Democracy, Youth Agency, and the Nigerian Crisis

Report on the virtual #EndSARS roundtable, “Democracy, Youth Agency and the Nigerian Crisis,” hosted on October 27 as part of the Umeme Flashpoint Series of the Institute of African Studies (IAS), Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada.

A virtual roundtable with the theme “Democracy, Youth Agency and the Nigerian Crisis” was hosted recently by the Institute of African Studies (IAS), Carleton University Canada, following the October 2020 #EndSARS youth uprising in Nigeria. In response to the crisis in Nigeria, Professor Nduka Otiono of Carleton University’s Institute of African Studies convened the special virtual roundtable under the Institute’s Umeme: African Flashpoint Series.

Umeme is Kiswahili word for lightning, the perilous bolt of electricity flashing across the sky which demands attention and reactions. The participants were an eclectic mix of some of brilliant minds. There was the moderator himself, Nduka Otiono, graduate program supervisor at IAS, anchoring the roundtable. Two professors, Obijiofor Aginam, Principal Visiting Fellow at UN University International Institute for Global Health, Kuala Lumpur, and Bonny Ibhawoh Senator William McMaster Chair in Global Human Rights at McMaster University, respectively, were panelists.
Also in the panel were Ms. Yejide Kilanko, therapist in Children’s Mental Health, author of best-selling novel, Daughters Who Walk this Path, and Comrade Abdul Mahmud, Human Rights Activist, President of Public Interest Lawyers League (PILL) and poet who writes under the pen name Obemeta.

Like Mahmud, Princess Hamman Obells is a rights activist and expert in Election and Governance. Hon Abdul Oroh was once Executive Director, Civil Liberties Organization (CLO) Nigeria, former member of the House of Representatives and now Principal Counsel of Abdul Oroh & Company Legal Practice.
“We have chosen this panel very carefully to represent different tendencies and different interests,” Otiono said in his intro, therefore hoping for “a very frank and brutal discussion about the state of the nation regarding the recent #EndSARS youth uprising against oppressive policing and the decadent leadership that has left Nigerian youths almost hopeless in an otherwise immensely blessed nation.”

Pre-Covid-19, it would have taken the most resourceful of logistics experts weeks or months of frantic preparations to bring together the half a dozen or so speakers from about three continents who contributed to the very exciting two-hour conversation. But thanks to technology or social media which the #EndSARS protesters adroitly deployed, Femi Ajidahun, an Admin Officer at IAS and the Zoom host of the virtual roundtable, demonstrated that sitting before a monitor in a control room anywhere in the world, one could literally bring people together in no time.

Although, the build-up to the recent Nigerian #EndSARS uprising could be traced to a long history of systemic socio-political decadence, the immediate spark could be dated to Friday October 2, only hours after the country’s diamond jubilee Independent anniversary. On that day, Nigerian youths presented the political leadership with an unusual and most unexpected birthday gift. Driven by a common cause, availing themselves with ample opportunities on social media, thousands of young Nigerians massed out at Lekki Toll Gate Lagos in a peaceful protest against endemic police brutality. Galvanized by the protest in Lagos, youths in more than a dozen state capitals followed suit almost immediately, staging their own peaceful demonstrations as well, effectively shutting down activities in much of the country for the period it lasted.

Taken completely unawares, the federal government acquiesced to the protesters’ demand by swiftly announcing the dismantling the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) fingered by the protesters as their main source of grievance. And even more quickly substituted the reviled SARS with a new outfit called the Special Weapon Tactical Team (SWAT).

The protesting youths turned down the offer promptly, insisting it was just a change of name, and went one step further, this time to the government’s great discomfort. Now, young people all over the country were using the protest to express genuine displeasure with those in leadership positions, their anger and frustrations at a failed democratic process, unpromising economic prospects and general apathy of an elite political class to the plight of the long-suffering masses.

