“There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest.” These are the words of Elie Wiesel, a Holocaust survivor, writer, and political activist.
Nigeria’s young people may be accused of many things, but a failure to protest will no longer be one of them. Even in the middle of a pandemic, young Nigerians have used social media to force policy u-turns from the government. We saw the trend take shape with the global #BringBackOurGirls demands, and then we had policy shifts with hashtags like #OpenNass and #NotTooYoungTooRun. More recently, the pandemic has brought us #SayNoToNipostFee and a reignited #EndSARS movement.
Audre Lorde, the American writer and civil rights activist, informs us that protests serve as a way of reminding those in power about the inconsistencies and horrors in the lives of marginalised groups.
The current #EndSARS protests by young Nigerians have forced the authorities to disband SARS yet again, even pushing some state governors to make pleas for the protests to stop. But as we argued earlier this week, activism is alive in Nigeria. And it has a new form.
That being said, activism is by no means new to Nigerians. If it feels like it has become a recent fad, it is simply because of our failure to appreciate our own history. As a matter of fact, protesting is as old as our country.
So today, we shall briefly look at some phases of activism in Nigeria, illustrating how today’s young people are walking in the footsteps of their forefathers.
Protests in Nigeria have taken various forms
In the decades before 1960, social protesting was rampant. Activists challenged social issues like colonialism, slavery, rising inflation, unemployment and corruption. These protests took various forms—print, radio, music and of course, the streets.
For instance, during the colonial era, a local newspaper, Iwe Irohin, ran from 1859 - 1867. The paper initially set out to create a reading culture amongst Nigerians but ended up becoming a vigorous critic of the slave trade. The reaction of the British Colonial Office was expected; they reprimanded the newspaper for supporting indigenous causes.
Despite this, the paper had some successes. Iwe Irohin’s journalism was a strong weapon in the fight to deliver the Egba people from the rulers of the Dahomey Kingdom—major players in the slave trade with the British. Therefore, as early as the 19th century, Iwe Irohin was already proof of the transformative power of citizen-driven protesting, in the form of journalism.
Decades later, during the 1929 Aba Women’s Riots (as the British named it), we witnessed ‘sitting’ as a major protest tactic. The female protesters would dance and sing about their grievances outside the homes of warrant chiefs and Native court officials. In some cases, they would go as far as plastering the properties with mud.
These protests relied heavily on the persistence of the Aba women, knowledge of their culture and a commitment to non-violence, at least on the part of the women. These riots were not in vain, and are remembered as significant markers of women-led protests in the country. They led to significant successes against the British government, including reducing taxes and the resignation of a number of local stooges appointed by colonial authorities.
Noticeably, Iwe Irohin and the Aba Women’s Riots are known as both effective and non-violent protests. In the case of Aba, the police, unfortunately, killed over 50 women despite their peaceful approach. Still, what these two events showed was that peaceful protesters attract more sympathy from audiences because they do not carry the collateral damage that goes with the violent protests we have seen in Nigeria’s history.
Nigeria’s military have also done their share of protesting
It is easy to forget that coup d’etats are as much protests as any other campaigns. Typically violent, they are the most aggressive form of retaliation to a government in power.
In 1966, the military took action that resulted in Nigeria’s first coup d’etat. This violent protest led to the deaths of regional leaders like Tafawa Balewa, Ahmadu Bello and Festus Okotie-Eboh. The rationale behind this protest was that the military leaders would do a better job governing the newly independent country.
Unfortunately, coups succeed coups, and peace was quickly relegated to the past.
Between 1966 to 1999, Nigeria had a series of coups and was led by various military governments. The initial claims to rid the country of the “men in high and low places who seek bribes and demand 10%” was seemingly forgotten.
In the end, the violent protests i.e. coups were unable to deliver the better governance they promised. Isaac Asimov, the American writer and Biochemist summed it up when he stated that “violence is the last refuge of the incompetent.” And incompetent, they were.
Very soon, these military regimes that seized power through violent protests soon became the target of protests themselves. The chickens had come home to roost in the form of national humiliation.
Renowned artist and political activist, Fela Kuti, became a popular voice of non-violent and relentless protests. Songs like Zombie and International Thief Thief were widely recognised for what they were—scathing indictments of the government. Fela often went as far as buying advertising space in daily newspapers to push his incisive criticisms of the government. And he was persistent. Even after the 1977 military attack on his home that led to the death of his mother, Fela continued to protest. That same year he released Sorrows, Tears and Blood, an account of the army’s reign of tyranny and terror, and Nigeria’s docility.
At a time when Nigerians were too afraid to speak up, Fela walked in the footsteps of platforms like Iwe Irohin—making his voice heard for all who would listen.
At the same time, the media was also taking a stand. Just like they did in the run-up to Nigeria’s independence.
As is common in authoritarianism, successive military governments began to fully appreciate the threat that the media posed to their rule. When General Muhammadu Buhari took power between December 1983 and 1985, he instituted the “War Against Indiscipline”, devolved into a war against the press—the voice of the people.
As opposition politicians, journalists and anyone against the government spoke up, arrests and detention became the norm. Activists like Ken Saro-Wiwa began leading regional protests against the government while activist lawyers like Gani Fawehinmi pushed the boundaries of the legal system. In the end, Ken Saro Wiwa paid for his activism with his life and chief Gani Fawehinmi was arrested, detained and charged to court several times.
Naturally, protesters and those who were bold enough to speak up against injustice have had to contend with repression. People in abusive positions of power do not back down easily. The risk to lives and properties of protesters is therefore immense.
