Three months from the event seems an ideal moment to attempt to lend some perspective to the #ENDSARS protests. What was it and what meaning does it hold for the future of Nigeria?
What was #ENDSARS?
‘Nothing is going to change until young people can stop being harassed on the streets for how we decide to look, for how we decide to wear our hair, for how we do our nails, for driving nice cars. We work hard. We’ve worked hard and we deserve to drive nice cars. We deserve to get our hair done and our nails done. We deserve to express ourselves. Enough of this conservative attitude of “you have to look this way and dress this way and sound this way”. We can look and dress and sound however we want.’
The above excerpt from one respondent from a series of interviews conducted by Danne Institute for Research during the protests conveys an often-missed aspect of the protests. The #ENDSARS protests were a reckoning long in the making. They were, in other words, a straw that broke the camel’s back. That camel was not just a question of police brutality but rather the erosion of civilian rights. The legacies of British and military rule were the entrenchment of a culture of impunity among the uniformed men of Nigeria.
Thousands of Nigerian youths did not protest in the diaspora and ten states of the Federation and drive up social media engagement metrics upwards over constitutional or societal reform. It was a dam on repression being broken. Certain Nigerian youths who wanted to enjoy the fruits of their ‘hustle’ without judgement or molestation wanted the disbandment of a government institution that represented the attitudes of judgment and repression which their lives were a rebellion against. ‘We are not asking for electricity, we are not asking for any of those things, we are not asking for education. We just want to be alive. At least, if you can’t do it, just let us live.’
The roots of #ENDSARS
Virality is important for the rapid mobilisation of opinion around a single cause even though it does not allow for nuance or editorial control. Google Trends is an important tool for observing the heights and troughs of interest in a particular idea. Trawling through their archive revealed that the search term ‘police brutality’ achieved its greatest interest ever on the Nigerian internet in 2007. That was a year when the Human Rights Watch raised alarm over the mass killings of Nigerians in police encounters. ‘It is scandalous that leading police officials seem to regard the routine killing of Nigerian citizens – criminal suspects or not – as a point of pride.’ Peter Takirambudde, the Africa director at Human Rights Watch, said at the time.
Another high watermark was in 2010. At the time, the Open Society Justice Initiative released a report revealing extrajudicial murder, rape and torture at the hands of the police force in Nigeria. There was a relative trough before the heights achieved by the renewed interest in the topic created by the #ENDSARS movement.
The uniqueness of the #ENDSARS movement is that it represents a generational rebellion. In a country where young people constantly hear from their elders about the greater opportunities which they had in their time without the concomitant awareness that its absence now is the fault of those elders, there was already some social tension. Being targeted by a government apparatus was one step too many. This intergenerational conflict was represented in the distrust towards government communication and the disparity in media sources used.
The momentum of the movement was ultimately cut short by government repression. Repression worked because the movement did not have any leverage on any of the government’s pressure points. Street protests movements are mostly effective in societies where there is a demonstrable possibility that street protests will impact decisions made at the ballot box. If one can judge from the senatorial election in Lagos East after the #ENDSARS protest in which the ruling party romped to victory with a voter turnout of less than 10%, Nigeria is not one such society, at least not yet.
The most important lesson offered by the protests is the existence of a groundswell of dissatisfaction with Nigerian society by certain segments of the massive Nigerian youth population. They may differ on the social strata and knowledge, but they are united in opposition to the status quo. The idea that elders know best is being steadily eroded. The battle for the hearts and minds of Nigerian youths is no longer abstract, it was rendered concrete by the protesting voices on the streets of the Federation.
What is to be done?
It is immediately obvious that without a distinct attempt to give youths a level of investment in Nigeria, upheaval in the future is the safest prediction. However, descriptions of what ought to be done are easy; implementation is difficult. It is harder still within a low trust society, like Nigeria, where media fragmentation has always been existent among religions and ethnic groups and is now emerging in an inter-generational divide. The scale of the problem calls for bold commitments to reform. Police reforms, constitutional reforms, reduction in the cost of governance, education and health reforms. These are obviously necessary. Government must commit to specific actions to making them happen. Without this, the unrest will resurface sooner or later.
If young people are to be invested in Nigeria, the sovereignty of Nigerian citizens over their government must be explicit. These young Nigerians grew up in a democracy. They cannot understand how tactics used by foreign rulers and military regimes would be used by a democratically elected government against its citizens. The ability of the government and its agents to coerce the citizens outside of the ambit of legislated laws must be limited. Repression is particularly repulsive to the younger generation and they have signalled their defiance of this modus operandi.
The ENDSARS protests issued a clarion call on the question of who rules Nigeria. The protesters came down on the side of the Nigerian citizen. It is now time for those in power to decide, is the Federal Republic our Res Publica, our common thing in the words of Cicero. A Nigeria united by our common purpose, a Nigeria that works for its citizens. That is the future that must become our present. The alternatives are dire.