When Fela’s music plays in Nigeria, it reminds many that the problems of the 80s and 90s are the same problems they are dealing with in 2022, including the country’s President Muhammadu Buhari. Currently, Nigerians are battling a lack of electricity due to the power grid collapsing, lack of fuel, high cost of diesel and an ongoing strike by universities. Nothing has changed, and this poses the biggest problem for young Nigerians who were on the streets in 2020 demanding for change.
The 2020 protests tagged as EndSARS protests ended in a massacre at the Lekki Toll Gate in Lagos. Most of the protestors were millennials and Gen Z. The protests, they believed, would move a needle in the quality of governance. Since then, the reaction of the government has been more draconian. Twitter was banned for eight months, and protests have been basically banned. There had been juxtaposition between the EndSARS protests and other demos in Nigeria’s history. This generation believed they had done more than all other generations. They had even given themselves a tag, ‘the coconut head generation’ meaning that they were determined to make things right.
Any suggestion of protests currently in Nigeria would be met with a hiss, anger or ignored altogether. While looking at protests across the continent, it is important to keep in mind the different nature different populations possess. Protests in Sudan, which are still currently ongoing, had been taking place for six months before they eventually caught the world’s attention. After the world moved on, the Sudanese remained on the streets. Algerians held protests every Friday for a year until former president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika resigned. While certain factors like linguistic and religious hegemony differ across board, a constant denominator is a demand for good governance.
Can Nigerians stay on the streets as long as their counterparts in Sudan and Algeria?
The Nigerian population has two major problems, national amnesia, and an inability to hold a grudge. These two problems can be said to have their root cause in culture and religion. The effect has been that when it comes to holding leaders to account, culture, and religion, instead of ethics, becomes the measuring tool. But back to the issue of protests. Can Nigerians stay on the streets as long as their counterparts in Sudan and Algeria? The longest strike in Nigeria was the 1945 Nigerian general strike which lasted from June 22 to August 4. Over 200,000 Nigerian participated, and at the time, it was the largest strike in Britain’s colony. Other major protests took place in the 60s which led to the Tafawa Balewa government repealing the Anglo Nigerian Defence Pact. With the military in power, protests failed to deliver their intended results. In 1978, the Ali Must Go protest by Nigerian university students who clamoured against an increase in fees was cracked down. All universities were shut, the National Union of Nigerian Students was banned, and the fees was not reversed. Since then, protests have been met with gunfire and resulted in massacres.
Political change in Nigeria for a long time came through the barrel of a gun. Those who protested military dictatorship eventually became the elite that took over when military rule ended. Retired generals like Buhari and former President Olusegun Obasanjo, still hold political sway and have retained a stronghold on the country’s resources. Change in the Nigerian political and social sphere has hardly come from protests. Protests are many times a tool used by the elite to checkmate those in power and advance political careers.
One however cannot take away from the fact that a huge majority of the Nigerian populace is naïve about its government and how power is structured. The ethnic, religious, and class divisions are used as constant tools targeted on the larger populace by the elite to bolster their power. While the argument of Nigerian being a country of many nationalities is true, the EndSARS protests which took place in many parts of the country also reflected that a change in the way protests were conducted, without a necessary central leadership, could shake the government.
The Nigerian ruling class has used violence in a way that democratic components such as a free media, protests and elections are nearly non-existent. The exhaustion young Nigerians face comes from a deeper fact that no hope is presented from outside. However, from within, young Nigerians can find hope in themselves and the solidarity they have shared on the streets. That young Nigerians could get the world to pay attention to their voice is a huge step, it must be followed by a high level of pragmatism. Building allies and understanding that their salvation will not come from outside.
Turning the EndSARS movement to a larger political movement that brings about political change in the ballot boxes should be the next goal. The 2023 elections which should have been a continuation of the protests on the streets has however ended in political bickering and apathy. Those in power understand the levers of power, and that the people they need to vote aren’t on social media but on the streets. Young Nigerians who protested in 2020 could as well mobilise the same way they did two years ago and turn the tide. While political gains such as the Not Too Young to Run bill amongst other have been passed, it is a slow process.
Before 2020, many political analysts in Nigeria would have told you that nothing would ever make a Nigerian youth hit the streets. Young Nigerians surprised the world. The next action would be to turn protests into a process where political consciousness is built with clear demands. This gradual eradication of fear and exercise of political rights could serve as a catalyst to bring the necessary change the country needs.