The hope of the #EndSARS generation suffers no disease; it does not hang on the proviso that God will do it, but looks towards the beginnings of a new Nigeria, its history reshaping, its lines being redrawn, pulling us closer into a new and promised land.
Under the asbestos roof of our Lagos home, my father often wielded his famous catchphrase ‘a luta continua, vitoria e certa’ like a shield to ward off the sharp realities of Nigeria. This mantra—the struggle continues, victory is certain—was as alive in his mouth as his tongue, his rhethoric for the unanswerable question of why things here were the way they were. ‘Everything is politics,’ he would often quip, most of the conversations we shared crept into that realm.
From colonialism to military rule, ethnic strife to overpaid politicians, he would discuss Nigeria’s problems for hours, proffering solutions that ranged from the decentralization of power to a return to regional governance to a Jerry Rawlingsesque intervention at Aso Rock. Change bubbled in his heart, but like many of his time, his activism succumbed to the lack of true belief in its eventuality. The epidemic of his generation is the disease of hollow hope, its medicine the faith and prayers that flow through them like blood. Tomorrow will be better in Jesus name. But how to fix today?
Suffering and Smiling
The lyrics of Fela Kuti are laden with direct accusations, diatribes, and disdain for the political elite of Nigeria. Twenty-three years after his death, the message of his music still resonates across the country. One phrase ‘suffering and smiling’ still lingers like a bad smell, a coat of arms emblazoned on the breast of the Nigerian psyche. It can be argued that this characterization of Nigerians as a people who accept the realities of their lives too readily is a heavy truth.
A 2003 study by The New Scientist concluded that the happiest people in the world live in Nigeria. At the Murtala Mohammed Airport arrivals terminal, free-standing LG air conditioners help freshly decanted passengers recover from the wave of humidity that grips like a warm towel. These weary passengers are soon faced by a ‘Welcome to Nigeria’ sign beneath which lies a single line, a simple lie: ‘The happiest place in the world.’ But misery is often the reflection of joy in a Nigerian mirror, a place heavily flooded by seasonal rainfall and the sheer torrent of its people’s optimism. Lagos, the nation’s self-titled centre of excellence answers the question of places where you wonder just how anything manages to function. There is no mass transit system, no adequate sewage network and its roads are plagued by a vehicular gridlock that would make Lego envious.
Yet, locals combat the haphazard, often depressing world they inhabit with defiant humour. This abiding sense of optimism that aids and somehow plagues the citizens of Africa’s self-acclaimed ‘giant’ has enough demographic and economic potential to be valid. However, its present use is as a pillar to hold up Nigerians as people of ardent inner strength, able to wade through the impossibilities and impediments thrust harshly before them without any recourse to true rebellion, save for regular complaints and grumbles of bad governance. ‘Suffering and smiling’, the damning acceptance of oppression despite the daily struggles of life have dampened the Nigerian social consciousness.
The Spring to Action
Death is often the catalyst of revolution. In December 2011, Mohammed Bouazizi, a Tunisian street vendor set himself on fire in protest at the indiscriminate seizing of his vegetable stand by police. The seizure was an act that carried strong metaphors of the incessant and systemic oppression he faced as a Tunisian at the hands of his own government. His ultimate sacrifice heralded the Arab Spring, a wave of protests, uprisings, and unrest, fuelled by social media, that spread across North Africa and the Middle East and ended up toppling the governments of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen. The term ‘spring’ was first used to refer to the Revolutions of 1848—also known as the ‘People’s Spring’—when political upheavals swept Europe and has been used to describe similar movements toward democracy. A Google search for ‘Nigerian Spring’ shows nothing but photographs of spring rolls, the popular hors d’oeuvre served at parties in our nation afflicted with a chronic lack of will for change and reform and riddled with corruption. History suggests that sustained mass protests in Nigeria are few and far between, and those see the light of day quickly run out of vim and cohesion or are simply met with a show of brutal force.
Sparking the #EndSARS Protests
On 03 October 2020, a leaderless movement engineered by the nation’s much maligned youth—a demographic less afflicted by the fault lines that have cracked the collective Nigerian spirit—started online. In gruesome video, the killing of an unarmed man by officers of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad raged across social media, stirring the dormant outrage that fuelled what was to become the most significant civil movement in contemporary Nigerian history. Symbolic of things to come, the march began at 10 a.m. on 08 October at the Lekki tollgate, where the heavy movement of people meant any demonstration would be impossible to ignore. The mass activism picked up rapid pace, evidence of the long repressed voices of youth finally finding a route of expression. The #EndSARS message tore through the internet and became the top trending topic in the world on only the second day of the movement.
