In Lagos

Adéwálé Májà-Pearce

One week afterwards, the shooting of #EndSARS protesters at Lekki Toll Gate in a prosperous area of Lagos on the evening of 20 October certainly feels like a watershed moment – and this in a country where state-sanctioned brutality is hardly news. According to Amnesty International, at least twelve protesters were killed and many more injured. It took President Muhammadu Buhari, a former military dictator, a full two days to address the nation. He made no mention of the lives lost, but warned against construing his initial acceptance of demonstrators’ demands as a ‘sign of weakness’, and implied that some of them had spread ‘deliberate falsehood and misinformation’ in order to ‘mislead the unwary within and outside Nigeria into unfair judgment and disruptive behaviour’.

Two days after the shootings, the organisers, believing that ‘no Nigerian life is worth losing to senseless violence,’ called for the suspension of the movement. By then, various state governments had imposed curfews because area boys – all those young men with little to do and less to hope for; their very existence being the whole point of the movement in the first place – proceeded to unleash their own brand of mayhem, having initially been used by the politicians, unsuccessfully, to try and cause confusion among the demonstrators.

On Thursday morning, I stood on my upstairs balcony in Surulere in Lagos and watched the smoke from a burning building. It turned out to be the house of the state governor’s mother. (The family house in another suburb was also torched.) Nearby, the headquarters of our House of Representatives member was spared the same fate only because it was next to a hospital, although all the windows were broken.

It later transpired that politicians had been hoarding food – beans, noodles, sugar, salt, garri, rice, vegetable oil – meant for Covid-19 relief, some dating back months, in warehouses up and down the country. Nigerians of all ages were aghast. In some instances, even the soldiers sent to guard the warehouses – the police had made themselves scarce – assured the looters that they were there to keep the peace and not prevent them from carting off what was theirs anyway, having doubtless been cautioned by a high command trying to distance itself from the shootings.

In Lagos State alone, 27 public buildings were wholly or partially destroyed, including government secretariats, police stations and the High Court on the island, but some measure of normality began returning by Saturday. The curfew has now been lifted and people are going about their business. And yet it seems as if everything has changed. A spell has been broken, the same spell which, just five years ago, led a surprising number of ‘public intellectuals’ to believe that a former military dictator they had reviled as a tyrant during his first incarnation had somehow metamorphosed into a ‘born again democrat’. Nobody now is remotely interested in what Buhari has to say, whether he will or won’t prosecute wrongdoers, fight corruption, or disburse largesse to small businesses.

The #EndSARS organisers, meanwhile, who have been nothing if not transparent in accounting for the almost $200,000 they received in any number of currencies from Nigerians at home and in the diaspora, have called on well-wishers not to send any more donations for now. The balance in the account will go towards funding ‘medical emergencies, legal aid for wrongfully detained citizens, and relief for victims of police brutality and families of the deceased’.

In other words, government at all levels has been shown to be not merely illegitimate but also irrelevant – but why now? It has in part to do with the demographic that brought about this ‘revolution’. Aged mostly between 18 and 24, they were meant to be reaping what we were pleased to call the ‘dividends of democracy’, when the long reign of the military was supposedly brought to an end twenty years ago. In the bad old days, the military – including Buhari – executed whomever they liked and boasted that ‘nothing would happen’. Nothing ever did. Now we have ‘democracy’ but the security forces – whatever name they go by – are doing the same thing and using the same language, as the protesters have kept reminding us.

This is because nothing was ever meant to change. The 1999 constitution handed down by the departing military effectively disenfranchises the majority poor by making it prohibitively expensive to run for office, a point not lost on Olu Falae, the man destined to lose the 1999 presidential election to Olusegun Obasanjo, another former military dictator: ‘What I think they may do is take off the uniform, drop the gun, put on agbada, grab naira and use naira as the gun to rule us.’

It isn’t only in Nigeria that young people are fearful about their future but there can be few places where the problem is so acute, given the sheer numbers involved: there are more than 40 million Nigerians aged between 15 and 24, a cohort itself dwarfed by the generation following – there more than 90 million Nigerians aged 14 or under. It is possible that all this energy will coalesce into a political movement that can contest for power come 2023, when the next elections are due (and when Nigeria will finally disintegrate if we carry on like this).

The other way forward is to refuse to recognise the legitimacy of the ‘fraudulent contraption called Nigeria’ altogether and find creative ways of bypassing it, as the #EndSARS movement has demonstrated. The young protesters might, for instance, elect a virtual people’s parliament to write a truly people’s constitution. In the words of the Feminist Coalition that initiated and has guided the movement, ‘we have a vision for a Nigeria where equality for all people is a reality in our laws and everyday lives.’ Grounds for optimism, perhaps, but also caution. It sounds very much like the kind of language used by anti-apartheid activists in South Africa, a country now governed, in theory, by just such a people’s constitution.