Till today, this element of protests remains with us. In the face of peaceful protests, Amnesty International has reported that the Nigerian Police Force has shot and killed at least ten protesters.
It won’t be possible to tell a story about protests in Nigeria without talking about unions.
The Railway Workers Union was instrumental in Nigeria’s general strike back in 1945, and as we entered the early 2000s and civilian rule; unions like Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU), Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) and the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) became prominent protesters against government actions and policies.
Strikes from labour unions were particularly taxing on governments due to the impact on the smooth running of various public institutions.
For instance, in the period from 1999 to 2018 ASUU the Academic Staff of Universities Union has announced a strike every year except 2000, 2004 and 2012.
What is clear is that Nigeria’s young people continue to suffer because of these strikes and nothing seems to be happening. Four-year university courses have become seven-year courses, while under-investment in education has affected the quality of our human capital. Till now, issues between ASUU and the government continue to persist.
The NLC, previously led by Adams Oshiomole, was also prone to strikes. In fact, the NLC was a key player in the #OccupyNigeria protests which marked the beginning of social media influence on protests in Nigeria.
However, like many Nigerian groups, the effectiveness of organised labour like NLC began to wane as soon as internal conflicts started in the union, which eventually broke into two factions. Even when protests get organised, demands are hardly met before the strikes get called off.
Social media changes the game
Then came the era of Facebook and Twitter.
Social media has been the silver bullet that Nigerians at home and in the diaspora have used to make their voices global. For Nigeria’s elite, this often means international disgrace.
Today, Nigerians are empowered because of their mobile devices and the internet. The decentralised nature of fundraising, protest logistics and communication has been transformative. Unlike the eras where the government could target a handful of publications that amplified protesting-voices, our new age internet infrastructure has made it near impossible to control how protests are managed.
In recent history, many digital movements have been successful because of social media. Ostensibly, you can spot social media-driven protests by the use of hashtags. Hashtags are a simple tool for organising communication on online platforms, but have made it into offline protests due to their simplicity:
#OccupyNigeria was one of Nigeria’s early social media-led protests that gained international attention. It started on the 2nd of January 2012 when the President Goodluck Jonathan administration announced the removal of subsidies on petroleum products and a subsequent sharp increase in price. The decision was later reversed after protesters prevailed for a little over two weeks and the government lowered fuel price per litre from ₦140 naira to ₦97.
#NotTooYoungToRun was another online protest driven by YIAGA Africa, a civil society organisation. The movement championed amendments to the Nigerian constitution to allow younger people run for political offices. The objective was for the age limit of the Presidential seat to be reduced from age 40 to 35, House of Representatives from 30 to 25 and the State Houses of Assembly from 30 to 25.
The Not Too Young To Run movement was a good example of what happens when an online movement is sustained offline. When young Nigerians were worried about the Bill not getting passed, they took to the streets and the National Assembly, blocking entrance and exits to the complex for lawmakers.
The youth-led energy sparked continuous conversation on social media around generational changes in Nigerian politics and the need for young leadership. Even though it took a while, President Muhammadu Buhari eventually assented to the Age Reduction Bill on May 31st 2018. Since then, at least 14 people between the ages of 25 to 29 have been the direct beneficiaries of the Not Too Young To Run Act.
Finally, #EndSARS started in 2017 when Segun Awosanya and other activists on Twitter began to demand that the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) be scrapped. And every year since then, #EndSARS has remained a key issue for young Nigerians.
According to Amnesty International’s 2016 report, SARS is indicted and responsible for human abuse, cruelty, degrading treatment of Nigerians in their custody and other widespread torture. A 2020 publication by the organisation indicates that between January 2017 and May 2020, they have documented at least 82 cases of abuses and extrajudicial killings by SARS. This figure is probably conservative at best.
In 2018 Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo ordered that the management and activities of the unit be overhauled.
In 2019, a specially formed Presidential Panel on the Reform of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad recommended reforms along with the dismissal and prosecution of named officers accused of abusing Nigerians. President Muhammadu Buhari gave the Inspector General of Police three months to implement the recommendations.
Nothing was done.
Footage of alleged SARS officers shooting a young Nigerian in Delta state emerged on the 3rd of October on social media and triggered the latest round of protests. The officers allegedly drove off in the man’s car.
By the 8th of October, nationwide protests led by young Nigerians had started in several cities. The protests were peaceful but the Nigerian Police Force began throwing teargas and shooting at unarmed protesters. The outcome was serious injuries and the death of Jimoh Isiaq in Oyo state.
Now, #EndSARS protests are happening around the world as we speak. Even American R&B artist Trey Songz has joined the protests. The government has disbanded SARS again but protesters are not backing down. This disbanding is not new, the demand this time is for a thorough reform and justice for victims dead or alive.
Protesters coordinate via social media and come out in droves to support each other. The movement also appears to have no appointed leaders making it difficult for the government to apply a divide and conquer strategy.
It is clear that Nigeria’s youth are fighting against a system of oppression that has held them back and called them lazy despite their best efforts. Therefore, there is a fierce determination to the protests this time. Something is in the air.
During his speech at the #BlackLivesMatter protests in London, John Gboyega urged protestors to be peaceful so as to not fall into law enforcement’s trap of “wanting us to mess up, [wanting us] to be disorganised.” The same rings true for Nigeria’s #EndSARS protesters.
Nigerian youths are walking in the footsteps of their ancestors who have come out to face the government. This time, we have new tools and new energy. We will remain peaceful. We will remain fierce and determined.
Persistence is defiance.