Why We Must Remember Our Collective Memory of #EndSARS

Two years since the #EndSARS protests, Nigeria’s youth are determined to neither forgive nor forget those who abandoned them in their hour of need. In 2023, they will take the protest to the polls.

Many scholars, activists and civil critics attribute Nigeria’s socio-political dysfunction to our short memories as citizens. ‘Nigerians are too quick to forgive and forget…,’ this Twitter user wrote, for instance. Our collective national amnesia is supposedly what allows charlatans with uncleared corruption allegations to whitewash their antecedents, rebrand as progressive politicians and re-enter the political foray. 

It is now two years since the #EndSARS movement sent shockwaves across Nigeria. Election season is upon us and, as expected, politicians and their acolytes who put their pockets, interests and status over the lives of ordinary young Nigerians, have resumed their perennial attempts to ingratiate themselves to the voting populace. However, if Nigeria is to move forward, this election cycle must be different. More than ever before, it is important to recall the part that prominent political office hopefuls played (or didn’t play) in Nigeria’s most momentous civic protests since the return of democracy in 1999.  

LIES AND BETRAYAL

In Enugu State, where the current governor, Ifeanyi Ugwuanyi, is a senatorial candidate of the People’s Democratic Party for the upcoming elections, protesters have not forgotten. They remember how he turned his back on them and walked away when they took their protest demands to the government house. They remember that he took it a step further by tweeting a false account of events. Nneji Ebuka, a 25-year-old indigene of Enugu State, joined the #EndSARS protest with his cousin from the very first day the protests went offline and spilled into the streets. They marched in solidarity with thousands of young people protesting in other states across the country demanding protection from extortion and police brutality. He told The Republic that he experienced the worst betrayal of his life during this period. On the first day, the protesters arrived at the state government house only to be told that the governor had already left for an event in a different part of the state. ‘It was callous, and intentionally so,’ Ebuka recalled. ‘I remember wondering how the governor—knowing how agitated and wronged the youths felt and having prior notice of our visit—could afford to place another matter higher on his list of priorities.’  

Refusing to speak to the deputy governor, the protesters came out again the next day to attempt to meet with Governor Ugwuanyi. ‘I’d be wrong if I said he came to discuss the reason for our march with us,’ Ebuka pointed out. On Twitter, protesters called out the governor for staging a pressing conference where he was addressing ‘supposed protestors’ who were in fact hired thugs on a day where there was no protest in the state. ‘The day before the fake video, the governor came to address protesters with hire thugs hoping to scare us off,’ Ebuka added.  

The governor and his entourage stormed out on the protesters after a terse exchange ensued between him and music artiste Phyno over poor governance in the state. To the shock of witnesses, the governor’s media team later shared a short video clip from the meeting, spinning an entirely different narrative of what transpired. Neither the governor nor his team ever apologized for this lie. ‘As a matter of fact, they accused Phyno, Flavour, and the youth that came out to protest police brutality of being sponsored by rival politicians.’  

Ugwuanyi has since attempted to launder his image and present himself as ‘a peace lover’, but youths like Ebuka who live in the state know him by the footprint he is leaving behind. They know of his silence in the face of massacred communities in Enugu. They have also not forgotten the land grabs between him and underprivileged communities, which somehow always result in people forfeiting their lands to him or ‘the state’. Above all, the youth remember that when they depended on him to resolve their most pressing issues he walked out on them and lied to the world about what happened.

‘ARE WE LESS NIGERIAN THAN OTHERS?’ 

Igwe Oluoma, an undergraduate Law student at the university of Benin participated in the protests online, since her parents forbade her from attending physically. ‘I retweeted every tweet that had the hashtags,’ she said. ‘I posted about it on all my social media. I did all I could to spread the word, create awareness, and encourage the people on the ground since I was not allowed to participate’.  

Oluoma conveyed to me a sense of what virtual protesting during #EndSARS must have been like. ‘It was like being a pastor without a parish’, she recalled. ‘You screamed, preached, and goaded, but by being removed from the physical locations where these things are happening, you became a part of not one but all the venues at once.’ 

Being a part of the #EndSARS protest virtually was not as easy as one might imagine. While online protesters did not march long distances in the sweltering heat, they were just as involved in dissemination of information and mobilization of resources. ‘It was a lot,’ Oluoma explained, ‘but I was glad to do it as long as there was hope that Nigeria could be better.’  

According to Oluoma, the most shocking part of of the protest was watching politician, Olusegun Abiodun Bolarinwa, shoot at youths in broad daylight. ‘I still remember the video clearly. He went into his car, brought a gun, and shot two protesters. His case was taken to the police, but nothing has been done to him for this particular crime.’ 

The video Oluoma speaks about circulated on Twitter for a long time. People watched it and tagged Nigerian police to it, but Bolarinwa has still not been brought to book for his actions (though he faced charges for separate crimes of fraud). ‘It makes me feel like I am less Nigerian than some people,’ Oluoma explained. ‘Watching someone like Abiodun Bolarinwa, who was caught on camera shooting at peaceful protesters go scot-free, makes me feel like if you are young, you are not yet fully a Nigerian’.  

A LOUD SILENCE

While the #EndSARS protests raged, one person’s silence—at least initially—was resounding. The former governor of Lagos State, Bola Ahmed Tinubu, came to political prominence by the 90s in part because of his valiant activism against military rule, for which he was imprisoned and later forced into exile. He was also influential in the #OccupyNigeria protests that resisted a federal government initiative to remove fuel subsidies in 2012. Because of his antecedents as a social activist, his influence in politics across the country and his position as national leader of the ruling party, Tinubu was expected to play a conciliatory role between the youth and the government.  

Instead, he was uncharacteristically silent throughout the protests. Mbachu Stephanie, who was 21 at the time of the #EndSARS protest, told me: ‘One  person whose role I will not forget his role in a hurry is Tinubu, and I am opposed to his running for office in 2023.’ Tinubu finally broke his silence after the Lekki Tollgate shootings that terminated physical protests. His first comments were to insinuate that the protesters who had been murdered at the toll gate may have deserved their fate. In his words, those who suffered casualties at the tollgate, ‘have some questions to answer, too.’ 

‘People must understand how dangerous voting for Tinubu in 2023 could be,’ Stephanie insisted. ‘He has not revealed any grand plans to tackle the problems of insecurity facing us as a country, yet he blamed the unarmed youth for being shot at by the military. Such a person would be dangerous as commander in chief and is certainly not fit to be president.’  

TWO YEARS ON…

Seven out of every ten registered voters in Nigeria today are aged between 18 and 34. If the youths wish to register their displeasure with the current crop of political elite in 2023, they must do so through their votes. Nigeria’s young people must avoid being distracted by parochial religious and ethnic sentiments that plagued generations past. Instead, the youth should show loyalty to one another, and send a strong message to those who not only abandoned but also antagonized them during their most vital hour. The spirit and energies of #EndSARS must now be channelled towards advocating for candidates that will provide better representation in the next democratic dispensation

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