Fela’s Republic and the #EndSARS Protests How Nigeria’s Youth Found their Own Voice

The #EndSARS protests have resulted in the emergence of a new type of hero—one from the people, for the people and by the people—which is needed in a society where our leaders have consistently failed to meet up to democratic ideals.

The location is Agege Motor Road, Idi Oro, Lagos. As many as 50 armed policemen storm the commune. They descend on the vicinity with all the arsenal at their disposal, brutalizing everyone they encounter. They order the resident—a man in his mid-30s—to open the door. He says ‘no’. The police eventually make their way in. They take all the money in the man’s pocket, all the while beating him. The man bleeds all over.

No, this is not 2020—a year that has arguably been one of the most ideologically significant and politically turbulent in history. This is 1974 and the man in question, according to Benson Idonije’s Dis Fela Sef! The Legend(s) Untold: A Memoir, is Fela Anikulapo Kuti. His commune, known as Kalakuta Republic, has just been raided. Kalakuta Republic was named after the police cell in which Fela (as he was known) was detained at the Central Intelligence Division headquarters in Lagos.

Fela is put in a police lorry and detained at Alagbon Close, an obscure location in the interior of Ikoyi, Lagos, with more than 50 members of Kalakuta Republic, one of whom later recounts these events. The charges against them are eventually dropped for lack of substantial evidence. This would be the first of 199 arrests that Fela would experience in his lifetime. Fela would be subject to incessant police raids, detentions and brutality, which would end up shaping the politically charged nature of his music and activism for the rest of his life.

More than 40 years after Fela’s first arrest, young people in Nigeria have flocked to the streets with placards in their hands, fists clenched upwards, and fire in their lungs. Youth protests are not new in Nigeria, or to this generation of Nigerians. This time, however, the youth are protesting the brutality, torture, injustice and disregard for human rights the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) routinely exhibits. The SARS unit was set up in 1992 to tackle the problem of violent crime. However, it has become known for targeting young people, extorting money, torturing, abusing and even killing those who resist arrest. According to Amnesty International, there have been at least 82 cases of torture, ill-treatment and extra-judicial execution by SARS between January 2017 and May 2020 with none of these cases having been brought to justice. When it comes to police brutality and injustice in Nigeria, not much has changed since the time of Fela (who, coincidentally, was born on October 15, 1938!), and today’s young people have had enough.

The Timeliness of ‘Zombie’

Zombie no go go until you tell am to go

Zombie no go stop until you tell am to stop

If there was anything Fela knew when he sang these now-infamous lyrics in his song ‘Zombie’ (Zombie, 1977)—a scathing attack on police brutality and Nigerian soldiers—it is that silence is not the way to deal with tyranny and injustice. Similar sentiments are evident today in the #EndSARS protests (whose origins can be traced to 2017), and through which the Nigerian youth have expressed their refusal to accept anything other than the complete dissolution of SARS. Young Nigerians have made it clear that outcomes similar to previous government attempts to curtail the SARS unit will not be sufficient this time. After days of protests around the country and in the diaspora as well as international media attention, on Sunday, 11 October 2020, Mohammed Adamu, the Inspector General of Police announced the dissolution of SARS. The main problem with this announcement is that SARS has been dissolved at least four times in the last four years, with the only evident change being the terminology used by the government to describe the dissolution.

On the Social Contract

 The #EndSARS protests and the government’s response to the protests have also highlighted more deep-seated issues surrounding the government and its relationship with its citizens. This relationship has long been one of distrust and discontent. For many, both the distrust and discontent can be attributed to the breakdown of the social contract in society.

The social contract theory, in moral and political philosophy, posits that the obligation to obey the law by a country’s citizens is dependent upon an implicit contract or agreement to form the society in which they live. By agreeing to be part of a society, individuals surrender some of their personal freedoms to an authority in exchange for the maintenance of social order and the resulting creation of opportunities for personal advancement. Embedded within this contract is an agreement to be subject to the laws of the land and the agents of the state, including the police. The social contract theory was used in early Platonic dialogue, when ancient Greek philosopher, Socrates, compellingly argued that he had an obligation to obey the laws of Athens, because Athens made his entire way of life and even the fact of his very existence, possible. For Socrates, his life and the way in which it flourished was directly dependent on Athens and the laws of the land. For this reason, Socrates felt bound to the laws of Athens.

