It has been one year already since that Tuesday, 20th October 2020, when the Nation was rudely shocked by a premeditated violent crackdown on youth protestors against police brutality. Earlier on that day, the Lagos State Government had declared a 24-hour curfew which would take effect from 4pm. As the deadline was not practical due to traffic chaos in Lagos, the state government extended the time for compliance to 9pm. However, before the reviewed curfew time, armed men in the uniform of the Nigerian military were deployed to the protest site at Lekki toll gate in Lagos.
Available evidence suggests that they did not order the crowd to disperse and they did not engage in non-lethal crowd dispersal action, but rather opened live ammunitions on the defenceless assembled youth, some of whom were reportedly killed or wounded. This attack on unarmed protesters holding the nation’s flag and singing the national anthem will go down in infamy and will be engraved in the minds of Nigerians as one of the worst abuses of citizens.
For the past year, there has been classic disinformation interventions debate on whether a massacre happened or did not at the Lekki tollgate. Amnesty International has been insistent that at least 12 people were killed. The Lagos State Governor said only one person was killed, the Federal Government said no one was killed and just two days ago, Lai Mohammed, the Information Minister said the massacre story is fake news by CNN and Amnesty International. Following the events, 29 States and the Federal Capital Territory set up Commissions of Inquiry to investigate the matter. So far, only three have concluded their work and submitted reports, which are yet to be made public. We await the reports and their findings.
One year later, our focus should be on the root causes of these protests by our youth – bad governance and lack of accountability. Currently, 65% of Nigerians are young persons under 35 years of age. The majority of them do not feel that Nigeria works for them or supports their interests or aspirations. They have been victims of police brutality and extortion all their lives and collectively decided the situation was no longer acceptable. It was on that basis that they began the EndSARS protests to end police brutality and ultimately to defend their basic rights, including the fundamental right to life. From accounts by ken observers, their protests were peaceful, and disciplined. They were focused on defending the rule of law and good governance, on many occasions symbolically raising the national flag or singing the national anthem.
The response of the Government to these protests was slow, unconvincing, and half-hearted. By formally accepting the youth’s demand to end SARS but immediately announcing it would be replaced with a similar SWAT, they failed to demonstrate good faith. This has happened several times previously when our youth had protested against police brutality and extortion and government had promised to disband the unit but never did. What was tragic about the whole affair was that agents of government or other affiliated political actors sought to break the legitimate protests by the youth through sponsoring or promoting thugs to attack the protestors and damage properties which were then attributed to the youth protestors. The cynical and brutal response, to the protests by the government or its agencies took over the protests from the hands of concerned, peaceful, orderly protesters for the rule of law and delivered the streets to the mobs, hoodlums and arsonists.
Let it be known, no Nation can survive a prolonged war between its security agencies and its youth. The genie is out of the bottle and henceforth the new normal in Nigeria is that youth agency, both positive and negative, will determine the course of events in the country. Nigeria, alas, has a gerontocratic ruling class with little capacity or will to listen to or understand what the youth are saying and doing. Saving the Nation would require that they seek a better understanding of social trends in Nigeria and commit more seriously to addressing the lack of hope for a better future for most of our youth who have been constituted into the largest precariat, – (young, displaced people living precariously and with no perspective for a better life), in the contemporary world.
Let’s start with the good story, the #EndSARS movement developed as a liberal movement among the minority within the youth – young, educated and smart people who decided to organise against police brutality and extortion. The movement was about rule of law, respect for human rights and the Constitution. Their focus was deepening democracy and although there has been massive propaganda to portray them as evil and violent arsonists, no campaign of calumny can hide the truth. Part of the problem of the Nigerian State is that the movement evaded “normal treatment”. The normal is that the leaders of a protest movement are identified and depending on the situation, bribed into abandoning its objectives or smashed using repressive means. The EndSARS movement was different, it was technologically savvy, conversant with decentralised block chain operations, immersed in the global communicative nexus and simply great in its messaging. When they started using banks to raise money for food and medical support of members, government forced the banks to close the accounts, they responded by raising bitcoins locally and internationally.
The mistake of the Nigerian State was in not recognising the liberal and democratic content of their demands for police reform, which has been on the table of the Nigerian Government itself since the 2006, 2008 and 2012 Presidential Police Reform Panels, none of those recommendations have been implemented. The Government should have read their demands as allies urging it to do what is in its own programme. The National Human Rights Commission Panel set up by the Buhari Administration has made the same recommendations that #EndSARS was making and again had not been implemented. The response of regime supporters was to send paid thugs to break up #EndSARS protests and introduce violence and arson into the peaceful acts of the protesters. By so doing, they activated hoodlum violence and opened the route to the orgy of violence and looting that took over the movement.
The bad story was that once the precariat saw that thugs had been activated to step into the fray, their own needs to quench their hunger was aroused and they started looking for the palliatives they had been promised during the Covid-19 lockdown but did not get. Criminality took over and generalised looting became the order of the day. As the criminal elements took over leadership, they started attacking police personnel and stations and many of them were killed creating a crisis for law enforcement. They turned a movement that had been established to reform the police and improve the rule of law into one that was killing the police and sending the country along the path of chaos and anarchy. It was a very sad outcome for a virtuous movement that was hijacked and turned into generalised violence and looting.
At the same time, the political enablers set out to activate ethno-religious sentiments to seek to destroy the legitimacy of the #EndSARS movement. In the North, the completely legitimate argument the insecurity around rural banditry and the Boko Haram insurgency were the most important security threats was turned into an argument against #EndSARS. In Lagos, the narrative became the thugs were all Igbo and were out to destroy Yoruba leaders. Ethno-religious manipulation in Nigeria is easy, we have a skilled political class that can do it.
The social reality of Nigeria is ugly and frightening. Youth agency has activated rural banditry, cattle rustling, kidnapping, militancy, widespread paganism and wanton killing that characterise daily life. One hundred million Nigerians today live in extreme, mostly urban poverty. Over 60% of Nigerians have abandoned their villages and moved to cities and towns. As urbanisation has grown, the signifier of social trends has been the growth of informality at the level of the economy, society and above all in religion. Nigerian informality is located in poverty for the masses and obscene wealth for a vocal, crass minority. At any urban junction or slum, there are thousands ready to be “mobilised”. The most important contemporary problem for Nigeria is the lack of opportunity for the youth. We have developed a huge youth bulge that has been growing rapidly. This is happening at a time in which formal opportunities for employment are declining and having a job has become a minority experience.
Meanwhile, the marginalised youth who are glued to the social media know we have massive wealth for a few and conspicuous consumption of the obscene ruling class. That was how they saw the need to activate their own agency.