It was phenomenal and totally unexpected. Confronted with unforeseen situations like the October protest that has now entered into world lexicon as #EndSARS uprising, the federal and state governments reacted typically with panicky measures, what Professor Wole Soyinka once described as “herd panic” in the early stages of Covid-19 in Nigeria.

Much of what happened since then is in the public domain: fatalities in an army-organized shooting at Lekki; looting and burning of government and private properties after hoodlums hijacked the protest; the curfews imposed in most state capitals and towns in Nigeria, including Abuja; the presidential panel and others set up by governors to look into all of that; the sudden interest in and announcement by the authorities of long-forgotten empowerment programs aimed at Nigeria’s youths.

If the last was meant to pacify the protesters, it didn’t help matters much as the government soon proceeded to seize the International Passports of key players and prevented them from travelling outside Nigeria (some passports have been returned); freezing of bank accounts used to provide logistic support to the protesters (none has been de-frozen); labelling some of the key participants terrorists (yet to be proven.)

To be sure, it is not the first-time demonstrations spearheaded by young people would erupt in Africa’s most populous country. There was the students’ protest against the Anglo/ Nigeria Defence Pact of 1962, for instance. There was the Ali-must-go riot of 1978 when the same university students protested a fifty kobo increase in meal vouchers leading to confrontations with the police that ended in fatalities.

The 1988 fuel subsidy and 1989 SAP riots which later spread nation-wide were instigated by students at federal universities in Jos and Benin, respectively. Demonstrations against the June 12 annulment began in the University of Benin, then spread across much of the country with fatalities. Since then, young people have always been in the vanguard of protests for a better Nigeria – through the Babangida and Abacha dictatorial regimes. But #EndSARS protest was different.

Previous ones occurred during military dictatorships. This is the first time a civilian government would be confronted with one.
Against that background, anyone listening to and watching the video recording of a roundtable on #EndSARS on YouTube put together by IAS would applaud the organizers. It was a spot-on analysis of the remote and immediate causes of the protests, its antecedents in the country since independence, the surprising resilience and organizational ability of the protesters, the significant roles of feminists (DJ Switch particularly) and social media, what the government needs to do, solutions from within and without and possible outcomes in the coming years. Besides, the roundtable ably moderated by Otiono held on October 27 barely a week after the protests prematurely ended, giving us a sense of swift response to an unfolding crisis, “as e de hot,” to borrow a common vernacular expression in Nigeria.

Otiono began in a prefatory remark, in a stentorian voice you would want to listen to all through. “The past two weeks have been extraordinary in the life of Nigerians at home and the Diaspora,” he stated. “Youths in Africa’s most populous country have taken to the streets in what has come to be known as the #EndSARS uprising – to protest oppressive policing and inept political leadership that have ravaged the country.”

“What began as peaceful protest,” Otiono continued, “escalated in the context of the military intervention that included a fatal shooting of protesters,” adding that the shooting itself is in contention. However, “Amnesty International,” he quoted a source, “reports that at least 12 people were killed and hundreds injured.”

Of course, it sparked world-wide outrage and condemnation, from the Secretary General of the UN, Antonio Guterres, to regional bodies such as ECOWAS, the Department of State and several world leaders, all of them not only “unanimous in their censure of the crackdown against youthful protesters” but also calling for full investigations into the crisis.

Otiono explained further why the roundtable had come to be, born out of IAS’s Umeme African Flashpoint Series. He reminded the audience that the Umeme series evokes “the perilous bolt of electricity flashing across the sky, which demands attention and reactions just as we are doing.”

First to speak after the moderator’s opening remarks was Aginam. He agreed with how the rest of the world felt about the alleged shooting at Lekki on October 20, declaring that “any government that opens fire on peaceful protesters anywhere in the world has committed a serious crime. That’s condemnable.”

Identifying completely with the youths, Aginam tied the main cause of the uprising to “failure of leadership” which, in turn, spawned “bad followership” since independence. “Why do we follow bad leaders?” Aginam asked rhetorically. Allowing there are no easy answers, he however suggested a possible cause: politicians who induce voters only during elections. “You see the same people who have oppressed the masses, these people once it’s six months or so to an election, all we see is distribution of all kinds of resources, material and financial to induce voters.”