The fact that most young Nigerians cannot relate to these feelings is enough evidence that the social contract has long been broken in Nigerian society. Nigeria is a country where the majority of young people have not experienced steady electricity in their lifetime, lack access to quality (let alone free) education and still suffer from a broken healthcare system. Nigerians have been forced to be self-sufficient and to carry out their affairs outside the confines of government intervention. ‘What have I benefited from this country since I was born?’ Victoria Pang, a 22-year-old graduate at an #EndSARS protest in Abuja remarked to the BBC. This sentiment reveals that the #EndSARS protests go beyond police brutality—they are a natural result of growing discontent for a government that has, for too long, failed to hold up its end of the social contract.

An added condition of the social contract is that the relationship between citizens and the laws of the land are not coerced. Once citizens have seen how a state conducts itself, they can choose whether to leave, taking their property with them, or stay. Staying implies an obligation to abide by the laws of the land. It is no surprise and a likely reason that, according to Pew Research, almost one in every two Nigerian adults hopes to leave Nigeria before 2025. Fela must have realized very early that the government was never going to hold up its end of the social contract, which explains his decision, in 1974, to declare Kalakuta Republic an autonomous territory and an island unto itself, free from the laws of the land. It was a proclamation that only further infuriated the government and police authorities.

 What Do We Want?

When compared to previous protests, the strength of the #EndSARS protests is that the Nigerian youth have been very clear on what their demands and priorities are: End SARS. Young Nigerians have left no room for their message to be misconstrued by a government committed to misunderstanding them. They have asked that the president issue an executive order and that legislative action be taken to disband SARS and tackle broader issues of brutality within the police system. While #EndSARS lacks a central structure, unofficially, some young Nigerians (under a #5For5 title) have circulated five priorities. These include: the immediate release of all arrested protesters; justice for all deceased victims of police brutality and appropriate compensation for their families; setting up an independent body to oversee the investigation and prosecution of all reports of police misconduct (within ten days); psychological evaluation and retraining of all disbanded SARS officers before they can be redeployed (in line with the new Police Act); and an increase in police salary so that they are adequately compensated for protecting the lives and property of citizens.

While these requests are not a complete and comprehensive blueprint to tackle police brutality, what these requests have done is create a framework within which the discussion on change can be had. The requests have established the contours of the debate and created parameters where there previously were not, adding some clarity to the conversation of police brutality in Nigeria.

For example, from the request for an executive order, the Nigerian youth have shown an understanding that any revolution cannot eliminate the intervention of the State. From the request for an increase in police salary and re-training of officers, the Nigerian youth have demonstrated their understanding that any law must be alive in both fairness of the processes involved and the equity of substantive opportunities available to people. From the request for justice for all deceased victims, the Nigerian youth have demonstrated that the #EndSARS protests go beyond disbanding the SARS unit—they also entail putting an end to police brutality. By embarking on these protests, the Nigerian youth have created a framework within which a broader revolution can occur in Nigeria.

Furthermore, these priorities by young Nigerians reflect an understanding that the laws of a land—its very basis, origins and fundamental underpinnings—should be an honest portrayal of the society it complements. These laws should be able to reorder society in a way that is just and fair. While the road to justice is long, the #EndSARS protests are the first step in what must lead to deeper and wider reform of policing and governing institutions in Nigeria.

