all-powerful government’s right to defraud, disenfranchise and dehumanize a whole population could never last – history has taught us that – but the end was never in sight. However, the winds of change that began in the United States and blew across the world in the wake of George Floyd’s death, started to sway the grass and rustle the trees in Nigeria. The excesses of US police forces against people of colour would resonate with Nigerian youths being oppressed by the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) and give them the courage to begin their own movement for justice. I was happy to see this response and prayed that, unlike previous protests, this would not run out of steam or collapse at the first sign of aggression from the government. I need not have worried because the protesters have shown remarkable resilience and a determination that this time will be different.
As the protests have grown, Nigerian young people have begun to sense their power to affect change and their demands are increasing. If they can wring concessions from the authorities and get SARS disbanded, why stop there? Why not keep up the momentum and see what else is possible? After all, ending police brutality and bringing the perpetrators to justice will not be enough to restore normalcy. Once the Twitter storm subsides and the protestors melt away from city streets, electricity will still be epileptic, public health and education will be inadequate, the streets will be dirty and unlit, and the corruption that sucks the resources that should be the lifeblood of the nation will remain. The youth in the streets have not known anything else, but their exposure to a life outside Nigeria, made possible by Internet travel, tells them that the life they have been asked to accept as normal is anything but.
Inevitably, there has been strong resistance from all quarters – a push-back by security forces in Abuja that led to the death of several peaceful protestors; threats by some state governors to ban local agitation; and conservative voices suggesting that ending SARS is enough and that life should now return to ‘normal’. I’m happy to say that the protestors have not been cowed or swayed by any of it and have only become emboldened with each attack. Support has come from every part of the society: celebrities like Wizkid, Davido, Falz and dozens of others have mobilised millions of online fans and joined them on the streets; small businesses and wealthy individuals have been providing food, tents, toilets and medical supplies; volunteers are clearing the refuse; hundreds of lawyers are getting people out of jail; DJs are keeping the crowds entertained; and most importantly, the support for the movement has involved every ethnic group and social class, making it clear that Nigerians of every hue are fed up with the status quo.
As far as politicians go, Lagos state governor Babajide Sanwo-Olu has led from the front, engaging with protestors, joining them on the streets and taking their demands to Abuja in meetings with the president of Nigeria and the Inspector General of Police. The federal government has not disappointed anyone, with a response that has been typical and predictable. First, they met the protests with silence and pretended it wasn’t happening. Next came the ‘law & order’ warnings and the hope that intimidation would have the usual effect. Finally, when it was clear that the protestors would not back down, the promises and platitudes began to flow. However, Nigerians know this playbook so well and have continued to press their case, waiting to see actual results – arrests, prosecution and conviction of lawless law enforcers, and compensation for the victims of their brutality and the families of the murdered. The promise of panels and inquiries that produce nothing will not work this time.
If there is anything that should have become clear to Nigerians during this period of protest, it’s the fact that there is no political party that is fighting for the people. In protests against the government, almost anywhere in the world, opposition parties are front and centre, pressing their demands on behalf of their supporters. In Nigeria, there is no real division between government and opposition, there is just one ruling political class that takes turns in dividing the spoils of democracy. Given the ease with which they switch sides to protect their immunity and other interests, they know that supporting a protest against one party today is like adding fuel to a fire that may burn them tomorrow. If these protests continue and begin to manifest real change, one thing is certain – most of these politicians will find themselves on the wrong side of history.
As Nigerians begin to find their voices, I will continue to celebrate and support them. I pray that these protests will grow into a movement for real and lasting change in Nigeria, even as they remain peaceful, constructive and resolute. I hope that the Nigerian government at all levels will respond with the kind of speed, effectiveness and sensitivity that has eluded them previously.
I hope to see Nigeria evolve into the giant of Africa that it has always promised it could be – strong, just, compassionate and a true leader for the world’s richest continent. #endSARS may be the beginning but it should not be the end.
“Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.” ~ Barack Obama, 44th president of the United States of America