In that light, Aginam does not reckon much with the political class or their parties which he derisively calls “social clubs…agencies where people use their platform to loot the public treasury.” What young people can do to counter that is to form political parties of their own, a third, fourth or even fifth force as witnessed in the last presidential election where two young, dynamic Nigerians, Omoyele Sowore and Kingsley Moghalu were candidates of different platforms other than the dominant two – APC and PDP.

Ibhawoh also agreed with Aginam. “We all know where the central challenge lies,” he said, “leadership, followership and all of that.”
Submitting that every decade since independence “has had its own youth upheaval, youth uprising…in response to their corruption or mis-governance,” Ibhawoh however lamented their premature endings. “What happens is that these changes are still-born. They never quite live up to the promise that instigates them.”

Comparing #EndSARS protests to the Arab Spring, he wondered how it can then “metamorphose into real change, into changing political leadership.” The Arab Spring, he reemphasized, was “an exciting opportunity meant to mark the democratization of the Middle East. It was a still-born revolution. . .Egypt, Libya, nothing changed. Lives were lost, nothing changed. The crucial challenge for us the Nigerian people invested in Nigeria is how do we make sure that this is just not one more decades-long student, youth uprising the likes of which we’ve seen before?”

Ibhawoh also commended the role of women – Feminist Coalition – social media in the uprising but commended more the spirit of the generation that started it all. “Our generation were cowed by the repression of the military,” the professor said, referencing the previous generations of Nigerians who were either too timid to confront their oppressors or were just plainly complacent.

Unlike their father’s generation and those before, Ibhawoh suggested that “this generation grew up in democracy. They are unencumbered by the fears of the civil war. They are un-cowed by military dictatorship, by the memories of military dictatorship and so for them it is an opportunity to see this uprising across the line in ways that our generation and the one before us could not. We are also seeing a generation that is less susceptible to the old tricks – manipulation and division along religious, ethnic and tribal lines whereas our generation and the ones before were steeped in that kind of political manipulation, that tried and tested divide-and-conquer strategy of the Nigerian political oligarchy.”

For the protest to have begun at all is some kind of optimism for Ibhawoh: “If it is well managed we might be seeing the beginning of gradual change in Nigeria, the leadership that the youths have taken advantage of: the power of social media.”
In her contribution, writer and psychotherapist Kilanko declared her full support for #EndSARS youth uprising, and then praised their enduring spirit. “I am impressed with what is happening in Nigeria in terms of the youth uprising, also with the Feminist Coalition, they have done an amazing job in coordinating the protest with accountability.”

The therapist was particularly praised for the determination of the youths to “seize their future in their hands by speaking up (soro soke in Yoruba) and the hope that it will spill to them becoming part of the democratic process. We need to use this opportunity to move forward.” However, that cannot be achieved without proper education, she said, because “if we are going to move forward, we need education, we need to have the people have an understanding of what it means to be part of the democratic process.”
The next speaker was Comrade Mahmud, renowned for his record of being in the frontline of protests dating back to the late eighties as a student union leader, through June 12 to the pro-democracy movements during the military dictatorship of Abacha. Going by his reputation as an activist he appeared poised to hold listeners and viewers attention.
He did.The #EndSARS protest didn’t just start last October, he said. It began sometime in 2016 after a young Nigerian, Kolade Johnson, was killed by a stray bullet fired by a police officer at an English Premier Soccer League viewing centre where the 22-year-old was. The matter was taken up promptly, landing on the table of Vice President Yemi Osinbajo who was Acting President then.