One Revolution, Many Roles…

 In the last few weeks of protest, several discussions have appeared online about what true activism is and what form it has to take. With these discussions have come criticisms of certain forms of activism not being enough. The problem with these arguments is not that they are incorrect, but that they are incomplete. They misunderstand the nature of a revolution and the several forms which it can take. Fela understood this very well, and during the turbulence of the 70s, he set up different organizations such as the Nigerian Association of Patriotic Writers and Artists (NAPWA) and the Young African Pioneers (YAP). NAPWA’s activities included poetry readings, discussions and lectures on topical issues of pan-African and cultural interest.  YAP was to serve as a pressure group, to mobilize and educate the Nigerian youth and to create awareness on social and political issues. Fela gave lectures to these ‘pioneers’, gave them books to read, and took some members along with him to stage protests before his shows. YAP was formed with pianist, Duro Ikujenyo, who became chief researcher and general secretary; creative artist, Lemi Ghariokwu, and writer, Kayode Mabinuori. This movement involved writers, researchers, protesters, artists, doctors, lawyers; everyone had a role to play in the fight for emancipation.

Fela understood that there are different layers of a revolution, with each part just as important. In this fight against police brutality, everyone must be welcome, regardless of the nature or ‘language’ of their resistance. This revolution must have protests as resistance, social media awareness as resistance, education as resistance, resolve as resistance, poetry as resistance, prose as resistance, prayer as resistance, donations as resistance; with each part just as important and just as valued. This revolution must be fuelled on all sides with all bases covered—everyone has a role to play.

We are the Ones We Have Been Waiting For

While it is too early to determine if the #EndSARS protests have resulted in significant or lasting change, the protests have enabled Nigerian youth to realize their power and influence. In the last few days, we have seen statements by the Inspector General of Police and the President of Nigeria, all directed at the Nigerian youth—a demographic that had, until the #EndSARS protests, been underestimated, tagged lazy, and even been criticized for not paying attention to governance. Now the youth have the government’s attention and they will not relent until their requests are met.

The protests have also enabled young Nigerians to hone their ability to organize and rally under one cause. In less than a week, young people have raised money, organized legal aid and medical support, raised awareness and provided food supplies for protesters; all while doing so efficiently. Almost as though they were creating their own government, their own ‘Kalakuta’. In the past and often in desperation, the Nigerian youth looked to famous figures to take up Fela’s mantle of activism and protest bad governance and policies. Currently, however, if there is anything the youth have shown, it is the fact that they are the ones they have been waiting for.

While this spirit of activism is not unrelated to Fela’s legacy in Nigeria, #EndSARS has two important qualities that make it distinct. First, it is largely a faceless protest, with no single leader. While Fela’s activism had him at the centre, the #EndSARS protests are largely decentralized and noticeably have no leaders. Secondly, so far, the #EndSARS protests appear more inclusive. While Fela openly acknowledged that the two most important people in his political awakening were women—his activist mother, Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti and Sandra Izsadore, a black rights activist—Fela’s personal life and some of his music, arguably, did not reflect feminist ideals. A crucial note about the #EndSARS protests is that, while Fela might be the revolutionary blueprint for many Nigerians, the ongoing protests have transcended his politics, by having women not only included but also visible and at the helm of affairs.

The #EndSARS protests have resulted in the emergence of a new type of hero—one from the people, for the people and by the people—which is needed in a society where our leaders have consistently failed to meet up to democratic ideals. The protests have featured women like Aisha Yesufu, who, with her fist held up high and strength in her voice, has ignited a generation of women to stand up for their rights. We have also seen younger women like Feyikemi Abudu, who has dedicated her time and resources to raising funds and supplies for protesters and securing legal support for protesters in different parts of the country. So many young people are playing important roles during this revolution.

And yet, this fight has not been without its share of ‘sorrow, tears and blood’. So far, several people have been killed as a result of brutality at the hands of police and also while protesting for the end of the SARS unit. According to Amnesty International, at least ten people have been killed by the Nigerian police since the start of the protests against SARS. Still, the Nigerian youth have not relented, and they are determined to continue protests across the country and in the diaspora. Evidently, the Nigerian youth have found their voice and they do not plan on being silenced any time soon

The views, thoughts, and opinions published in The Republic belong solely to the author and are not necessarily the views of The Republic or its editors. We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editors by writing to [email protected].