Meanwhile some local news outlets with political leanings either continued with business as usual or dragged pro-government fat cats onto interview panels to publicly castigate a public activism that was fever pitch.
The SARS unit has been accused of targeting young people who appear well-dressed, drive decent cars and own iPhones or laptops. Reportedly, they pick on those with dreadlocks or tattoos on the pretext that they are fraudsters, shaking them down for money, then arresting, torturing, abusing and even killing ones who resist. The officers demand to go through messages and social media accounts and make up bogus claims to extort, kidnap, rape, or murder with impunity. SARS, ultimately, is an indictment of a system in which the prosperity of youthful enterprise is met with wide-eyed suspicion, and guilt becomes established long before innocence reaches the throes of judicial contemplation.
The Feminist Coalition
In July 2020, a group of young women came together to form what would become the fulcrum of organization and ‘uncoordinated coordination’ for the #EndSARS protests. Made up of activists, lawyers and journalists, they set to work, creating a fundraising platform that raised, according to Quartz Africa around 75 million naira ($200,000) within a week. The voracity and unyielding nature of the demonstrations that had now spread to Abeokuta, Benin, Ibadan, Ilorin, Abuja, Port Harcourt, Awka, Enugu, Asaba and Kano was a source of concern to the political elite. Efforts were made to frustrate the organization’s ability to fund and sustain the protests, including the suspension of their bank accounts by the Central Bank of Nigeria. These actions simply strengthened the general resolve and defiance of a tech savvy generation who rallied and modified their fundraising channels with a switch to cryptocurrency.
Alongside other ad-hoc groups like End SARS Legal Aid and the End SARS Response Unit, the Feminist Coalition mobilized legal teams and healthcare professionals and ensured a constant flow of ambulances, food, clothing, and shelter reached protesters who needed them nationwide. DJs took up the arms of music to rally theirs and many other voices amplified by megaphones. Large telephone charging points were set up to keep the online activism alive, and even the rubbish was cleared, preparing stomping grounds for the following day’s efforts.
The lack of a figurehead or leader fuelled the organic nature of a unique protest, one that will be crystallized in Nigeria’s history as a vast performance of resistance and togetherness full of moments that were solemn and loud, controlled and wild, cheerful and angry. There were bold confrontations of soldiers wielding whips and guns, thugs with axes and machetes. There were candlelight vigils to remember the dead, voices rising with unison into the air in songs of solidarity. The pendulum of abiding feelings swung between vibrant, active hope of youthful resistance and despair as protesters were maimed, wounded, and killed.
Ironically, peaceful demonstrations against police brutality became marred by more police brutality. Protests in Surulere, Lagos, on 12 October turned violent when police opened fire. Eyewitness statements and videos show the police attacking the demonstrators. A week into the protests, local thugs were mobilized by the government to wreak havoc but despite a few skirmishes, they were subdued by protesters who had developed a new spirit of kinship and solidarity. Such fellowship among Nigerians is a rather novel phenomenon, considering Nigeria’s formation by British amalgamation and its civil war that carried significant ethnic undertones. Obafemi Awolowo once described Nigeria as ‘a mere geographical expression’ but one could argue that new bonds are being formed amongst its youth.
By 11 October, demonstrations had spread to the diaspora, after Nigerians took to the streets in Accra, Berlin, London, New York, Toronto and other cities. International media including the BBC and CNN began beaming images of the Nigerian protests to the world and the inspector general of police, Mohammed Adamu, announced the dissolution of SARS across Nigeria, and the redeployment of its officers.
This news was met with scepticism and dismissals that Adamu’s announcement was not far reaching enough. The truth is that problems with SARS are not new. There were protests against its brutality back in 2010, and announcements on disbanding it were first made in 2014, then again in 2015, 2016, and 2019. In response to the police chief, a cogent list of demands called the #5for5 was published and signed ‘Nigerian Youth’ in keeping with the collective leadership of the protests. They included demands for an immediate release of all arrested protesters, justice for all deceased victims of police brutality and appropriate compensation for their families, the setting up an independent body to oversee the investigation and prosecution of all reports of police misconduct, psychological evaluation and retraining of all disbanded SARS officers before any redeployment and an increase in police salary. Two days after his initial announcement, Adamu established a new Special Weapons and Tactics or SWAT squad to ‘fill the gaps’ left by SARS but the sentiment of many Nigerians was that SWAT was SARS in new clothes.