A member of the panel himself, Mahmud sadly recalled that nothing came off the report submitted to the Presidency. “Unfortunately, the president didn’t release a white paper on that report. The government did nothing for one year. The government sat on its palms, virtually trashed the report of the Presidential Panel.”
If the veteran activist has no faith in a government uneager to prioritize issues on and about young people, no faith in the “cosmetic concessions” they dole out now and then to placate protesting youths, he is even less sure how far those youths can go with their actions. What the #EndSARS uprising has achieved, said Mahmud, is to “have humanized citizenship in our country, they have posed that agenda that their lost citizenship can be recovered, their future that was stolen yesterday can also be recovered. But to what extent all of these have been recovered is out there for us to provide answers to.”
Obells followed by providing at least one answer when called upon by the moderator. The government – state or federal – has a lot to learn from the organizational ability and swift mobilization demonstrated by the youngsters. “Within a day, they had a website running,” Obells said. “Within two days they had raised N25m. Within a week they had N75m.”

From her gestures anyone could see how delighted Obells was with the movement, praising their syndicated control across the states, their accountability and transparency – the very things they were demanding of those ruling them. All donations were announced and made public, she said, down to what they were spent on. Shorn of the traditional vertical leadership style, Obells insisted, things worked perfectly horizontally for them. Thus, the medics were always handy, caterers, too, even street hawkers who came around handing out water or soft drinks at their own expense. Many more sympathizers came with food.

One of the immediate results of the protest, Obells went on, was on account of food. As it gained momentum, the masses hijacked it and raided warehouses brimming with foodstuffs meant to be shared to them as palliatives because of Covi-19 pandemic. As she very rightly said, “people were now taking what belongs to them,” refusing to call them hoodlums. “They are just hungry Nigerians. They are looking for food.”

What you can’t downplay in the protest, Obells affirmed, is the role women played, women like DJ Switch and other ordinary female folk, making themselves felt and useful all through. To her, it shows how much women can offer if there is “gender parity.”
One negative aspect of the protest to Obells was the lack of prompt response by regional bodies like ECOWAS, calling out the chairman and Ghanaian president who sent a belated message through Twitter. “They probably want us to have total mayhem before they will react,” Obells said, concluding that “it was not good enough.”

In many ways, the next speaker Hon. Oroh represents both sides of the divide: a well-regarded former rights activist who led campaigns against the excesses of government concerning human rights and former lawmaker in the Lower House of the National Assembly. For him, the #EndSARS uprising “has raised issues about governance, about our lives, everything.”
Though not out at the barricades now as he used to in the past, he gladly let on that his sons were actively involved in the recent youth protest. But what got him mostly were some of the placards the demonstrators held aloft. One of them, Oroh said, proclaimed what sums up the protest. “Our Mumu don do,” like the youths were saying “enough of our timidity, enough of our passivity. This is the time to soro soke, to speak up. We can’t continue like this.”

Before the youth uprising, the former lawmaker submitted, “Nigeria was becoming gradually diminished. Now, our youths are saying we see a big country with big potential. This is our country, and we are trying to take it back.”
Oroh’s presentation wrapped up the first segment that lasted for about an hour, but it seemed to have only just begun, considering the many questions posted to the moderator during the Q & A session, the eager hands up to make their contributions (some of whom/which he regrettably had to skip) due to time constraints.

Notwithstanding the skipped responders, the Q&A session proved extremely lively and informative. The surprise of the session was Popular stand-up comic Okey Bakassi who spoke from his residence in Lagos. Amongst other Q & A contributors was Dr. Clement Edokpayi who, until he relocated to Canada a few years ago, was a professor of Microbiology at the University of Lagos. He made useful suggestions about the protests, especially what and how much those in the Diaspora like him can do. The clergy weighed in as demonstrated by Father Ben who recalled that crime rose in some Lagos neighbourhoods during the crisis. Someone else spoke about the need for total police reforms.

For a two-hour interactive session, the roundtable was rich in content and memorable presentations, the seamless flow of the conversation, Otiono’s timely interventions, and the additional exegesis by some guest-participants.

The session was recorded and is now available on IAS’s website and YouTube:

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