Severely deprived, neglected economically and routinely extorted, oppressed, abused and maimed by the primitively wicked security system, youths in Nigeria seem to have finally woken up to the reality of influencing change through peaceful protests. In the past two weeks, their protests against police brutality, using the hashtag, #EndSARS, have assumed a life of their own. Despite promises of police reform by the police and the Federal Government, the protests have escalated. Unequivocally, the youth are sending a message to the rapacious political class of the ‘people power’ they possess to exact positive transformation. Protests, says the influential Foreign Policy magazine, threaten dictatorships, but make democracies stronger.
The dignity of the human person is not only a fundamental right in itself, but constitutes the real basis of fundamental rights. It must therefore be respected, even where a right is restricted. But for most of their lives, which coincides with the years of the Fourth Republic, Nigerian youths have suffered in silence in the hands of the police and the other security agencies. They are summarily killed, detained, extorted and brutalised, especially by SARS. Although they formed the #EndSARS movement in 2017 after a series of brutal police repression, previous attempts from this group to dismantle SARS were not sustained. This gave the government the licence to gloss over promised reforms and SARS degenerated into an army of terror. Between 2016 and 2019, Amnesty International documented at least 82 cases of ill-treatment and extrajudicial executions by SARS officers.
It is not surprising therefore that the youth have seized the initiative from the government this time. From Lagos to Abuja, Osogbo to Ilorin, Port Harcourt to Ibadan and Benin to Abeokuta, an uncommon fire of civil protests is sweeping across Nigeria. Instructively, their basic demands have gone beyond just #EndSARS, or even #EndSWAT, the hastily formed Special Weapons and Tactics team, or their original five-point demand. Having seen the intrinsic power in mass civil action, the youth want more. They have refused all official entreaties to stop protesting, bearing in mind the injuries they have suffered from the past failed promises. The international community, including global celebrities, have joined in the democratic cause.
In many ways, they are right. The United Nations Population Fund says that Nigerian youths (10-24 years) constitute 32 per cent of the country’s population, but they are the most subjugated group. In the past 21 years of the so-called civil rule, their country has descended into ruins – healthcare is deficient; infrastructure is shabby; education is expensive, chaotic and epileptic; insecurity is endemic and social life tenuous. In particular, North-East Nigeria is in ruins, stained with rivers of blood. Most of their lives, they experience fitful electricity, school closures and graduate into the labour market without a hope of employment. The economy has been grossly mismanaged. The National Bureau of Statistics puts the unemployment rate at 27.1 per cent and is projected to hit 30 per cent soon. As of Q2 2020, 40 million youths were eligible to work, but the NBS put youth unemployment at 34.9 per cent or about 13.9 million, far greater than the population of many countries.
Regardless, Nigerians have really lost their voices over the past two decades despite the deprivations they are suffering. Apart from the 2012 fuel subsidy protests, they have hardly asked for change. This was not so before, even under draconian military regimes when the labour unions were always in the forefront of agitations. The organised labour is now seen largely as having sold out on several fronts. The unions have lost their mettle against the deficient governance tormenting the citizenry. All that the agitators see are greedy lawmakers, a conceited executive and worst of all, a compromised judiciary.
Therefore, the peaceful agitation of these young people is a persuasive call, as democracy works when there is inclusive participation by all segments of the society. It is a huge task here, and Nigerian youths must ask themselves if they are ready to return to the forgettable past or forge a new milieu. If they back down, the cause they are fighting for is forlorn. The Economist (London) once wrote, “Participating in protest movements is a good thing. Protests are identity-defining activities, allowing one to integrate politics into the most important emotional activity of early adulthood: creating one’s social persona. Since all politics is to some extent identity politics, this is a great way to mobilise people.”
Truly, all over the world, young people are challenging repressive and dysfunctional governments and demanding democracy. As obtained in several countries where political transformation has occurred, building a culture of civil protest is a definite way to engineer beneficial change. For the past 18 months, youths in Hong Kong have taken up agitations against the government of the semi-autonomous territory. Their initial demand was the withdrawal of a bill allowing those accused of crime to be extradited to mainland China and Taiwan. In South Korea, civil protests are ubiquitous. Protests by South Korean youths in 2016 instigated the impeachment of the then president, Park Geun-hye. Remarkably, that country went through repressive rule from 1948 to 1987. In Thailand, where there is a long history of protest, a new wave began in February after a popular opposition political party was ordered to dissolve.
Despite earlier police reforms, 2019 featured tensions and protests over electoral reforms in Georgia, where the youth are adamant in calling for change amidst accusations of official corruption. In the nine weekends to October 10, protesters in Belarus have gained global attention for their persistence after President Alexander Lukashenko was accused of rigging the country’s presidential election. Romania, despite being a socialist country for most of its life, has a new culture of protests, in which demonstrators are asking the government to quit, raising their objections to the perceived attempts to weaken the judiciary. The Black Lives Matter protests in the United States over police killings of blacks are poignant signs that civil action against injustice has to be sustained to discourage power grabs and dictatorship in democracies.
Definitely, the state, in collaboration with non-state agents, will employ subtle and overt divisive tactics to disrupt the protests. The youth should not fall for that, especially as the Court of Appeal, in a landmark pronouncement, has affirmed the constitutional rights of citizens to embark on civil protests without a police permit in line with sections 39 and 40 of the 1999 Constitution. Indeed, it is the responsibility of the state to provide protection for peaceful protests.
#EndSARS is definitely a long road to change and reform. When former President Barack Obama recently addressed protests swelling around the US, he urged young people not to forget about the election. “I’ve been hearing a little bit of chatter on the Internet about voting versus protest,” he said. “Politics and participation versus civil disobedience and direct action. This is not an either/or. This is a both/and.” In the past few days, the explosive mix of angry and often well-educated youngsters without jobs or prospects of getting one is at play. Voting can help change all that. Bridging the gap of Nigeria’s freedom deficit will involve much more than occasional protests and demonstrations. Establishing a working democracy should be the overall objective of the Nigerian youth. Henceforth, they should refuse to remain pawns on the political chess board. And 2023 elections promise to be a watershed.
At this point, the youth have demonstrated courage and have been well organised. They should deepen this culture and translate it to the next elections in 2023 by refusing to vote with the old order of greed and corruption.
Undoubtedly, these youth protests are a timely reminder to all stakeholders in the Nigerian project, especially the political elite, that the time is up to build a truly democratic system and a productive and competitive federalism “where peace and justice shall reign.