Meanwhile, the commander-in-chief of the armed forces of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, President Buhari remained quiet as the nation he led loudly clamoured for change. After continuous calls for him to address the nation, Buhari delivered a two-minute statement on 12 October that ignored the mood of the people and drew universal scorn.
Writing in Newswatch in September 1985, Dele Olojede, the Pulitzer winning Nigerian journalist described the ‘war on everybody’ that was being waged by that Buhari regime. In electing him, did we really expect this president to change his spots?
They have bobbed-up belly-wise,
like fishes drawn out of water;
there’s a message in the white of their vacant eyes,
and we are left the riddle to decipher.
‘These Corpses Must Speak Their Names’ – Soonest Nathaniel, a poem about the corpses found at Ezu River, Anambra State in January 2013.
Each Nigerian state seems to have a SARS unit that functions as a special kind of hell. A 2016 expose by Pulse described the treatment of individuals who are unfortunate enough to be detained in Lagos. Suspects treated as less than human are suspiciously asked what kind of water they would like to drink. ‘Water’ here is code for the canals of Ikorodu or Lagos Island, where, according to Pulse, bodies are disposed of after killings by police officers.
The SARS detention centre in Abuja is colloquially known as ‘abattoir’ due to its previous use as a butcher’s yard. But years after the building was repurposed for police work, it continues to be a slaughterhouse of dreams. Notoriety is, however, reserved for the Awkuzu SARS outfit in the eastern state of Anambra under the leadership of James Nwafor between 2012 and 2018. Investigations by Amnesty International found that under him, Awkuzu SARS became the headquarters of human rights violations, particularly torture, cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, and extrajudicial executions. Despite this, the state governor saw fit to include Nwafor in his security detail after he retired from the police force until the recent protests forced his sacking. These realities of brutality are made worse by the impunity that often follows them. Legitimate pleas fall on the ears of deaf legislators, rubbing salt into wounds and driving the nail further into the coffins in which justice here seems to lie in perpetual wake. Should we accept these realities as the way of life here and move on? If the nation’s leaders can get away with gross corruption, if kidnappers are free to haunt highways and terrorists are left to their wiles and their will to litter the North East with the bodies of the dead, who can police the police?
The overwhelming view was that the #EndSARS protests now represented something far bigger – a broader resentment at the state of the nation, the poor state of healthcare, education and infrastructure, the lack of opportunities in the marketplace and the excesses and corruption of a government that seemed not to care. But on a dark night lit only by hints of light from mobile phones and the sparks of gunfire, everything ground to a halt. On Bloody Tuesday, the 20th of October, men of the military opened fire on protesters who sat waving flags and singing the national anthem, some paying the toll of the fight with their lives that night.
Before this incident at Lekki, the Lagos State governor, Babatunde Sanwo-Olu, announced the names and apprehension of four police officers involved in the harassment of protesters. As part of the #5for5 demands signed by the Nigerian Youth, he announced that all detained protesters had been released without charge. Backed by a two-hundred-million-naira compensation fund, the governor also set up the Lagos State Judicial Panel of Enquiry and Restitution for Victims of SARS Related Abuses. Yet, all this good work was undone by the clear efforts of both the state and federal government to suggest to the world that the shooting at Lekki was a national hallucination. Clear evidence was dismissed as fake news, press conferences were given by the governor in which he said there were no casualties on a night that 150,000 people watched the trauma unfolding through the live video shared by DJ Switch, who has since fled Nigeria. President Buhari addressed the nation two days later, but what should have been an opportunity to bring the country together and to show some empathy for the grieving was in essence, a national telling-off by an iron-handed leader. Notably, his pre-recorded speech, made no mention of the events at Lekki.
There is still no answer to the question of who ordered the military intervention. The old tradition of Nigerian soldiers is to stay silent and let their bullets speak for them. But the cracks are starting to appear on the government’s intricate tapestry of fabrication. Inconsistencies, and contradictory claims are slowly emerging, and the people’s narrative has been given life by a comprehensive and cast-iron CNN investigation published on 19 November which has been disputed and summarily dismissed by the minister of information, Lai Mohammed.
A New Hope
The curtains have fallen on the #EndSARS protests but there are still rumblings behind the stage. New dialogues are being had, new stories are being written, new actors are being casted in a new play, one that carries a moral and social instruction of solidarity and a refusal to suffer and smile under the auspices of callous leadership. The hope of this generation suffers no disease; it does not hang on the proviso that God will do it, but looks towards the beginnings of a new Nigeria, its history reshaping, its lines being redrawn, pulling us closer into a new and promised land⎈
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