The genie is out of the bottle and henceforth the new normal is that youth agency, both positive and negative, will determine the course of events in the country. Meanwhile, Nigeria 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. This 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 is about rule of law, respect for human rights and the Constitution. It is about deepening democracy and although there is 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 evades 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. This movement is 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. One could see the shock in Government when they were threatened by Anonymous, the normal is for them to threaten their citizens.
The mistake of the Nigerian State is 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.
Then the Lekki tollgate shooting by soldiers happened on 20th October. There is now a debate whether it was shooting and wounding or a massacre with the Governor of Lagos saying one protester has been confirmed killed while Amnesty International says it was twelve. As it is being investigated, I will leave the question of numbers aside even if one death of peaceful protesters is already too much. Immediately after the shooting, the military issued a statement saying they were not even there. On Monday, the Governor issued a release saying they were there and there is CCTV footage to prove it. On Wednesday, Amnesty International released the timeline of their leaving Bonny Camp gate at 18:29 pm and how they started firing live bullets at 18:45. The curfew was to come into effect at 21:00. The same day, the military issued a correction to its earlier statement confirming they were indeed at the tollgate, on the directive of the State Government, but did not shoot. We await the findings of the Judicial Commission.
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. Nigeria holds the world record in terms of time and money devoted to prayers and religious activities. It is not about spiritual purity. Read any newspaper and see what “religious” Nigerians are doing. They engage in massive corruption, the raping of babies, incest, stealing, including the theft of money collected for religious work and so on. The social reality of Nigeria is ugly and frightening. Rural banditry, cattle rustling, kidnapping, militancy, widespread paganism, wanton killing 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. To think that they dared stoke the poor and are shocked at the explosion we are witnessing today.
The reality is that opportunities for the majority exist only in the sphere of darkness, the underworld, the criminal networks and above all, in occult arenas where the devil can help the bold and needy. From the 1950s to the 1980s, migration to urban centres was based on the acquisition of modern education and skills. That was the era of cosmopolitanism. The pattern of migration therefore left the poorest in the rural areas and the adoption of urban life signalled social mobility. However, as population increase continued and a significant youth bulge developed in the population profile, the poor youth in the rural areas have also moved to urban centres. In this context, these cities have become the new focal point for the aggregation and aggravation of poverty amidst massive accumulation by a tiny elite. The precariat is defined by the precariousness of their daily life. The social fabric and family bonds have broken down, replaced by a lumpen culture characterised by delinquency, drugs, violence and religious extremism. The elite which lives a different life is just discovering this fact.
The conditions created by urbanisation and social transformation is producing a new post cosmopolitanism. Diversity and multiculturalism have limited impact as many of the shantytowns in the cities are characterised by the aggregations of the village in urban centres, but without the social control of the village. Globalisation is a major player for these communities. The culture of the urban village has been transformed through satellite television, cassettes, then video and now the social media. Cell phones have applications with ring tones that call the Muslim faithful to prayer and the Christian to the latest fiery sermons of the pastor. The Hausa villager in the city has a worldview that is daily informed by complex news analysis in their language from the United Kingdom, United States, Iran, Egypt, France, Germany and China. Global conflicts and interpretations of religion, politics and social life are constantly on the ears of the people. For long, what our government is saying, doing, and above all, not doing, becomes a small part of the universe. Yes, it’s been small, until the anger explodes. The explosion just needed one initial tweet about palliatives, true or false.